Meeting Mac

Posted on June 30, 2011

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I’m not sure what I love more today, Google Alerts or Twitter, for both brought an exceptional experience–and person–to my magazine writing class.

Mac McClelland

Mac McClelland

I have a Google Alert set up for “Columbus, Ohio,” because I’m always looking for story ideas that pertain to, well, Columbus, Ohio. And last week when I returned to home after two weeks in Croatia, I noticed a reference to a blog called “The Rights Stuff,” by Mac McClelland of Mother Jones. Very curious to know what such a politically progressive magazine had to say about Columbus, I clicked, and found myself at McClelland’s month-long blog about returning to her hometown of Columbus to write on the John Kasich vs. the unions agenda, and its impact on the middle class.

Further investigation revealed that Mac, author of the book “For Us Surrender Is Out of the Question,” and Mother Jones’ human rights reporter (a job created just for her) is a Buckeye, having graduated in 2002 with a degree in English and psychology.

That’s when I turned to Twitter.

In an @ message to @MacMcClelland, I introduced myself and our class, and mentioned that it would be an honor to host her in a class during her time in the Buckeye State, might she have the time (amazing how much you can do in 140 characters). Within hours came the response: “Hey Nicole. Wanna email me? This Weds is a possibility, depending on what you’re thinking exactly…”

And that how my students came to meet a world-class magazine writer who shared her insights into high-stakes, high-profile, high-intensity social reporting.

Mac told us how she had gone to graduate school at the University of New Orleans after leaving Ohio State, which led her to work with refugees in Burma, an experience that prompted her to want to write a book. She thought a magazine job could help her with book contacts, so she applied for a Mother Jones’ internship with no real journalism experience. She  was initially rejected until someone dropped out at the last minute.

“I then had like 20 hours to get to San Francisco–and I was living in Columbus,” she said, wryly.

She started as a fact checker and then a copy editor before she embarked on writing. And after reporting on “women who have sex with old guys,” she found her book deal.

Because she has a “thing for genocide,” Mother Jones soon created for her the job of human rights reporter, covering social injustice around the world. Whether she is in New Orleans writing on federal takeover of the reportedly corrupt public defenders office, or in Haiti for the earthquake, or in Oklahoma talking to guys on Indian reservations who “beat people up for money,” or at a lesbian karaoke bar in Uganda on a warlord assignment, she uses gets people to tell her things they might share with few–or no others–using a unique conversational style.

“I curse a lot and I look like a 20-year-old girl,” she said. “I don’t think people take me seriously.”

My students sure did, especially after she shared that she is undergoing treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder after an attack in Haiti, and that there are days she wakes up after her months on the road and truly has no idea where she is. She told us that on assignment she drinks, a lot, for it brings some comfort of home. And while she has what many would consider a dream journalistic job, she is, at 31, truly tired.

But then she thinks about the stories she crafts that truly mean something, that could truly help people in parts of the world we could not find on a map. Her upcoming story on the Congo is, she said, “really f*****g important,” and some who shared their stories with her may not live to read them in print. That, she said, is the power of journalism.

“There is justice in writing about what people are going though,” she said. “I can’t stop wars, but giving a voice to people is very rewarding.”

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Posted in: Journalism