Sunday, September 25, 2016

Be a generalist when starting out as a freelancer, then be a specialist

We all are framed by our own experiences and so any advice I give on freelance writing or any other subject should be at least somewhat suspect to readers. Take it with a grain of salt. Even so, I've learned a few things in more than two decades of writing for pay and again, it's experience that's particular to me but could help you nonetheless.

From my experience, starting out as a generalist might not be the worst thing and can be helpful. I did as a reporter for newspapers and magazines, and found that as a generalist you cover many different subjects while you build your skills. You learn a lot about many different areas and you give yourself many different opportunities which provide chances for you to learn and excel.

As you excel you develop niches in which you have expertise. My background as the son of an engineer and as a blue-collar guy who grew up working in the trades, coupled with 14+ years of experience writing about architecture, engineering and construction for ENR (Engineering News-Record, the premier construction industry trade publication), has positioned me as an AEC (architecture, engineering and construction) writer.

When you develop writing niches, you build experience doing various types of writing that can be more lucrative. And who doesn't want to be paid more?

Saturday, September 03, 2016

Liberal-mindedness in Pittsburgh or Dumb Old Groupthinkery?

A coffee shop I like that's several blocks from me is promoting a bad painting of Lady Liberty punching Trump with "Keep America Great" as its tagline.

They want to emblazon this poorly done liberal-minded image on a PA Turnpike sign, which I think is pathetic and as we say here in Pittsburgh, ignorant (meaning, in the local idiom, rude)... Despite the nazi-like liberal-mindedness, I buy coffee there anyway.  They have good coffee and atmosphere and the best outdoor sitting area of any coffee shop I know of in Pittsburgh.

This aint a Trump endorsement. It's an endorsement of people reading--stuff like the Bill Of Rights.

I take umbrage with the shrieking, hysterical tone of so many lefties who hate Trump. They think it's cute to create statues of a naked Trump and display them publicly--why? Because they don't like his politics. Imagine the outcry if the same fat-shaming were done on Shillary--it would be called sexist and plain old mean.

But what sucks most about the painting is it uses a hallowed symbol of America--Lady Liberty, in whom many still believe since she is a standard-bearer of freedom and hope--and perverts that symbol to make a banal political point. Why not just depict Uncle Sam choking Trump with Old Glory? Same difference--both are not only wrong and violent and hateful, they are an unequal reaction to what is perceived as hate-mongering by Trump. Two wrongs don't make a righty or lefty.

Friday, July 22, 2016

7 Life Lessons I Learned from Engineer Michael Baker, Jr.

It's been 76 years since Michael Baker Consulting company became Michael Baker Inc., and just a couple years since the company was sold for nearly $400 million and absorbed by a much larger engineering group, making Baker an even bigger name in the construction world. 

While working as a freelance hack a couple years ago, I was able to learn a lot about perhaps the greatest engineer (other than my late dad, IMO) who ever came from Pittsburgh: Michael Baker, Jr., though technically he got his start outside Pittsburgh, in Beaver County. I noticed things worth considering about the engineer whose personal name is synonymous with engineering. He was extraordinarily sure of himself; he took risky jobs others wouldn’t; he knew the value of family and kept them close; and he rewarded his staffers’ loyalty.

Michael Baker, Jr.
Those life lessons are just a few of the many provided by Baker that are helpful to people in the construction field and in business, or even in everyday life. The universal appeal of these lessons stems from the fact that they have much in common with examples provided by many successful entrepreneurs: such lessons teach us how to succeed in business, while also informing on how we should live.

Following are Seven Life Lessons I Learned From Michael Baker, Jr., many years after he was gone:

Know your destiny. Though he was a young man during the Depression and despite the fact that his father’s business had failed, yanking Mike Jr. out of college after his first year of engineering study at Penn State, Baker imagined possibilities. He dreamed big because he decided he had to be an engineer and that he’d find a way to make it. So he wrote 10 letters to 10 prominent members of his hometown community of Beaver, PA, asking each recipient for a loan so he could finish his studies.
He got nine rejections, and then the tenth letter arrived, containing a check and a note that read: “Write me when you need more.”

