One of the most useful tools in the yearbook room is the lead notebook. At the beginning of each year, I make a standing assignment of 10 “knock your socks off” leads per week from each writer. They must cut these out of newspapers or magazines and glue them onto a piece of notebook paper. I give the students credit each week for the 10 leads by just glancing at the papers; then I put them in the big red lead notebook that everyone uses. Periodically, I grade them carefully, just to let them know I am serious. And only the sheets with 10 outstanding leads receive an A.
One way for writers to learn style is to mimic the style of professionals. Every writer should have a style notebook and should practice something new either daily or weekly.
When we were studying the epigrams of Alexander Pope last month, I told my English 12 students to ask their parents to share with them any popular sayings or words of wisdom they had known while growing up. One student came back with “You read what you sow.” After laughing a bit, I started to realize that in the world of yearbook, this misstatement actually made sense.
I was about to give up when I remembered meeting Samuel Beckett at the NSPA convention last year in Seattle. I heard Beckett say that he had actually been a journalism teacher for several years and was presenting a session at the convention on how teaching yearbook had sparked his imagination for the tragicomedy, “Waiting for Godot.” In his session, he asked us to read selected scenes from the play to see the close connection. In fact, he said, although most people think he is writing about the angst of the 20th century, many of the scenes in the play are really about his frustration as a yearbook teacher trying to improve the academics section.
Three of the biggest problems I’ve experienced on this epic journey involved finding the way – developing a theme, new sections, and new story ideas. So, like Ishmael, “whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet (that Melville was a cheery guy); whenever it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off-then, I account it high time” to find my way to a theme, a new section, and new story ideas as soon as I can.