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Member Spotlights

Member Spotlight: Jane M. Von Bergen

Why is writing important to you and why do you think it’s an important medium for the world? The beauty of writing is that it is both immediate and profound. With writing in hand, we can figure out how to fix a clogged drain or prepare tonight’s scalloped potatoes gratin. Other words on other pages can change our hearts forever. Writing is portable–on our phones, in our backpacks, in our hands. It is also everlasting. In ancient tomes, we can find the words of our brothers and sisters, messages of wisdom and warning from our ancestors written centuries ago. In the beginning was the word, and those words put the fundamental ideas of our existence into form. Through writing, words unite us with love, with God, with each other, with the cosmos. They are our path to the universe. I am humbled by my part in this gift to mankind.

What are your tried and tested remedies to cure writer’s block? It’s amazing how important it suddenly becomes to organize your sock drawer when the writing gets tough. When I’m having a hard time, I go to the bathroom, get my coffee or tea, sit at my computer, and set the timer for 25 minutes. Nothing but writing can happen in that time. No emails, no web surfing, nothing! If that doesn’t work, take a five-minute break, and do it again, and again. Eventually sheer boredom will bore through the writer’s block. Even if it doesn’t on that day, you at least won’t feel guilty about not trying.

What is your favorite time to write? I have no favorite time to write, but I end up writing a lot around supper time. Maybe it’s because I have done everything I could to postpone the work. By that time, there are no more excuses, and I don’t feel like chopping onions anyway. Lots of writing also occurs in the shower, although the words go on the page later, obviously.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received and would like to impart to other writers? When I worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer, we called it the nut graph. (Maybe because it drove me nuts!) I have also heard it referred to as the roadmap or described as foreshadowing. The nut graph is an early paragraph or two that expresses the gist of everything that comes later and puts it into perspective. To do it right requires you to have a clear idea about your piece, which is probably the biggest challenge. However, if you nail that paragraph, you will be golden.

What excites you most about being a writer in today’s age? What excites me the most, always, is the opportunity to be a learner. Writing is the ticket for me to learn, so I am grateful that I can do it competently. When I’m writing, I like to think about the production as part of the storytelling. In a print medium, such as newspapers, it’s fun to imagine layouts, photos, sidebars, and graphics. These days, the digital world gives us a lot of opportunity to tell stories in different ways, combining writing with audio and video. For me, the beauty of writing involves learning and storytelling. In today’s age, opportunities are rich in both arenas.

Jane M. Von Bergen’s On the Job: The Untold Story of America’s Work Centers and the New Fight for Wages, Dignity, and Health, co-written with Celeste Monforton, is out now with The New Press.