Stick to it. A restless, talented twenty-something, Baker had a new wife and no money when he wrote the letters asking for help. But he wasn’t acting simply on a prayer, though he was a believer, came from a family of devout Christians and was one of 12 children. Somehow, the man was immensely sure of himself. A few years later, he failed twice in starting his own business, and declared bankruptcy in 1939. Shortly after his bankruptcy papers cleared the Pittsburgh courts, in the spring of 1940, at just 28, he founded Michael Baker, Jr. Consulting.
For months he got few contracts. Then one Sunday morning, he landed a pile of work that would make his whole year—a string of mapping and survey contracts for the federal government, provided through a large Pittsburgh engineering firm. But he had no employees besides a secretary, very little equipment and not enough vehicles to do the job, which had to be started in days and completed in two months. He took the job anyway, figuring he’d work out the details later.
He contacted every surveyor, rodman and other professional he knew who might be of help, put ads in the Pittsburgh newspapers seeking such workers, and asked a bank for a loan to buy surveying equipment and vehicles so he could do the job. All three ploys worked, and he successfully completed the job.

Pump up your confidence. These days, decades after Baker’s passing, old men still speak of him with awe in their voices. “He’d suck the air out of a room when he entered,” they’ve said of Baker’s supreme confidence.
Certainly, the man was human and like all of us, he suffered self-doubt at times. Unlike most of us, he reportedly was able to project an air of strength, ability, and integrity that gave him a larger-than-life reputation which helped him quickly grow his business, even as a very young man. And when he saw that Parsons Brinckerhoff had gotten work with the Saudi Arabian government, he decided he wanted to work in that newly oil-rich nation. He came up with a comprehensive plan for developing it that included road-building, construction of palaces and hospitals, airports and much more, and sold the plan to the Saudi Kingdom in 1951, garnering nearly three years of steady work.

Believe in others. At whatever level of the organization one sits, be it CEO or assembly-line part-timer, it’s good to remember that team unity can be achieved partly through the daily successes of meeting tough deadlines. Worker confidence, though, can be inspired by the company’s leader, or even by a division chief or another manager, and propel fellow workers to success. This sort of confidence is infectious, since people who really believe in themselves and their teammates often try harder and so, do better.
Baker often said his greatest asset was his employees, and that he’d be nowhere without them.

Fall, get up, and carry on. While many know of Michael Baker’s engineering and entrepreneurial prowess, not as many know the man had troubles—and not just in business. In 1949, his 6-year-old son Keith was struck and killed by a vehicle in front of the family home in Beaver. And in January 1950, Baker accidentally crashed his car and nearly died from the accident.
He was in and out of the hospital for nearly a year. He ran the business from a hospital bed, though the company suffered and there were losses. But he came back from the near-fatal accident a changed man, more dedicated to his family and more focused on community-building. He curtailed the jet-setting and delegated the business travel to others. And for the rest of his life, he walked with a limp.

See opportunities, not obstacles. When as a young man Baker realized he had to go back to school to finish his degree to be an engineer, he didn’t wallow in self-pity or, as some do, point fingers at others he imagined were keeping him from his dream.  Instead, he looked for allies among the most prominent people in his town, searching for a benefactor who would recognize some of his promise and provide a financial boost.
Baker found that benefactor, and why? He identified the opportunity to find the person, rather than simply dwelling on the obstacles of no tuition money or his dad’s failed business, or his inability to find a job to put himself through school.

Always be promoting. As the successful young owner of a big consulting business, Baker was frustrated after being repeatedly told by federal officials that he was too young for the bigger projects and should just be satisfied with pieces of different jobs.
So he penned another campaign, writing to top Army brass and to all of the major military contractors, informing them of his experience and capabilities. Again, the ploy worked, and he was able to gain larger jobs partly by having the guts to ask for them.  

