Adam Reger | Freelance Writer

Pittsburgh-based fiction writer

Category: Pittsburgh Copywriter

Starved for weirdness

Today was the first day since the beginning of the pandemic that I went to a coffee shop and sat and wrote. It was an outside courtyard and I was seated at a metal table beside a little garden, but still.

While I was sitting there, something skittered across my vision. I tuned it out but a moment later this guy who was at the far end of the courtyard got up and approached the garden. When I looked up he said, “I think that was a spotted lanternfly.”

If you’re unfamiliar, spotted lanternflies are these invasive insects that destroy plants. I’m not super familiar with them myself because they have not previously made it to Pittsburgh, at least not that I have seen. Most of what I know I’ve heard from family in Philadelphia, where they are a much bigger nuisance. There and now here, if you see one of these bugs you are encouraged to kill them. (Seems kind of rough to me but that’s apparently the way it is.)

Anyway this stranger and I stomped around the garden for a minute or two, trying to flush this thing out so we could stomp it to death. It was a little funny and made me feel like a little boy, charging into the undergrowth, eager to wreak havoc. After the lanternfly disappeared, we each returned to our tables and I took the opportunity to ask the guy if he happened to know the wi-fi password.

Throughout the day today I had this sense of re-entering the world somehow. That doesn’t quite add up because nothing has changed, really, in terms of the pandemic. I’ve been fully vaccinated since early May, and everywhere that I had to go indoors I wore a mask.

But it’s true. Or rather maybe it’s that I felt a curious sense of aliveness, of weirdness, that I had been missing without ever realizing it was gone. Later I took my daughter for a walk and I saw a woman physically lifting her older daughter, who likely had cerebral palsy, into the backseat of her car.

I test drove a minivan in the afternoon and as I waited at a stoplight at the edge of Pittsburgh’s Polish Hill neighborhood, a man selling roses to the idling cars walked past all the other cars at the light and looked in the van (a Honda Odyssey that seems pretty cool) and asked the time. I didn’t know where to look on the van’s console to tell him and the salesman barked, “4:30.” I’d just been thinking that the salesman and the rose peddler seemed like two sides of the same coin: weathered, hardened men working long hours. The rose peddler said, “Is that all?” and walked back to his table on the sidewalk. A few blocks from the dealership I saw a man loading a cage full of tiny puppies into the back of his car. Later, driving to pick my daughters up from daycare, there was a soaking rain and I saw a woman with one leg, her loose pant leg hanging down beside her, struggle to get from the pavement around to the driver’s side door.

My first infatuation with Pittsburgh came via my sense of its deep strangeness. I’d moved from Philadelphia and it struck me that here was a place where the weirdness had a chance to spread out, where there was room for it. I was living in a tiny apartment in Greenfield, at the bottom of a long winding road and across the street from a cemetery. Even before I moved to Pittsburgh, just visiting, I had a sense that this was a place I could get writing done. Maybe that’s just a feature of going somewhere on your own as an adult, someplace that isn’t the town where you live in a dorm and isn’t the place you grew up, but is in some way all your own. Pittsburgh always felt like my own, and that perceived strangeness was at the heart of that feeling. So many of the city’s great amenities feel random, for lack of a better word: why is the National Aviary in Pittsburgh? Why is the library system so great? Why do they hold the furry convention here? Why is there a museum for Andy Warhol, who lived here but left as soon as he could, and one for Roberto Clemente, who isn’t from here? There are answers to all these questions, of course, but the cumulative weight of so many questions of this nature has always felt like something important and substantial, deliciously pleasurable.

All this just to say that I missed this feeling. I don’t expect it to be sustained, and I don’t think it’s a true marker of any turning tides, any safety reached in terms of the pandemic. For one thing, I think the lack of weirdness in my life has much more to do with staying home nearly every day with anywhere from one to three little girls, of my focus being directed toward them and not at the weird world around me. But it was a wonderful reminder of what I’ve always found so charming about this place, and a lovely affirmation that that world never went anywhere.

Recent Work

Like everyone else, I had an interesting 2020. Among many other things, my wife and I welcomed our third baby to the world.

. . . And I also continued to stay busy as a freelance writer. Below are some of my favorite pieces from an eventful year.

-“What We Can Learn from Each Other,” the cover story of the Spring 2020 issue of Bridges magazine, was a delight to work on. The piece, for the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Social Work (SSW), focuses on international and internationally focused alumni of the School. Check out the whole issue here.

-And I also got to write “A Year Like No Other,” the cover story of Bridges‘ Winter 2021 issue. (Article here.) For this piece I spoke to a number of SSW alumni doing important work and doing it under unimaginably difficult circumstances.

-For the most recent issue of Pitt Nurse magazine, I was thrilled to write “Collaborating to Make Sure Nurses Look like the Community,” on the UPMC Scholars program, which seeks to provide opportunities for nursing students from underrepresented groups to attend Pitt’s School of Nursing.

