Learning to dig: A creative writer on her start as a journalist


Valerie Nieman is a professor of English at North Carolina A&T State University. A former journalist and farmer in West Virginia, she is the author of three novels, as well as collections of poetry and short fiction. She is a graduate of West Virginia University, and she received an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte. To the Bones, her latest novel, is now available.

When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time digging: century-old crockery pulled up from dumps behind fallen-in houses, jack-in-the-pulpit and native azalea dug out of the woods and toted home, stones pried out of hillsides. (That last led to a broken ankle, when I stepped in the hole I’d created earlier.) My bedroom was adorned with trilobites, the skulls of wild creatures, slab-sided patent medicine bottles.

My friend and mentor Fred Chappell said once that my concerns were chthonic, that I seek after what is buried and hidden. He’s right. Each of my books features some such physical element—a pit, an excavated dump, the caves of Dordogne where people long ago told stories by painting on the walls—as well as the deep places of the human heart.

My childhood predilection for digging might have bent me toward archaeology, but would instead develop into a career in journalism, thanks to the Perley Isaac Reed School of Journalism (now the Reed College of Media) at West Virginia University, and three noteworthy J-teachers. Professor Paul Atkins. Professor Harry Elwood. Professor Robert Ours. All three are now gone, but I still hear their voices in my head, reminding me “brevity” and “clarity” and “precision.”

I lived in respectful fear of Dr. Atkins and his blue pencil, mostly because I could not type. In J-18, we were expected to manage a certain number of words per minute, and I struggled. I managed to hunt and peck my way through, and never did learn to type properly. Today, as I write this on a slick little keyboard, I use the same four-finger style that took me from my intro class to the Daily Athenaeum (DA) and beyond.

Part of the generation emboldened by All the President’s Men (and hope another one is rising today!), I soon learned that journalism meant less derring-do and more time on courthouse benches, hours poring over microfilm and dusty bound copies. But from my covering city council meetings as a class assignment to my working for the DA, my J-school years were what taught me to craft sentences that made sense, and paragraphs that worked, so that the fictions beginning to assemble in my thoughts would have a sturdy framework.

I worked for daily papers in Morgantown and Fairmont, WV, before heading south to close out my newspaper career in Greensboro, NC. To the Bones is, among many other things, a tribute to the small-town journalist. One character, Zadie Person, is an amalgam of three fine reporters I’d known along the way, representative of so many working in unheralded newsrooms with low pay and long hours. Their diligence and dedication in covering the stories that directly affect people should be celebrated.

The book does not start with journalism, however, but down in a pit of bones. It grew in the way that books grow, sending out tendrils and shoots. I did not know where it was heading, but soon enough the three mysteries of a waylaid stranger, a disappeared daughter, and an acid-ruined river began to intertwine. Along with the journalist, the two main characters dedicate their lives to excavating what has been hidden: Lourana Taylor hunts down mine records and pores over topological maps in search of her daughter, and Darrick MacBrehon, the stranger, seeks (financial) truth as an auditor as well as answers to the enigmas of his life.

I learned in February that Paul Atkins had died at the age of ninety-five, a loyal Mountaineer and staunch journalist to the end. I had written him a note some months earlier, to let him know that I’d given him this shout-out in my latest book: “Zadie would never have expected, back in J-school, that she would be writing in all seriousness about preparations for a zombie hunt. What would Professor Atkins have said? The screen blinked dully at her, the green cursor nagging her to finish.”

I don’t know if he ever saw that note, but I’d like to think he would have enjoyed Zadie and the other newsroom folks. (Like the Old Masters, I’ve put myself in the painting, a small face in the crowd as the night editor slamming through copy before press run.)

Although I left journalism in 2004 for a new career as a professor of creative writing, there are times I really miss the newsroom, especially election nights. I still have deadlines, though not daily ones, and I endlessly tussle with words. A new book is starting to take shape: I stand at the entrance with a torch and fragments of a map, ready to plunge into those subterranean spaces.

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