Jonathan Barnes is a journalist and freelance AEC tech writer based in Pittsburgh.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Interview with Author Hilary Masters

Author Hilary Masters passed last year, and he was a friend. But I first met him as a writing teacher of mine at Carnegie Mellon decades ago. I got to know him some after graduating; he became a mentor. This is a pared down version of an interview I conducted with Masters in January 2015. -J.B.

In your writing you have repeatedly referred to your desire and attempts to go back to the times when you were a kid. 
Would you say this desire to revisit is an attempt to recapture that innocence, or an attempt to rediscover yourself? 
Can you tell me more about why you think you must go back there?

“I think it’s a history… As a writer, I’m always interested in my history, or somebody else’s.” 

As an author who’s been publishing for more than half a century, you’ve covered a lot of ground—journalism, poetry, short fiction, novels, essays, memoir. How has getting older affected your writing? Do you think you can figure out a piece you’re working on faster than when you were younger?
“I’m slower, and I find I’m choosing my medium better. I’m really fond of the essay form. It instantly gets me going.”

How are your writing students learning differently these days as opposed to previous generations?
“My feeling is they’re not reading as much as they used to… The current students are a little [lazier] than previous students.”

Why do you like teaching? What do you like about it and why do you continue with it?
“It’s an instant kind of argument back and forth… It excites my mind and my thinking.”

In recent years, what book did you have the most fun creating?
“I enjoyed my collection of essays, In Rooms Of Memory.”

In your essay “Double Exposure,” you touch upon your relationship with the writer Wright Morris. He must’ve been encouraging to you, but why do you think you needed that encouragement?
“I think every writer needs encouragement, and I needed all I could get.”

You’ve been married to author Kathleen George for many years. How has your writing been affected by your relationship with your writer wife? Does she read or edit stuff for you?
“She reads it all the time… makes notes on it, corrects my spelling. I’m a terrible speller.”

Who’s your favorite American poet?
“E.E Cummings.”

Pittsburgh is the place you’ve stayed longer than any other period in your life, right? Would you call yourself a Pittsburgh writer?
“Certainly I’d call myself a writer who lives in Pittsburgh.”

In your view, what are some of the most pronounced changes in CMU’s look, vibe and student body?
“The look of the place has changed quite a bit. I find the student body has changed… As a group of students, they’re not as interesting as earlier classes. And I’m sorry about that.”

How much longer will you teach?
“I have no idea.”

You were one of the first well-known fiction writers to help popularize nonfiction, especially through your family memoir “Last Stands: Notes From Memory,” considered by many to be an American classic. Do you think the popularity of memoir, essay and nonfiction is still growing? If so, what do you attribute that growth to?
“The essay form has become more and more popular for writers. And there are many avenues open for publication of essays. Editors at certain magazines are welcoming it, also.”

You told me recently that when people ask you what your favorite book is of those you’ve written, you say you don’t know. But do you have a favorite essay, short story or poem?
“I’m very fond of Last Stands. I enjoy re-reading it, in little bits.”

You reference memory in the title of “Last Stands,” but also in many places throughout your works. How important to your work is memory and understanding your memories?
“Memory is kind of the fuel that keeps things burning and heated up… This little essay that I’m finishing started with a memory that fueled the essay and gave it a reason for being, almost.”

How has teaching influenced your writing? Have your students’ efforts helped to inspire your own writing and if so, in what ways?
“I think that trying to find something interesting to talk about writing with them has influenced my own writing, and has given me ideas for my own writing.”

