My first attempt at writing a story for Community News Commons (CNC) was never published. Noah Erenberg, our editor, wanted me to develop the characters more but back then I didn’t really understand what that meant.
Dan Lett, Free Press columnist, was our writing instructor and a notoriously tough critic. He lost me when he started talking about the lede, the nut and the graf method of story development favoured by journalists.
And then I lost the flash drive and my laptop was stolen…and now the site’s shutting down so…this is a flashback to the unpublished story that started my journey with CNC.
Technically it predated my involvement but in a roundabout way it led me to CNC.
Two years ago I’d been staying with a friend in the Exchange District and we’d gone to the CEO Sleepout on a whim. Why not? I was homeless at the time like so many others in the city who’re staying on friends couches.
I enjoyed the impromptu middle of the night conversations with people I’d never met before and would maybe never see again. I was of the event but not of the event as I wasn’t up on local politics and was still fairly new to the city.
The inclusivity and informality of the event was unexpected and touching. A rolling rack of warm clothes and boots, the extra sleeping bags for all in need and the food that arrived periodically throughout the night were much appreciated.
I must’ve dozed off that night as I woke up to breakfast and the rush of CEO’s leaving for work. I headed to the coffee shop in the downtown Delta and started writing about the event on their guest services computer. Many hours of typing over several days later and I was finally satisfied.
A week or so afterwards I went to a lecture at the WAG. “Dan Lett teaches free writing classes at the Free Press Cafe” said someone I’d met earlier in the evening. “He’s over there, you should go talk to him,” he added.
When I learned that I needed to bring a story I was working on and I’d improbably just written my first one I decided to go. Little did I know when I showed up for my first class at the Winnipeg Free Press Cafe that I wouldn’t stop writing for the next two years.
I was terrified when I wrote my first article. It was a tossup as to which would get published first; a longer article I’d spent a lot of time on but promised that it wouldn’t be published if they didn’t like it (I was prone to doing that when I first started) or a short piece on Christmas concerts at Millennium Library. I saw the latter as my backup in case the first one wasn’t approved but both got published.
Then as I was still new to writing and being published was thrilling, absolutely everything seemed to have the potential to be a story. Luckily this didn’t last very long. I’ve heard other citizen journalists talk about going through this stage too.
The first time I picked up the phone to get a quote from someone and succeeded had me over the moon and it was a great quote too. It wasn’t easy to screw up the courage to make that phone call.
When did I do my first interview? There’ve been a few in the last two years but early on I would’ve been too scared to attempt one. I still get nervous today but I have the skills now to cover up any awkwardness. “Faking it till I made it” as a Citizen Journalist was the best training ever. If I need a new angle or another quote it doesn’t faze me any more.
And the ideas for the many stories I had published? They didn’t just “come to me”. Sometimes a story came from an observation like “these Christmas decorations look vintage, how old are they anyhow”? As it turned out they were vintage and I pored through old newspapers on the microfiche machine at the library to find out how old the decorations on Portage Avenue really were.
Sometimes it just seemed important to correct misperceptions. When I saw a notice on the door of the Goodwill Thrift Store on Princess Street stating they weren’t closing as there was no connection between that store and the closures of the Goodwill stores in Toronto, my curiosity was piqued. And it also seemed like a chance to correct those urban rumours that had been floating around for years about the bloated salary of the CEO.
As it turned out the stores here are the only independent Goodwill stores in the country and the CEO of Goodwill International doesn’t make $2.3 million a year.
In the dog days of summer, a summer booklist and a recipe for Sour Cherry Pie seemed like a natural fit for the website. The list was compiled by librarians at the Winnipeg Public Library. The Sour Cherry Pie was an adventure from when I read the sign saying “free cherries pick as many as you want” to photographing my finished pie which tasted a lot better than it looked in my pictures.
Even though I wrote a lot of stories I never did have a genre and that used to bother me sometimes. Why couldn’t I settle on one thing like the other writer with my first name who only writes concert reviews? I’ve always been a bit jealous of her as she’s so talented. Her brilliantly authentic reviews always seemed so effortless…but that may be my imagination
I was always proud to say “hi, my name is Anne and I’m with Community News Commons” though I never did give out the little cards our editor had printed for us with space for our name and the site address. It seemed too presumptuous to be 100% sure that I could actually write the story. Until lately I’ve always just said I’d TRY to write it as I didn’t want to jinx the story.
There’ve been so many memories over the last two years which have passed in a blur of events attended, stories written, meetings and and a variety of media classes.
Writing, podcasting, social media, audio story and photography classes were offered to us twice a year at no cost.They were taught by local experts in their fields such as Dan Lett, Ruth Bonneville, Mary Agnes Welch and occasionally interestingly another CNC’er.
There were no attitudes here and our monthly story meetings were so much fun. Everyone sitting around the board table in The Winnipeg Foundation’s office on the 13th floor of the Richardson Building had a chance to speak. We went around the table and each person talked about stories they were working on or were going to be working on.
No one was interrupted except by Doug’s parrot who was often chattering in the background. Our editor would take our ideas and expand on them for us and others would interject with positive suggestions.
Before the CEO Sleepout two years ago I had no idea that such a strong community of writers and (citizen journalists) existed and I’m so glad I found it.
I also didn’t know the extent of the homelessness problem in Winnipeg. It’s become all too common to see the homeless on every corner and in every public building.
When I attended this year’s CEO Sleepout with a view to doing a story, it was being held concurrently with the “End Homelessness Now” conference at the RBC Convention Centre. I’d decided to go to the Sleepout as it had launched my writing adventure two years ago. I’d never experienced being too cold to sleep and it was awful, especially because I was tired, so I sat huddled in front of the sacred fire all night.
We were given coffee and pizza as the firekeeper talked periodically about sweetgrass, tobacco and other things sacred to First Nations beliefs.
I was cold, freezing in fact even with a warm blanket, but I was OK. It was even nice with different people joining and sharing a bit then leaving the circle.
There’s something comforting about staring into a roaring fire in a fire pit and watching the flames shape shift. I could see the irony as our night out bore so little resemblance to the real lives of the homeless but participating opened my heart.
I’d read about how awful sleeping rough could be but experiencing it myself had an effect on me. Isn’t that exactly what the CEO Sleepout is supposed to do?
When I got up early in the morning I prayed that I’d finish my problematic story when I threw my tobacco into the fire. And that’s exactly what happened. As I was drinking the coffee and eating the bagel I’d filched from the breakfast bar at the Convention C Centre (only to find out later that anybody was welcome to take food during the Conference) my story came together.
I was listening, typing, revising until I had it. There was nowhere I’d rather have finished it than sitting around the fire surrounded by people from all over, including New Zealand, while the attendees inside worked to solve the most pressing problem in our city. As an almost starving writer I know that there’s very little separating me from those on our streets.
CNC’s closure is bittersweet as we weren’t paid for our work and I always had a little voice telling me that I needed to try to get paid writing work. I hope to write just as many stories but this time they’ll be on spec for other publications or articles or for one of the freelancing sites. Anyone want to buy a story going cheap?
Conversely, I don’t think you can put a price on what CNC gave the citizen journalists who participated in the project. Much thanks is due to Noah Erenberg, our editor and convenor who will be editing this piece and may disagree but I don’t think CNC would’ve become the incredibly strong community it is today without his mentorship and unflagging support.
He was a documentary filmmaker and a journalist for more than thirty years and he managed to mold a diverse group of individuals into a first rate local news room and it was so much fun. Suzanne Hunter, Citizen Journalist with CNC described CNC as “the best present you ever got that you hadn’t known you needed” and I have to agree.