19,534 Words

That’s how many words I’ve written since coming to Greece.

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Outside a bookstore I visited today. I feel like I’ve written enough words to fill all of these books, but my math tells me that’s not the case. 

Forgive me if the number’s not exact. I copied and pasted the text from every blog post, then added up the words for my two published stories and two yet-to-be-published. I’m accounting for about half of the story Paxtyn and I are writing together, the first draft of which clocks in around 3,500 words. I estimated 1,000 words for rewrites and 1,000 for emails, though both of those estimates are conservative.

Handwritten notes, of course, don’t make up part of this number, though I’ve nearly filled three reporter’s notebooks taking down observations and logging interviews. Nor do Facebook messages, though my friends and I have conferred many times about where to go to dinner. I’m not counting the words I wrote in my journal, since most of those were either posted on this blog or said aloud. And I’m obviously not counting  the words I’m typing now.

We’ve been in Greece for approximately 30 days now, so my estimate suggests about 650 words per day. Honestly, that number seems low. I feel like aside from eating and reporting, all I do is write here. Fortunately, I usually enjoy all three of those activities, so it’s not a bad lifestyle.

I’m the kind of person who goes over the word count. It’s not hard for me to come up with a lot of words to tell a story or describe a situation. Of course, using more words doesn’t always mean I’m using the right words. Nor are words necessarily the most effective tool for telling a story, as many of our resident videographers will attest to.

I think that for me, words will always be the medium in which I feel most comfortable expressing myself. However, I’m getting better at shooting video every time I pick up a camera, and my photography skills are also improving. These tools are essential in an era where our collective attention span is becoming increasingly shorter, and I am glad that I have had the opportunity to continue to develop them over the past few weeks.

Still, there’s something to be said for having words to document this experience. In a way, it’s like an uber-overachieving version of writing “Gwen was here” on a random street corner.

Hopefully, though, it’s also something bigger. I know the words I have written on this trip will be valuable to me. But I also hope they will provide value to others who read them. The ongoing ethical question we have dealt with on this trip is whether it is worth it to write about something, and especially to force people to relive difficult experiences, if the result may not reach a large audience or have a long-term impact.

As journalists, it is necessary to believe that what we are doing is inherently worthwhile. I think that I have managed to keep up that belief throughout the trip, but I am not entirely certain that it is valid. I really hope the words I have written will mean something to someone other than myself, whether that’s my family, one of the many volunteers at the ARCHELON Sea Turtle Rescue Centre, a bookseller in Thessaloniki, or a refugee family whose story has not yet been fully told.

I have no way of knowing the impact my work will have. But I hope that these 19,534 words create something beyond personal documentation. I hope that they create dialogue, or news, or evoke emotion. I hope that they have been worthwhile.

My First Story is Up!

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Evangelia Avloniti and Socrates Kabouropoulos, photographed at Thessaloniki’s Book Fair in May. Photo by Suma Hussien

My first story was published today on our team site! It took three days of interviews, a couple of late nights writing, some all-caps edits from Carlene, and a little help from Suma with last-minute visuals, but I’ve ultimately put together an article on how Greece’s publishing industry has been and will continue to be affected by the economic crisis.

Over the course of my reporting, I was continually struck by the dedication and resilience of those who work in the literary industry in Greece. These people truly love books, and no language barrier could prevent their passion from shining through in our conversations.

As Socrates Kabouropoulos said when I interviewed him on Friday, “It can have such value to read a book. If you go to a film, you enjoy it for two hours and that’s it….When you read a book, it can change your life, it can change your mentality, your relationships. It can have such an impact.”

When it comes to the future of the literary industry in Greece, literary agent Evangelia Avloniti is “cautiously optimistic.”

“I am completely in love with this job and that keeps me going,” she said.

Intrigued? Read more here.

Reading Books, Taking Names

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In the past three days, I’ve traveled back and forth from Thessaloniki’s International Book Fair three times (and to my own embarrassment, taken five cabs – next week I’ll conquer the bus) in order to cover how the literary culture and publishing industry are being affected by Greece’s economic crisis. [Which everyone just refers to as “the crisis.”]

I was hard pressed to convince my editor, the ever-headstrong Carlene Hempel, that this story was worth covering. I originally pitched the book fair as a fun event to attend and maybe take notes on, which wouldn’t have met the global relevance standards of our publication. Fortunately, I’m not the only journalism student in our group who loves books. Shocker. Olivia Arnold was the first to suggest that there was an economic angle to this story, since several of Greece’s larger bookstores have shut down in the past couple of years.

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Aerial view of the book fair, which is being held all weekend at HELEXPO, a local exhibition locale.

Our first trip to the fair on Thursday confirmed a couple of things: a) publishers are struggling in a troubled industry, and b) despite that, they are so passionate about what they do that they couldn’t imagine ever leaving the literary field. With a few statistics and an interview with a literary expert or two, we figured we were in business. Carlene still wasn’t convinced.

Olivia went to work on another story, but not before publishing a great blog post that describes some of the problems we encountered. When I pitched the story again the next day, it was again rejected. Bolstered by the email response I’d received from the book fair’s press agent, I decided to take yet another cab back to the fair on Friday to see if I could learn more.

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Display at the booth of Petros Bostis Publications, one of hundreds of exhibitioners who attended the fair.

One of the coolest things about being a reporter is that sometimes you come upon a person who makes your job way easier. In this case, that person was Socrates Kabouropoulos, who is a book policy consultant at the Greek Ministry for Culture and one of the founders of Greece’s National Book Centre, which was shut down several years ago due to government budget cuts.

After catching the end of a panel about books and the economic crisis – but not understanding a word they were saying, since it was in Greek; surprisingly, my two hours of Greek language lessons and weeklong Duolingo binge haven’t taken me far enough to understand local intellectuals – I went up to Kabouropoulos and asked if he had a minute to talk about my story.

Kabouropoulos not only spent an hour answering my questions and providing some important statistics, he also introduced me to several of his colleagues who I interviewed as well. I don’t want to give too much of the story away, but by the time I got back, I was exhausted, excited and ready to prove Carlene wrong.

The breathless and harried re-pitch I made to Carlene immediately upon my return from the fair did the trick. The only problem was that I had forgotten to take photos. Fortunately, Suma Hussien came to my rescue, and we spent most of this morning conducting more interviews and chasing down past interviewees to take portraits.

Now comes the laborious, frustrating, and arguably most exciting part: typing up all of my notes and piecing the article together by tomorrow night. Here we go!