You’ve had many honors and awards over the years and have produced a broad range of works and still continue to produce new work each day. You’ve touched the lives of untold numbers of readers and thousands of students. What are some of the most fulfilling achievements in your career so far?
“They’re small… At the end of the morning’s work, being satisfied with what I’ve done. That’s really a very wonderful event—when I’ve satisfied the desire to complete the thought or idea in a way that makes the original idea more interesting or better than it was to start with.”
“The idea of capturing an image was very strong in [Wright Morris’s] writing… Not just to copy the thought, but to give a fresh energy, so that it becomes, in its own way, worthwhile and interesting… what to put in and what to leave out. [Morris] had a wonderful book of photos about his uncle’s house in Nebraska. All those details were important to him as the camera eye, but also as a writer. Not a single photograph of a person, but one of his uncle’s back, walking toward the barn.”

Again about Wright Morris; you wrote: “His friendship of a quarter century helped define my perception of myself as a writer and photographer. His work gave me confidence to see a place and its inhabitants through language and that the bare minutes of that meeting are not enough.”
How important was your friendship with Wright to your perception of writing, your view of yourself as a writer and photographer, and to your work in those crafts?
“It was because I viewed him as a professional in every way. He went to work in his writing as others go to work in their jobs… He was a model for professional seriousness—you couldn’t wait for the moon to come through the windows and inspire you. And he also showed me that writing was honorable.”

In “Last Stands” you touch upon how your father didn’t feel entirely accepted by his contemporaries. You’ve had your own, rather similar struggles, from your former brother-in-law, who repeatedly asked what you do for a living, to your half-brother who challenged your paternity, to the critics who panned your work by condemning your father’s work and yours in one nasty sweep… Has this given you a chip on your shoulder?
“I’ve always had an issue to deal with those who look at me as the son of Edgar Lee Masters. When my first novel was published, I begged the editor not to put anything on the back flap that had to do with my father.”

In the essay “Disorderly Conduct,” you mention how poor and rather dangerous places kind of appealed to you, so you lived in such a place while attending Brown. The Mexican War Streets of Pittsburgh’s North Side, your neighborhood, was pretty beat up and a bit dangerous when you moved there and began to refurbish your row-house in 1983, wasn’t it? And why do you like such neighborhoods?
“It was cheap. Those neighborhoods have always been interesting to me, because generally they have houses of a certain quality of construction. But it’s also important that they were reasonably priced… I wouldn’t romanticize it.”

Also in “Disorderly Conduct,” you refer to “the transcendence all writers can experience. I was able to leave my hovel on Benefit Street and enter the abundant fragrance of my grandmother’s kitchen…” Is that transcendent feeling part of why your write?
“It’s part of what writing does.”

“Disorderly conducts. To claim that as a description of most writers’ lives is a disingenuous plea at best.”  What do you mean by this?
“In writing, you come upon a situation that’s been formed, and in writing about it, you tear it up and re-order it. So it is a kind of disorderly thing.”

Are you, in a way, like your old dog from your childhood, who left home for two years only to come back, always remembering where it was from What was her name?
“Sucre… Pretty much, that’s me.” [laughs]

In the essay “Passing Through Pittsburgh,” you talk about your grandfather Tom Coyne being here briefly as a young man. There’s a bit of the Irish idiom, and a lilt in the language in parts of that piece. Did you sort of find yourself doing that—or was it entirely intentional?
“I can’t say. I like to think that I was honoring him.”

He had a fierceness, didn’t he?
“The parish priest in Kansas City was an immigrant… One time my grandmother was involved in an accident—she was hit in downtown by a truck. And afterwards, the parish priest sent her a bill for the prayers that he’d said for her. My grandfather pulled out his gun, he wanted to shoot him. I remember him saying, ‘He’s not even a goddamned citizen!’”

Do you have any pointers for how a writer can grow old gracefully while creating excellent stories all the way?
“I think if you’re a writer, you must continue to try to be a writer, whatever the results will be. I don’t see how you can really quit. As your own personal honor is concerned, you have to still continue doing it.”

Why do you like writing essays?
“Writing the kind of personal essays I do is very autobiographical. Many times, you become the subject. It’s kind of an extension of the idea of autobiography; the writer becoming the focus of what the writer’s talking about.””