-And for Pitt’s School of Computing Science, I spoke to a number of outstanding SCI students about their experiences to create a series of short profiles now up on the School’s website. As always when speaking to Pitt students, I was deeply impressed by how much they have already accomplished and by how focused and articulate they are when considering their academic interests and career ambitions. The students whose profiles appear on the SCI site are Winnie Mutunga, Van Pierce, Pat Healy, and Erin O’Rourke.

-I also had the pleasure of talking with Shan Bagby, chief dental officer of the U.S. Army (and a Pitt grad) for this story, “Oral History,” for Pitt Magazine.

-And for Pitt Med Magazine, I was honored to write this obituary of legendary radiologist Carl Fuhrman, and this “Investigations” piece on fetal immune system tissue and its possible uses.

-And last but not least, just a month or so ago I had the pleasure of interviewing Pitt alum and former NFL fullback Lousaka Polite for a profile piece in the inaugural issue of H2P, the publication of Pitt Athletics. Check out the whole issue here.

There is more that I am forgetting, and I continued to work as a ghostwriter and teacher throughout the year.

On a more administrative note, I’ve recently pared down this website to be a bit more focused. As part of that, I’m transforming this page of the site from a blog, which it once was, to a “news and updates” page. Unfortunately over the last several years it had become one of those mostly abandoned blogs, so I decided it would be better just to own up to the fact that this is a page where I’ll share recent work, rather than my sporadic responses to pop-culture detritus or oddball reactions to random events in my life.

As always, thanks for reading.

Round-up of Recent Work

I had a busy 2019, though as usual you wouldn’t know it by monitoring this blog. A quick round-up of some of my favorite pieces and projects from the year:

-I had the pleasure of working with Root + All on a series of blog posts for Remake Learning, focused on the Personalized Learning Squared project, which uses artificial intelligence to help dedicated mentors overcome entrenched inequities in working with their students. I got to visit a range of interesting school programs and to talk to Ken Koedinger and Cassandra Brentley, who are spearheading PL Squared. Here’s an overview of the project, and “field reports” from Propel Homestead, UPrep, Shaler Reserve Primary School, and Elizabeth Forward School District.

-A feature story for Pitt Nurse, the magazine of the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Nursing. The story covers some important and weighty subject matter and after realizing how amazing nurses are during the birth of my two daughters, it was great to talk to some nurses and nursing-school faculty members and have that impression confirmed.

-Three feature pieces for momacs, an incredible institute within Pitt’s School of Computing and Information. (“momacs” stands for “modeling and managing complicated systems.”) I was fortunate to speak with three scholars who were excellent at translating their work so a layman like me could understand it. I spoke to Tomek Loboda for a piece on probabilistic relational agent-based models; and to faculty members Seong Jae Hwang and Xulong Tang about their very interesting work at momacs.

-In 2019, too, I continued to really enjoy writing for Pitt Magazine, the University of Pittsburgh’s flagship alumni magazine. Of the work I did there, I’m especially proud of this piece on the artificial intelligence–driven work of Justin Kitzes, assistant professor of spatial macroecology. (The article explains more about what exactly spatial macroecology is!) It was also great fun to sit in on a student announcer calling a women’s soccer game that was streamed via the ESPN-affiliated ACC Network and write this “Commons Room” piece for the magazine.

-Last but not least, I was immensely pleased to begin writing for Pitt Med Magazine, the alumni publication of Pitt’s School of Medicine. The magazine has been a staple in my household for most of the last decade as my wife is a Pitt Med alumnus and I’ve always admired how interesting and engaging its stories are, even to a non-medical person like myself. Of a number of stories there, I’m especially proud of this one, “Nitty Gritty,” about some amazingly interesting research into life span versus “health span” carried out using  the worm Caenorhabditis elegans (so named because of its consummate elegance).

Blog Posts for Remake Learning Days

Recently I’ve had the pleasure of working with a lot of great educators and administrators, across a number of regions, on some blog posts for Remake Learning Days Across America (RLDAA), a really exciting expansion of Remake Learning Days, an annual festival of connected, hands-on learning started in Pittsburgh (by Remake Learning) in 2016.

The latest piece, on the upcoming festival in North Carolina’s Triangle region, just posted, but there are a bunch more (and more to come) here. The whole project is really inspiring, particularly comparing the varied approaches teams in each region are taking and the ways they’re utilizing their region’s strengths and assets.

If there’s an RLDAA near you this spring I definitely recommend checking it out.


New article in Bridges magazine

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This past fall, I had the pleasure of working on a lengthy piece for Bridges, the magazine of the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Social Work.

The piece covered four major examples of the School’s historic (and ongoing) connections to the community and now it is out, the cover story for the Winter 2019 issue of Bridges. 

(Here’s the story as a PDF: Bridges_Cover Story.)

