lost, for a little while

storyteller q&a: wynne delacoma
July 25, 2011, 8:51 pm
Filed under: advice

Wynne Delacoma is an adjunct lecturer at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, where she teaches arts reporting and writing. Before 2006, she was a full-time staff critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, where she covered classical music, dance, and the opera.

Would you be able to tell me a little bit about your position now, and what you’ve worked on in the past?

I’ve been doing arts journalism exclusively since 1980 and I retired as staff critic at the Chicago Sun-Times in 2006, but I’m still doing some reviewing and teaching. It’s just been a dream come true. When I started out, I was a straight journalist—going to board of appeals and school board meetings, and then spending all my spare money on tickets to the ballet and the opera. I began to realize that I would really like to write about these things, so I decided to go back to school and get my master’s degree in music history. It was just one of those things where I thought I’d be a happy woman if I spent all my time going to concerts and the ballet and writing about it, and I actually got to do that, which was—is—still pretty outstanding.

Could you be tell me a bit about what first made you want to get into journalism?

This is ancient history, and something young women your age can hardly conceive of, but when I was your age, there wasn’t a lot of guidance for girls about possible careers. Most of the careers for women were teaching, nursing, or becoming a secretary—none of which appealed to me at all. My older sister had gone to journalism school and it seemed like it would be fun to make a try of it. Now, when I look back on it, I’m like Dear God, what a haphazard way of putting something together, but…

You ended up liking it?

Amazingly, yeah, I did. It turned out that it was very good for me, because it took me out of my comfort zone. I got used to talking to people I didn’t know and making judgments about certain issues. Even when you’re doing straight news reporting, you have to decide whether or not somebody’s a reliable source, if these people will tell the truth. And I liked the deadlines; you work on a project and it’s done. You work on a story, you follow it through, and then you go on to something else. I realized that I wasn’t good at long-term projects because I’d get bored. People ask me all the time if I’m interested in trying to write a book, but the idea of slogging through the same thing day after day, trying to make your prose sparkle…no.

Yesterday, I spoke with [adjunct lecturer at Northwestern] Josh Karp, and he was saying how he really prefers writing books now because for a long time, all he was doing was writing 1,000-word articles. What do you think is the benefit of having that kind of limit on length?

You get really good at choosing your words and making sure every word counts. You make sure you cover all the facts as succinctly as possible and you learn how to find the perfect word that includes everything you want—the description, the action, etc. I also think it makes for more interesting writing. I mean, let’s face it, the world isn’t sitting around waiting for the latest review of the New York Philharmonic concert. You have to make it interesting. I take the bus all the time, and when I was writing regularly and saw somebody on the bus reading the Sun-Times, whenever they would come to my page, I would think “Oh, stay there, stay there, please, please, please don’t turn the page!” You have to work to get people to read your stuff.

In terms of arts writing, I imagine that a lot of the writing you do is reviewing. What are some of the other kinds of stories you would cover?

I would do interviews with artists if they were coming to town, or had a really interesting project going on. I would write pieces about news or trends in the arts, like how the economic downturn is affecting arts organizations. At one point, anorexia nervosa was a major problem in the American ballet companies, so I wrote about that. I’ve written about making the classical music world more diverse; I think maybe one or two percent of players in classical orchestras are African-American and that’s completely insane. I write about those kinds of things.

Do you prefer those kinds of stories? Or do you like doing the reviews better?

There was a point where, if I heard Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat one more time, I was going to kill myself. But I love figuring out why a performance works. The best is sitting in a concert hall and feeling something fabulous happening, and knowing that I’m going to be able to tell my readers why that happened—that it was because of this incredible thing that the flutist did at this moment, coupled with the fact that the oboes entered and the strings pulled back at the same time, and that all created this incredible effect. I love doing that. It’s so much fun. My father was an auto mechanic, and it’s like getting under the hood, looking at something and being able to say “I know how this works!” and then explaining it to other people. So often, with classical music, people think that it’s something they can’t understand. Well, you don’t have to understand it. You feel it. But then, there is a reason why it’s happening and I help them figure out what that reason is.

Is that something that’s continued with your teaching career?

Yes. I’ve been teaching since 1982 at Northwestern and, only in the last couple of years, Columbia College. I love starting off a class and getting those first pieces of writing and knowing that I can help make it better. I can. I know that if they follow the instructions, suggestions, and help with word choice that I give them, the writing will vastly improve. It’s fun.

Have things changed a lot since you began in terms of what publications are looking for? And what you have to teach your students?

Oh yeah, but I haven’t really changed how I teach. I feel like the important thing is to figure out what happened and to tell it as clearly as possible, and as long as you’re working with words, it’s going to be the same in 2011 as it was in 1970. The word choice might be somewhat different, but the clarity and precision, that certain way of putting your thoughts together, that applies whether you’re putting together a blog or you’re writing a piece for a weekly newspaper thirty years ago. The real difference is that newspapers are really struggling now, so arts journalism has just about disappeared. It’s a field under siege that gets cut in an attempt to save money.

How does that make you feel, as someone who’s written about the arts for most of her career?

It makes me sad, but it also makes me want to be an even better writer, because you know that by default there are fewer and fewer people to read your stories, so you really have to fight for them. I think young arts writers and arts organizations will figure out how to regain their place in American life. I don’t know how they’ll do it, but the next generation coming along will. It’s like with my students: I have no doubt that they will figure out how to fit their careers together. I have no doubt at all. I can’t begin to tell them how they’re going to do it, which I think probably drives them nuts, but they’ll figure it out. If you can’t live your life without doing it, you have to figure out how to do it. And they will; I firmly believe that.


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