What do you think the essence of the essay form is? How do you accomplish a successful essay? What’s the trick?
“To be honest with yourself. If you’re hedging, and not really coming out with the truth, it’s not right—it’s kind of a perversion of the form… Many times, without even trying to do it, I find out things about myself that I hadn’t really been cognizant about.”

“In Montaigne’s Tower” shows some of the connection (if not outright affection) you feel toward the inventor of the essay form. Despite all the talented essayists, you keep referring back to the original, the master. And you refer your students to him, too. Why?
“I think that’s the basic model. That’s the one we should all try to emulate. It’s a challenge, some shy away from it. To be honest with yourself regarding some of your behavior is not always pleasant… I actually started Last Stands as a story about my grandfather, and all of a sudden I started hearing this other voice—a rather strident voice—my mother. She really became the main character.”

I asked you a while back if you’d quit writing someday, or do it all the way to the end. You responded that you’d keep writing. “What else is there?” you asked me. Why do you feel this way?
“Everything else is rather boring, I think.”

In one essay, you mention dreaming your dad was watching you as you slept, proud of you and how well you’ve done. Do you ever pinch yourself, or shake your head in disbelief?
 “Oh yes, I think I’ve been really lucky, in a lot of ways. I’m always amazed when it does occur to me that I’ve had all these books published… The gods have been good to me.”

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
“Just keep reading, that’s the main thing. Not only does it inspire us, it shows us how to do the same thing. Keep reading. And read people you don’t know… The advice I was given from writers was always done unconsciously. Follow what I’m doing, how I am doing it.”

Jonathan Barnes earned BAs in Professional Writing and Creative Writing from Carnegie Mellon University. He's a Pittsburgh-based journalist and freelance writer.

Friday, July 08, 2016

More People Are Losing Faith In The American Way Because The Fix Is In

I was a fraternity boy in college for a while and because of it, I'm familiar with bad frat boy behavior. In some circles the phrase “frat boy" has long been code for “misogynistic predator.” All of which reminds me of one or more of our former US presidents.

What’s it got to do with the Clintons? Bill Clinton is a dirtbag, even by frat standards. He not only (along with Hillary) had crooked dealings in Whitewater and elsewhere, he also acted like a nasty frat boy AS PRESIDENT. The clown used the Oval Office to get sexual favors from a young intern (please don’t tell me she empowered herself in doing so, it’s pathetic). I know many of you want me to forget this fact, but I can't.

Despite him being a scumbag, Slick Willie survived impeachment. (Full disclosure: I liked Bill Clinton until he claimed to have “smoked, but didn’t inhale.”) Folks, I have smoked and I inhaled many times. I wouldn’t recommend it for all, but I will not lie just to please judgmental people. The Clintons, though, have prevaricating refined to a craft... Obama, to his credit, admitted his pot use.

So now we have another Clinton who’s close to the Oval Office, and I blame that fact on the moral relativist liberals and their greedhead corporatist Dem and Repub co-conspirators. They don't care what Bill or Hilary have done—they want the economy to stay even. I want that too. But at the cost of an unending supply of dirtbag politicians like the Clintons?

Husband-Wife presidents? America, if that's what you want, you have the creativity and vision of a slug.
It should be noted that any family--Bush, Clinton, Roosevelt, whomever--that thinks it's so close to Heaven that it should have more than one family member serve as president is arrogant beyond acceptability. A handful of families aren't the only ones who can rule 300 million people. That isn't to say that such folks can't get good things done--but it's proof of nothing, since even a broken clock is right twice a day.

Before Hilary Clinton, no former First Lady was so arrogant and greedy for power that she thought she, too, should be president. People who think such power concentration is fine like monarchies... And while most people would have been thankful to have had the rare chance to live in the White House and be treated like a monarch with servants and footmen ONCE, not Hilary--she truly believes she deserves it again.

