SHARING MY FRIENDS
I’m in the board room at Simon & Schuster, my publisher. The walls are white. There is a l-o-n-g rectangular table surrounded by high-back chairs. My students are sitting in them. Each student has a cell phone on the table. But the students are looking at my editor, Jofie Ferrari-Adler. He’s at the head of the table with a bunch of bestsellers spread out before him – The Oregon Trail, Hothouse, Rin Tin Tin, Men in Green. He’s talking about what makes a great cover.
“I want the cover to make me feel something,” he says, reaching for The Heart of Everything that Is. “This makes me feel something. I see dignity. I see a man of purpose, a man of courage.”
He holds up the book. “Red Cloud was the only American Indian in history to defeat the United States in a war,” he continued. “When I got this book proposal, I’d never heard his name. I’d never heard of him!”
My editor talks for 45 minutes. The entire time I contemplate how lucky I am to work with him. My students never reach for their phones. Neither do I, except to shoot a quick video of the scene I just described.
Afterward, we trudge through the snow and slush-covered sidewalks of midtown to Times Square and into Yahoo!’s headquarters. We’re led to an events room, where roughly 100 empty white chairs face a stage featuring two chairs in front of a large video screen with these words on it: “Katie Couric: The Interview.” Our host encourages us to visit the food and beverage stations. Waiters dressed in black are serving raw vegetables, fresh shrimp, mango salad, and finger-size cheese tortillas.
Suddenly, just before 4 p.m., Yahoo! employees enter the room and fill the seats. Then Katie Couric enters. Before she takes the stage, she notices that the second row is occupied by young people. She smiles. “Jeff, are these your students?”
Katie is one of the more personable journalists I know. Back when we worked together to produce a segment on Jabari Parker for ABC Good Morning America, she went out of her way to say hello and talk with the custodians and volunteers at the Mormon Church in Manhattan, where we were filming. And she took a genuine interest in my daughter, Maggie May.
When I asked Katie this past week if she’d spend some time with my students from Southern Virginia University, she arranged for them to attend a special in-house session she was doing for Yahoo! employees called “The Art of the Interview.”
Afterward, Katie met privately with the students, talked about the profession, and answered their questions.
One of my students, Jordan Benans-Hillard, is a talented illustrator. He’s a 24-year-old from Cincinnati whose dream is to become a TV animation artist. In high school he couldn’t afford animation equipment, so he made a light box out of a picture frame and a desk lamp. This enabled him to make his first animated short. Bottom line …the kid can draw. Fast.
While Katie was interviewed, Jordan sketched the scene. Then he presented her with his work and Katie showed it off.
I started the Institute for Writing and Mass Media at Southern Virginia University with the intent of creating moments like this for students. A college degree doesn’t get you very far these days. Finding a job requires experience and someone to open a door. Connections are critical.
But you can’t teach networking. You just have to do it. Earlier in the week, I took my students to the home of Maura Casey, a former editorial page writer for the New York Times. Casey lives on a farm in Connecticut, not far from me. Warmed by a woodstove, my students sat in the room where Maura writes and were treated to a two-hour class on how to write an op-ed.
As was the case with Katie Couric, my student handed Maura a sketch at the end of her session. I mentioned to Maura that Jordan is the cartoonist for the school newspaper at Southern Virginia University. A few hours later, I received this email from Maura:
Please tell Jordan, our cartoonist friend, that I really appreciate his caricature of me, which made my son laugh and pronounce it to be perfect - high praise! I'd like to connect him with Signe Wilkinson, the Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist for the Philly Daily News. Just send me his email and a couple samples.
That’s what I mean about networking. You can’t make this stuff up.
I love writing. I love the art of storytelling. And I genuinely like the people I work with in publishing, television, film, photography and music. Many of my best friends are in those fields. The Institute for Writing and Mass Media gives me the opportunity to share my friends with my students.
One of my best friends is my literary agent, Richard Pine. He runs one of the best agencies in the industry. Plus, he has clients like actor Bryan Cranston and Angela Duckworth, a psychology professor at Penn who wrote the runaway bestseller Grit. Yet Richard stopped everything and invited my students into his world. It’s the world of books!
“There used to be things that worked,” he told them, “that were tried and true things that would make a book successful that don’t really work anymore.” It was the beginning of a lesson on how the world has changed, and how young writers can break into an increasingly difficult market.
It was like this everywhere we went. At Rockefeller Plaza, we met with Dave Checketts, who used to be the CEO or Madison Square Garden. Recently, he developed the hospitality suite and observatory atop the new World Trade Center. He’s now the chairman of a fund that finances the acquisition of professional sports teams and stadiums. He talked to my students right before sitting down for an interview with the New York Times. His message – in life, you need to be where the action is.
Dave Checketts with students at Rockefeller Center (Photo by Clancy Benedict)
Even the innkeepers got in the act. Instead of a hotel, I arranged for my students to stay at the Inn at Harbor Hill in Niantic. When the blizzard hit on Tuesday, all the stores and restaurants were shut down. Innkeepers Sue and Dave Labrie served my students homemade soup for lunch and homemade meatballs for dinner. None of that was part of the bill. It was just part of the hospitality. After check-out, they texted: “We loved having your students.”
The Institute for Writing and Mass Media is a non-profit organization that helps students who aspire to work in mass media. You can donate online by clicking the following link and choosing the “other” option and typing the words “Writing Institute.” Donations of $25, $50, or $100 go a long way.