So What? So, What Next?

In spring 2003, Dan Simmons, now a journalist, was the featured speaker at the English Department's annual    Recognition Banquet.  What follows is the talk Dan gave after dinner.

   Dan Simmons '99

I'm honored to be with you but a bit mortified to be in front of you.  It's not often that I commit an act of public speech, so please bear with me. 

Every day, I go to work and I write a story.  It's a truly blessed life, one I did not expect for myself, yet one I still manage to take for granted all too often. 

When starting each story, I always ask myself,  "So what?"  For this question, I thank Sister Mara.  She introduced it to me in her Modern Literature class.  It's not an easy or comfortable question because it forces me to identify an actual point to my writing, a purpose that's better than "Because my editor said so."  I agonize, gesticulate, and procrastinate until finally, miraculously, lightning strikes, clouds part, and I proclaim, "Here's what!"

      

In the summer before my senior year in college, I was in Omaha, Nebraska, somewhere in middle America, bloody hot all the time and sweat dripping from every pore.  I kept asking myself, "So, what next?"  And my parents and siblings and loan officers joined the chorus: "So, Dan, what next? "

Luckily, I'm a marathon runner, and I have the fitness to run away from problems, off into the countryside, into the comfort of my own thoughts, where I can have heart-to-heart conversations with myself.  So I ran and ran that summer in the blistering heat, and I had a lot of heart-to-hearts with myself.

Self, what on earth can you possibly do with the rest of your life?  "I have no idea," Self replied.  Self, do you have skills of any value to anyone?  "None," Self replied.  Self, if you go to prison, will they forgive your loans?  "No!  They'll make your parents pay them."   

I started keeping a journal.  How could I use the skills I had been taught here-reading closely, writing well, researching like a hound and telling stories like an old Irish fisherman?  How could I convert them into making some semblance of a living? 

And then I started to think about all the stories I had written for The Record: a war in the woods between the cross-country team and a pair of hostile wild turkeys, an etiquette dinner at which Brother Paul Richards attempted to teach proper manners to a bunch of Johnnies, Sister Mara's book on Benedictine nuns throughout the world. . . .

That summer, I was exchanging letters with a friend in New York City.  He regularly reminded me that he was writing from the greatest city in the world, that the action was right out his window.  "What the heck are you doing in Omaha?" he added.  Self, what the heck are you doing in Omaha? 

 

 

How [could I convert] the skills I had been taught here . . . into making some semblance of a living?

I began to form a crazy dream.  Why not be a journalist-get paid to write stories?  And why not  start in New York City?  "Yeah, right," Self replied. 

Six months later, as first semester of my senior year was coming to a close, I walked across campus at 2 a.m. with a big manila envelope in hand.  In it was my application to the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.  I blessed it with a drop of Sag water and dropped it into the mail.   Three and a half months later-ironically on April 1-a letter arrived from Columbia.  You're accepted, it said.  Show up in August.

I arrived at Columbia as instructed.  From day one, graduate school was more sprint than marathon-and  this in a city where crossing the street is an extreme sport.  In nine frantic, sleepless months, I burned through a half-dozen pairs of running shoes while chasing stories through the streets of all five boroughs.  In doing so, I learned to be a more observant reporter.  I learned to crystallize stories down to their essence without sacrificing their soul.  I learned to accept public critique-some would some call it humiliation-of my writing, and my skin grew thicker.  My eyes opened wide to a world where people of every stripe share the same sidewalks, same subways, same struggle to make it big-or just make it-in the same big city. 

Out of that chaos emerged a surprising harmony.  I learned the far-reaching value of lessons taught here.  First, grammar matters.  You can not take Symposium or Introduction to Literature with Charles Thornbury, as I did, without learning that its and it's are two different things, that you bring to but take from, and that a dictionary is the writer's best friend.  In addition, when deadline looms, the cleaner the copy, the more your editor likes you. 

Second, pursue research that matters personally-and deeply-to you rather than to your professors.  You cannot take a class from any professor here without being encouraged-indeed required-to justify your research pursuits, to ask and answer convincingly, "So what?"

My Master's project about the Troubles in Northern Ireland captured my curiosity long before graduate school.  It took root when I studied in Ireland my junior year in college.  It deepened when I read Seamus Heaney's poetry in Cindy Malone's class and when I wrote an essay about press coverage of Northern Ireland in Mike Opitz's class.  Still, I needed more.

In New York, I fed this curiosity with little delay.  I called what seemed like every Irish-American in the phonebook.  Are you involved-if so, in what way-with the Troubles in the North?  No?  What about relatives or friends? 

