Pulitzer-prize winning SOJC professor Héctor Tobar thrives on helping journalism students find their voices.
With compassion and sensitivity, he tells the stories of the oppressed and the forgotten. He has reported on the drug wars in Mexico, an epidemic of kidnappings in Sao Paulo, and the escalating chaos in Iraq. He has given voice to the plight of mentally ill prisoners, and he has interviewed immigrant day laborers, Latino fútbolers, and most recently, Chilean miners—the subjects of his New York Times best-selling book Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free. Meet Pulitzer Prize–winning associate professor of journalism Héctor Tobar.
The son of Guatemalan immigrants—his father a valet and hotel clerk, his mother a keypunch operator—Tobar says he was not exposed to writing during his childhood growing up in Little Armenia, one of many ethnic neighborhoods in greater Los Angeles. But his dad did something that would have a lasting impact on him. He asked him to read Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. “I really learned a lot from that book as a kid,” Tobar says. “It was about how you should treat people with respect in your daily encounters, and if you do that then good things will happen for you.”
Carnegie was right. Good things happened. During Tobar’s distinguished career, he has worked for the New Yorker, LA Weekly, and the Los Angeles Times, among others. He is the author of four books, and he shared the Pulitzer Prize for the LA Times’ coverage of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Currently, he is immersed in writing his fifth book—all in addition to teaching reporting and feature writing courses at UO’s School of Journalism and Communication. He is una persona ocupada—a busy person with “many responsibilities and occupations.”
Still, despite his demanding schedule, it is the SOJC students, whom he describes as incredibly “curious and intelligent,” that drive his passion for teaching. He believes students have been taught to think of writing as structured and formulaic, which results in them shaping their writing to fit what they think the professor wants. “What I do is untangle this knot of restrictions that’s kept people from being fully expressive in their work, to release their creativity and their voice,” he says.
“I tell my students, whatever you try to do, you should pursue excellence, because it’s just one of the cool things about being alive.”
One of the key ingredients to finding your voice and becoming a better writer, according to Tobar, is a willingness to accept failure. “Failure is built into the process of writing—it’s called writing a draft,” he says. In addition to going over the students’ rough drafts in class, he shares early drafts of his own work to show how they have been edited and reworked many times before reaching publication. “You can’t achieve the highest success you could achieve unless you failed first,” he says. “Writing isn’t easy. It’s not something you do to get rich, but if you want to change the world, if you want the opportunity to change the way people think, then yes, be a writer!”
He encourages his students to explore writing both as a vehicle of expression and as literary achievement. “I just think if you’re going to become a writer, why not try to be a badass, and that if you try you will fail in many ways, but you will become a stronger writer by trying—that’s basically my career in a nutshell—always trying to become stronger as a writer and making myself stronger in the process.”
Indeed, that strength, along with his respectful approach to interviewing, has served Tobar well, whether it’s talking to a foreign dignitary or a group of Chilean miners. “I think you have to be really humble when you interview people because it’s more about the people you’re interviewing than it is about you,” he says. “So when I do an interview, I want them to feel good about it. I want them to feel good that they met me.”
While students in Tobar’s classes may be exposed to some of the harsh realities of the profession—that writing isn’t easy, that failure is a given, and that they may never get rich, they will also be encouraged to enthusiastically go out and experience life and then write about it, and to aim for excellence while they’re doing it. “I tell my students, whatever you try to do, you should pursue excellence, because it’s just one of the cool things about being alive.”
Sharleen Nelson, BS ’06, is a staff writer and editor with University Communications.