Americans, how much power are you planning to hand a husband-wife team? You're about to give em the moon--and last time you did that, Slick Willie used it to stick cigars where no president should. A man who cannot be trusted to not embarrass himself, the nation and his wife with extramarital affairs shouldn't be president. A woman who protects such a man has no business ever holding office after doing so. Someone should ask Monica Lewinsky if she thinks Hilary is a champion of womankind. 

We all wouldn’t even recognize the name Hillary Clinton if her husband wasn’t president. She’s ridden his coat-tails into office, into being Secretary of State, and now, maybe even into being president. Hillary Clinton is The Fix Is In Candidate. The fix has been in for her to win for decades—because she’s a woman, because she’s a Dem and because she’s a Clinton.

A lot of Americans apparently think it’s fine to support people who rig the system in their favor, but I do not. I know why a lot of you like it, though—you feel you are benefiting because you think Shillary will support you because you’re a gal or a union member or a Dem. But those of you who still believe in the 2-party system, unless you are one of the elites really making out from it, are deluded to think your support means anything except that you are a sucker.

Four more years of Obama? The guy’s an elitist Ivy Leaguer (I say that after voting for him, once), who buttered up to world “leaders” while hosting the G20 Summit in Pittsburgh, calling the city an economic turnaround model. Wrong, Obama. About a quarter of all Pittsburghers (of 300,000+) are subsisting at federally defined poverty level, i.e., about 11k for a single person annually or 24k for a family of FOUR. Add to that all those who are really struggling and you are looking at One In Three Pittsburghers Financially Strapped. 

If this is an economic revival, the American People are doomed... And underpinning this rigged system is a Political Class that answers only to Corporate Headquarters.

Many Americans think it’s fine to rise up through the Democratic or Republican ranks, to work one’s way up by holding office at various levels for years or decades, in order to become president. I don’t—I believe career politicians should be ostracized, and strict term limits should be set to restore the public focus to Public Service. Nowadays, public servants are self-servants and we all know it’s true (or true nearly all of the time) and so people are becoming more and more cynical.

Last night, a peace rally in Dallas turned into a sniper situation in which five police officers were killed and others wounded by a gunman intent on killing cops. This is a recent skirmish in an ongoing war, usually waged only between have-nots and have-nots, but sometimes waged around the solidly middle-class. Like after the July 4 Fireworks celebration the other night in downtown Pittsburgh, when people were shot in front of families leaving after the fireworks, or the knifing last night in Pittsburgh's Market Square section of Downtown.

Folks benefiting from the high-tech revolution are not killing people in public places. Not that everyone should work for Google or FB, but rather, this so-called economic turnaround that is so often touted by people like Obama and Mayor Bill Peduto must be one that lifts all boats, not just those in the middle and those on top. It's not yet a broad-based economic revival.

People are hurting, and that pain is expressed more and more through violence. Career politicians like Clinton do not feel that pain since they are mostly concerned with staying in power and intent on pleasing the powerful. The current political system of hegemony disguised as democracy must reform, or become irrelevant and ultimately, entirely disregarded by the people.

A vote for Hillary is a vote for monarchy. The Founding Fathers wisely outlawed hereditary titles and other English customs that destroyed liberty and yet, 10 generations later, we continue to allow presidential power to be inherited in families. Look at George W. Bush and you will see what can happen when the power of the presidency is effectively handed down in families—we have the Iraq War and other fiascos to show for it. Power corrupts, but inherited power is by far the most corrupting. Consider North Korea if you disagree.

Democrats and Republicans are out of touch with most Americans. The Clintons and Bernie Sanders are both examples of this. Sanders’ expected endorsement of Clinton is a nod to the status quo. Seems he didn’t really want to rock the boat too much, after all.

Donald Trump may be an idiot but he is not Wasserman or some other party chief’s pick. He is likely rather dishonest, but he is not politician dishonest. And for those and other reasons, he will bring in many votes. Maybe he won’t win this time, but he might not go away. Getting as far as he has in this election could just embolden him, win or lose.