Ours was a year of uncertainty, especially after reverberations from September's economic crash worked their way through the global economy. It was the fall of 2008, and my Nieman year was beginning. As our class came together, we sensed that more newsroom jobs would be evaporating. What was supposed to be our year of retreat, reflection and reinvigoration turned into a time when we kept a close watch on events in the industry as we looked for ways to reinvent ourselves.
Some of us retreated to bars to reflect, of course, while others imagined writing a book as a way to reinvigorate our careers. Some of us combined the two. The idea of writing a book offered an escape, if only temporary. It was a place to turn as we followed our wandering hearts.
Writing books is certainly not a rarity for Nieman Fellows; the bookshelves at Lippmann House are packed with the abundant product of many Nieman authors. Even though we were not convinced that book publishing was much better off than newspapers, hard times galvanized us to feel a sense of urgency to move in some direction. A new one seemed inviting.
The Nieman Foundation introduced us to excellent writing teachers and mentors—Anne Bernays and Rose Moss for fiction and Constance Hale, who goes by Connie, for nonfiction narrative. I took Connie's class, which by midyear had morphed into a wonderful support group. We went to the spring narrative journalism conference that she put together. She helped us to network as we headed out into the world of agents, authors and publishers.
|Books written by Nieman Fellows fill—and in some cases more than fill—the shelves at Lippmann House. Photo by Jonathan Seitz.
Now, a few years later, one member of our writing class has had her book published and at least two others have books in progress, including me. In October, Nieman affiliate Karin Grundberg had her book, "Dying Dandy: A Biography of Art Collector Fredrik Roos," published in Stockholm, Sweden. She remembers the class as being "instrumental for me." As she wrote to me, "I made friendships that boosted my book idea and gave important and constructive feedback … Connie gave good homework, such as capturing a person or place."
Another fellow, Julie Reynolds, was introduced to her book agent at the Nieman conference. Julie had joined our class in the spring when she was in the process of crafting a book about Hispanic gangs, a topic familiar to her because of the crime beat she covered at The Monterey County (Calif.) Herald. The class helped her to "give the thing a narrative shape," she recalls. She named her book "The Cause," after "the doctrine the kids believe they're fighting for," she told me. She describes her book as a "nonfiction soap opera about their loves and delusions, with this backdrop of crime in rural America."
She's written her book, but it has not yet been sold. "Of course the book industry is also going through strange times. Let's just say timing is not my strong point," she added.
Support happened outside of class, too. We were fortunate to have two fearless Argentineans, Nieman Fellow Graciela Mochkofsky and her husband, Gabriel Pasquini, among us. Everyone needs an Argentinean to be pushed to a higher level, and they instilled in us courage and confidence in our ability to take what we knew as journalists and believe we could put to work as authors. Each was a veteran author in Buenos Aires, and with them we created an underground writer's club, aptly named El Club de los Secretos ("The Secrecy Club"). They introduced some of us to the glamorous, turbulent world of New York agents, editors and publishers.
I considered myself the most unlikely among us to emerge as an author. Yet Penguin Group has me under contract and I am writing my first nonfiction book; the working title is "Midnight in Mexico: The Curse." In it I try to describe the violence and corruption tearing Mexico apart. It's a book that goes beyond tragedy or sensationalism but is an attempt to weave together the search for evil—political and criminal—in Mexico and in the United States with my own search for home and belonging as a Mexican American. To believe in a curse is to believe in the cure.
I find it comforting—and remarkable—that in writing my book I rely on just about the exact outline I developed with help from Connie and my classmates, including Gabriel, Graciela, Karin and Julie. A splendid side benefit of writing this book is recalling the lasting gift we gave each another in the friendship cemented in our writing class—a place where our true reinvention happened.
Alfredo Corchado, a 2009 Nieman Fellow, is bureau chief for The Dallas Morning News based in Mexico City and is completing his book, "Midnight in Mexico: The Curse," scheduled to be published in late 2012.