Soon enough, I was in a construction trailer in midtown Manhattan, where I talked with a burly carpenter named Brian Pearson.  His voice, slow and deliberate, rumbled like an idling V8 engine.  His hazel eyes never blinked.  He gestured with arms thick as tree stumps and fingers calloused and bent from a lifetime of hard labor.  He had grown up Catholic and poor in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, he told me.  His dad was a tank commander for the British army in World War II.  Yet his dad couldn't find work-not even as a bus driver-because he was Catholic.  Otherwise, Brian's growing up had been fairly nonpolitical until a morning when the family next door, people with "not a bone bad in their body," was killed in a firebombing.  "And there was no justice for it," Brian said.  So he joined the local branch of the IRA, full of youthful rage.  And he drove the lookout car as other IRA soldiers bombed the local British army barracks.  He was caught, beaten, and starved for three days, then charged with membership in the IRA.  And off he went to Long Kesh prison outside Belfast at age 24-incidentally, my own age as I interviewed him.

Can this be real? I wondered.  A year ago, I was in the BAC writing about press coverage of Northern Ireland.  And now, in a construction trailer in Manhattan, I am the press covering Northern Ireland.

Brian's story was one of many.  There was my day on a lobster boat with Long Island lobstermen; my night in an emergency room with a guy who had been stabbed in Queens; my time in a school for new immigrant kids, wide-eyed, full of hopes and dreams; my interview of Paul Newman; my police ride-alongs in the wee hours of the morning; my day at the New York City Marathon. 

 

 

First, grammar matters.

Second, pursue research that matters personally. . . .

But so what?  Dramatic as they were, my stories were for an audience of few: my professors and my classmates.  They were academic exercises, even though they were about real life and real characters.  What good were they doing anyone?

When I finished graduate school, I was hired to write for the Mayo Clinic Health Letter, a monthly newsletter that's read by more than a million ordinary people in every state and in 108 foreign countries.  My mom and dad are subscribers.

How could I-a scientifically impaired English major-possibly write about health and medicine, you ask?  What I've learned is that being an expert on health and medicine isn't central for my work; the fundamentals of journalism are.  I'm excited every month when I get my assignments-a feature story on angina, a cover story on pulmonary hypertension, a news update on monoclonal antibodies, an exposé on epistaxis (doctor-talk for "nosebleed").

When I moved from New York, NY, to Rochester, MN, the subjects shifted dramatically: they went from car bombings to colonoscopies, from the Vagina Monologues to the Angina Monologues, from hysteria on the streets of Belfast to hysterectomy at the Mayo Clinic.  In New York, my heart beat to the frantic rhythms of the city; in Rochester, I barely had a pulse.  And the question reared its head again: "So what?"  What's the point of what I do?   

One reality I've discovered is that a story is a story, whether for The Record, at Columbia, or at Mayo, and it's always worth telling.  Usually, it begins with a problem-hostile turkeys are attacking runners in the St. John's woods; lobsters are dying at the bottom of Long Island Sound; cancer cells are loose, wreaking havoc in someone's lymph nodes.  And always, a response: the cross-country team threatens to make Thanksgiving dinner out of the wild turkeys; Long Island lobstermen test for toxins in Long Island Sound; doctors develop drugs called monoclonal antibodies that seek out cancer cells, destroy them, and spare the healthy cells.   

"So, what else?" you ask.  Here's what: over a million people read the Health Letter every month.  And sometimes they write us letters: 

        Your article on anginal equivalents tipped me off to a heart problem.  I underwent successful triple heart bypass surgery in early August.  I am particularly grateful for your careful use of words like "sensation," "pressure," "shoulder aches" because at no time did I experience pain.

Another letter, of a different sort:

       I'm grateful that in April, 2002, you published a great recipe for meatless chili.  One of my many faults is that I'm no good at cooking and am thus of little value to my wife in that department.  Though I lack culinary talent, I'm okay at chopping, sprinkling, opening cans, dumping contents, stirring, and keeping track of time. I even experimented by adding garbanzo beans.  My wife experimented by asking me to add Beano. Anyway, my household status has improved considerably."

Meanwhile, I get a lot of vacation time, allowing me far-ranging trips to Alaska, California, New Zealand, and Oregon.  And when work ends, it ends, giving me plenty of time to feed my running addiction and to pour myself into free-lance writing projects for other publications.  Besides, every other Tuesday, they pay me.  And my mom and dad get to read every story I write. 

So here I am, four years after that sweltering Omaha summer of heart-to-heart conversations with myself, and four years out of college.  And I have new answers to old questions.  Self, what on earth can you possibly do with the rest of your life?  "I can write stories, just like I always have, and get paid for it," Self replies.  Self, do you have skills of any value to anyone?  "Amazingly, reading, reasoning, writing, researching are of great value to many people and highly marketable," Self responds.  Self, if you go to prison, will they forgive your loans?  "No!  But outside prison, you can do what you like and like what you do, and every Tuesday the check's in the mail."

So, in closing, I urge you to ask and answer that "So what?"  Then answering "So, what next?" will take care of itself.