Lisa Belkin ’82 is the Chief National Correspondent at Yahoo News. She worked for The New York Times for 30 years and authored three books – "Life’s Work, Confessions of an Unbalanced Mom,” “First, Do No Harm,” and “Show Me A Hero.” The Daily Princetonian sat down with her to discuss her experiences at the University, her writing process, and her multi-decade career in the world of journalism.
Daily Princetonian: What made you want to be a writer?
Lisa Belkin '82: Gravitational pull. Writing was always the "thing" I was drawn to. I'm told I created family newspapers in crayon as a kid and distributed them at dinner.
Writing was always synonymous with storytelling to me; it still is. It wasn't until Princeton, though, that I thought of it as a profession. Specifically, I became a writer — or, at least, the nucleus of one — in [Ferris Professor of Journalism] John McPhee's "Literature of Fact" course. The pipsqueak I was back then thought that writing wasn't something that could actually be taught, it was innate. Then John deconstructed my writing and put me back together again, a simultaneously humbling and exhilarating experience. He not only sharpened my skills, he also transformed my sense of self, helping me understand that my view of the world, seeing stories where others might not, was what writing is. I left that class seeing myself as a writer. Without John, I'd probably be an unhappy lawyer.
DP: What, according to you, is the most interesting piece you've ever written? Why?
LB: I'm not just saying this because it's a Princeton audience, but my all-time favorite piece is still the one I wrote for the very first issue of the Nassau Weekly, about the long-time conductor on the Dinky, who was about to retire. He'd spent his working lifetime (I forget how many decades, and I can't for the life of me find the original piece) riding back and forth on one short spur of track, from Princeton to Princeton Junction and back.
For my first hour with him, it was a predictable, though charming, interview. He told delightful stories of rowdy Tiger Inn men climbing on top of the train cars, and of watching Albert Einstein help a child with some math homework. And then, as I was ready to get going, he taught me the golden lesson that the best stuff comes when you've stopped asking questions and just let someone talk. He started to tell me about WHY he'd spent all his life riding literally on the outskirts of the University. It was because he wanted to be near to this: something that he couldn't otherwise have done. "Academically, maybe," he said — or something close to this — "Financially, impossible." So he rode back and forth and back and forth, looking in on Princeton from the outside.
DP: You returned to the University as a professor in the Humanities Council. What is the biggest difference between being a professor and a student at the University?
LB: It wasn't the difference between the roles that struck me so much as the difference in the decades. The Princeton at which I taught in 2010 was so different from the one I attended in 1982. For starters, I wouldn't get in now. Yes, I know, we all say that, but the fact that it's a clichéd quip doesn't mean it isn't also true. I was a reasonably smart, very well-rounded student who would get lost in today's crop of laser polished specimens: it saddens me a bit. I found myself at Princeton. Today's students are expected to have found themselves before they get here.
Now that I am sounding like a crotchety old alum, here's what I think is better. The diversity: the presence of women, which I didn't realize was lacking back in my day until I saw how different things feel, how different they ARE, when the ratio is no longer 2:1. The residential college system: so much better for community and belonging. The physical campus: I mean, I no longer know how to find anything, what with all these brand new buildings, but heck, you have AC in the dorms, and WiFi everywhere. Speaking of WiFi, stop with the social media surfing while your professors are talking ... Okay, now I'm sounding like a crotchety old alum again.
DP: What were some things you saw change during your multi-decade stint at the Times?
LB: Everything. Well, everything about the business model and delivery system. I began at the Times a few weeks after graduation. I started out answering the phones and eventually worked my way up to reporter. My first day at work in the Washington bureau was the day they installed the computers. Since then, we have had to rethink everything about the mechanics and economics of the industry. News is now something shared almost as soon as it is known, rather than as deadlines arise. The Times, like every other newspaper in the country, is a website that also publishes a print edition, not the other way around. And then, of course, there is the most recent cataclysm – the role as "the opposition" in the era of "fake news."
What hasn't changed? The basic tenets of journalism: get it fast, get it first, but get it right. Sunlight is better than darkness. Truth will out. New graduates ask me for advice on how or whether they should even try to enter this profession, which is in such a state of flux right now. My answer is that there will always — ALWAYS — be journalism, because democracy will not survive without it, and I absolutely believe democracy will survive. But what that model will look like — the specifics of the delivery system — that's for this next generation to decide.
DP: How do you find things to write about? Where do you draw inspiration from?
LB: In 35 years, I have not been able to find an real answer to that question. The closest I've come, sappy as it sounds, is that the stories find me, not the other way around.
DP: Do you have any writing rituals? How do you get over writer's block, if you have it?
LB: A writer friend once told me "in non-fiction writing, writer's block means it isn't in the notebook." If you have the "stuff" — the facts, the narrative, the point — then you don't have writer's block. So the cure when you can't write is more reporting. That said, when I feel stuck in a more specific way — on a sentence, on some structure — I either take a walk or take a shower. Something about the physical change of location usually makes me see my way through. (The shower thing is one of the reasons why I don't get my best writing done in an office...)
DP: What are some key things any aspiring journalist or author should keep in mind?
LB: Just write. The incredible thing about being a writer is that you don't need permission. You don't need certification or authorization or credentials. To be a writer, you write.
DP: Finally, what is your favorite memory from your time as a student and professor at Princeton?
LB: My favorite memories are ones I am not inclined to share.
DP: And your least favorite?
LB: Econ 101. Let's just say it didn't go well.