As soon as I got the happy news that I'd received a California Health Journalism Fellowship, I did what any self-respecting writer who is faced with an ambitious, challenging, slightly terrifying project would do:
I hid in my office.
Or, to be exact, in my living room. Or, to be more exact, what used to be a living room, and is now a spreading archipelago of paper, computer cables, CD ROMS and files. Shades drawn and cellphone silenced, I immediately set about gathering a pile of books that I want to read over the next few months.
If you write for a living, as I do, you'll recognize here the unmistakable whiff of procrastination, along with the legitimate need we writers have to get into the zone of the story - a trance-like, Zen-type state induced by hours and hours of reading. After all, it's easier than writing. But it's in reading that we often find a word, a phrase, an idea that captures our minds and gives us the courage to move forward in a new direction.
Perhaps it's because I teach kids that I don't feel comfortable about beginning a writing project without consulting my elders. Journalism is about the here and now; reporting produces fact, observation, anecdote and definition. But it's literature that gives us wisdom, a way of understanding what we discover and of putting it into perspective.
As Ezra Pound once said, literature is simply news that stays news. Hitting the bookshelf, I guess, I hoped to find direction and inspiration.
The first choice was obvious: My project includes a public health survey, so I pulled out "The Dictionary of Epidemiology" (Miguel Porta, author). In the first phase of my project, I'll be working with public health experts and five student investigator/reporters at Youth Uprising in East Oakland to do a comprehensive health survey of Oakland teens, looking for the connections between stress and illnesses such as obesity, diabetes and depression. The dictionary would be a starting point.
But the next few books that beckoned were very different: Baldwin's "The Fire Next Time," Carter G. Woodson's "The Mis-Education of the Negro," Richard Rodriguez' "Hunger of Memory," Jacob Riis' "How the Other Half Lives," Henry Mayhew's "London Labour and the London Poor." All, definitely, news that stayed news.
Finally, inspiration hit. It was in "Fire Next Time" that I found the phrase that I needed, an allusion to E. Franklin Frazier's "the cities of destruction."
"(T)his was the beginning of our burning time," wrote Baldwin, describing the summer of his 14th year in Harlem; he would have been a freshman in high school.
In an essay titled "Down at the Cross: Letter From a Region in my Mind," Baldwin talks about his peers and their changing bodies. Long before the idea of healthy communities, documentaries such as "Waiting for Superman," and headlines that warn that one in three American teens is overweight, with profound implications for diabetes, cancer and life expectancy, Baldwin saw trouble.
"In the case of the girls, one watched them turning into matrons before they had become women," he says, of his fellow students.
"And I began to feel in the boys a curious, wary, bewildered despair, as though they were now settling in for the long, hard winter of life. I did not know then what it was that I was reacting to; I put it to myself that they were letting themselves go. In the same way that the girls were destined to gain as much weight as their mothers, the boys, it was clear, would rise no higher than their fathers. School began to reveal itself, therefore, as a child's game that one could not win, and boys dropped out of school and went to work...
"(T)here seemed to be no way whatever to remove this cloud that stood between them and the sun, between them and love and life and power, between them and whatever it was that they wanted. One did not have to be very bright to realize how little one could do to change one's situation..."
It was news, then. It became literature. And now the cities of destruction are our fire, our responsibility to rebuild.
Time to write.