I also had the pleasure of sitting down with new Dean Betsy Farmer for a Q & A feature. I hope you’ll check it out.

“Space to Learn”

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I’m very proud and excited to share links to a project I worked on over the summer, “Space to Learn,” a special publication produced by Root + All communications consulting firm for The Grable Foundation. The booklet examines innovations regional educators have been making in changing, experimenting with, and really paying close attention to the spaces in which students learn. (I learned that space is often thought of as “the third teacher.”)

You can read an overview here or download the whole thing (free) here.

This one was really rewarding and challenging to work on, weaving together academic work on the topic with the practical advice of teachers, principals, and school administrators. It contains theoretical perspectives on learning space design, other kinds of space that can serve as inspiration to teachers (e.g., artists’ studios and offices), and lots of practical hacks. (I learned that kids love whiteboards!) Also, it looks fantastic.

What creative writers can learn from professional writers

Since I embarked on a career as a freelance writer and a teacher of writing about four years ago, I’ve learned lots of things about the art, craft, and business of writing. One of the most useful and surprising has involved the breakdown of supposedly impermeable barriers between different types of writing.

I want to share how these observations have informed my writing process as both a professional writer and as a writer of fiction.

(Note: This turned into a massive (2,300+ words) post so I am charitably hiding the bulk of the post below the fold. You’re welcome!)

Read the rest of this entry »

“Getting Good” as a Writer

I recently read Richard Russo’s essay collection The Destiny Thief: Essays on Writing, Writers and Life, and really liked it. Russo had previously existed in a literary blind spot for me, where I certainly recognized the name and knew the titles of his biggest books, but had never read a word he’s written. An uncle of mine recommended the essay collection to me recently by saying that a lot of the essays, where Russo talks about being a young writer starting out as a university teacher, reminded him of me. With an introduction like that, of course I eventually checked it out.

A couple of essays in particular really spoke not just to my current career situation but to writerly concerns that I don’t see addressed very often. The title essay discusses a telephone exchange Russo has with a former writing-workshop classmate who seemed destined for literary stardom, and who, discovering that the less-talented writer he remembers from classes 40 years earlier has won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, more or less accuses Russo of having stolen his destiny. It’s a thrillingly, almost nauseatingly vivid evocation of the fear and uncertainty a lot of writers have of doing everything they can to succeed, trying hard, and just . . . never making it. “The Destiny Thief” is the first essay in the book and going through it, I was a bit wary of accepting advice or sympathy on this issue from a writer as well-published and celebrated as Russo. But he handles it with a lot of sympathy and empathy, and I found I was pretty much in for the rest of the collection.

The centerpiece essay, for me anyway, was “Getting Good,” a long, sometimes wandering meditation on failure and rejection, self-publishing versus traditional publishing, democracy versus egalitarianism, art vs. craft, and, yes, getting good as a writer. (Note: I’ve linked to the essay, over at The Sewanee Review, but only the first page or so is available there and the rest is behind a subscription paywall.)

Read the rest of this entry »

Fantastic fiction

No, not one of my stories. I wanted to point everyone to an amazing short story published in June in The New Yorker: “Fungus” by David Gilbert.

I’ve only read it through once so I have nothing very earth-shattering to say about the craft, but I found much of Gilbert has to say in this interview with fiction editor Cressida Leyshon interesting and insightful. He talks about writing versions of the story in which the key fact or incident of the story (I won’t say what it is here) was only implied, never actually mentioned, and calls it “Subarus like white elephants,” a wry reference to Ernest Hemingway’s classic story “Hills Like White Elephants,” a masterpiece of indirection and implication.

Anyway, although like many fiction writers I have numerous strong opinions about The New Yorker and its fiction selections, this is a stellar story and I highly recommend it.

New piece in Pitt Magazine

I wanted to share a piece I wrote for the most recent issue of Pitt Magazine, the University of Pittsburgh’s alumni magazine.

I’ve had the pleasure of writing for Pitt Magazine for the better part of a decade, but I can easily say this is one of the most inspiring—and, fair warning, upsetting—stories I’ve ever written for the magazine.

It’s about current graduate student Hanifa Nakiryowa, a Ugandan woman who in 2011 was the victim of an acid attack. She’s overcome incredible hardships not only to survive but to make a new life for herself and her daughters in the U.S., going through Pitt’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs with the aim of bringing that knowledge back to Uganda to help run the Center for Rehabilitation of Survivors of Acid and Burns Violence (CERESAV), the nonprofit she founded to help other acid-attack survivors.

Hanifa was a pleasure to speak with and my editor and I had an incredibly difficult time getting the piece down to the prescribed word count—there was so much more to say about her, everything she went through, and everything she has accomplished despite long odds. I really appreciate the editors of Pitt Magazine giving me a chance to talk with her and share this story, and it’s fantastic that PittWire, the university’s daily news site, is sharing the story.