By Laurie Hertzel
Special to Poynter Online

The hotel I'm staying at is about eight blocks from the Hyatt where the Nieman conference is being held. My route back and forth is along bumpy bricked sidewalks that run right past the Necco Wafer factory. The water tower on top of the building is painted to look like a stack of those dusty pastel wafers and every time I walk past the place I smile because the air all around it smells like candy.

People tend to disappear after dinner -- off to Harvard Square, no doubt, for drinks and seafood, or collapsing in their hotel rooms trying to absorb everything they heard during the day.

But there are a few smallish evening sessions, and I went to one led by Bob Batz Jr. For one thing, I think he has a great name. The "Junior'' just sings. But for another thing, he and I have been e-mailing for the past two years and I wanted to meet him in person and hear what he had to say.

He turned out to be a very nice guy, soft-spoken, articulate, with a long blond ponytail, glasses, and a rather wild orange striped shirt. Bob is a writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the founder of their "storytellers'' group, which meets twice a month to discuss opportunities to use narrative writing in the paper.

The group has been bumping along for about two years now, and they've done a lot of good things -- sometimes, he implied, in a mild state of panic. The first piece they did as a group was a deadline narrative about the new baseball park in Pittsburgh; the group was challenged to come up with a fresh way of covering opening day. They hastily convened an emergency meeting of the group and came up with the smart plan of covering it as a nine-section narrative, divided by innings, starting with the opening pitch and ending with the last out.

After 9/11, the Storytellers were given the challenge (on a Thursday) of coming up with a Sunday narrative on how ordinary people's lives had changed. Another emergency meeting was called. This time the Storytellers came up with an alternative plan: They'd turn something for Sunday (heck, they had all of Friday to report and write!) but just on one person. They'd follow that with a regular series of stories on the changed lives of ordinary folks.

Bob's session was a reminder of the power of brainstorming, and of like minds kicking around ideas and trying to find an unusual approach.

We tried that at the Star Tribune (inspired by my e-mail acquaintance with Bob) to some success, but after 9/11 we sort of ran out of time and enthusiasm. I'd like now to start up a group again, perhaps more focused than before. We'll get together. We'll talk. We'll put good stuff in the paper.

That's one of the beautiful aspects of this conference -- it makes us think that all kinds of great things are possible.

Another full day tomorrow, and then I will be home. My Harvard education will be over.

Handout From Bob Batz's WorkshopHandout From Bob Batz's Workshop

Laurie Hertzel is a Writing Coach/Team Leader at the Minneapolis Star Tribune.