Keller urges ear to the ground, hand to the heart
By Sally Ann Cruikshank
"Writing isn’t about competition. It may seem that way sometimes, but you know when something you’ve written is good."
From her opening words, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Julia Keller had the full attention of the packed JOUR1010 class. She told the class of more than 200 freshmen to "keep an ear to the ground and a hand to your heart," a message that "really resonated" with Scripps freshman Maren Machles.
"Personally, I have always had a hard time keeping these two aspects of my writing constant," Machles said. "It is really easy to doubt yourself or your writing when you are constantly waiting for approval. Julia told us to trust ourselves and our words. As young writers, that is the most invaluable lesson you could teach us. I really enjoyed her passionate and original prospective of writing."
Keller joined the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism this fall as the Scripps Howard Visiting Professional. Keller, who grew up in West Virginia, detailed for the class how she went from writing for contests to the Columbus Dispatch before landing at the Chicago Tribune. It was at the Tribune in 2005 that she won her Pulitzer, for a feature story on the aftermath of a tornado.
She told the class that the stories that become something special aren’t always the ones you expect. She joked that she was sent on the story because she was the only person in the newsroom with a valid driver’s license.
Keller also discussed the challenges of bringing the story to print, including an over-zealous copy editor. "Know who has the power in your newsroom," she advised. "And use it sparingly."
As technology and budget-cuts change the face of journalism, Keller delivered a different message than students are used to hearing. She said she thought feature writing is in "a golden age," as writers take more risks.
That message was what Scripps freshman Jaelynn Grisso needed to hear.
"The job market today is so competitive that it is unbearably easy to begin believing you won’t have any success as a professional," Grisso said. "Julia Keller’s speech not only inspired listeners to believe in themselves, but also gave us the faith that no matter how many challenges we face we can be successful if we persevere. It was a life-changing speech."
Scripps freshman John Frasca agreed.
"I thought she was inspiring," he said. "After she finished talking about her Pulitzer story, the message I received was to be persistent and to never give up on your story. Also, it seemed to me that she was saying have no fear when it comes to your work, and be spontaneous."
Keller’s visit to JOUR1010 also created buzz on Twitter. Ben Postlethwait tweeted "I was proud to hear Julia Keller, author of this Pulitzer-winning news feature, speak in my #JOUR1010 class today pulitzer.org/archives/6902."
Keller talks about joining the faculty of the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism as a Scripps Howard Visiting Professional.