Sometimes the most memorable stories you write are the ones that you, not an editor, assign
Before turning to teaching, I made my living as a journalist for 22 years, while freelancing for magazines on the side. As a professional writer, most of my stories were pieces that an editor wanted.
But there have been other stories, a precious few, that taught me more than any others about writing and myself. They too, were assigned by me. They were written on “spec,” launched hoping for success but without any specific commission.
In the days before electronic submissions when manuscripts were printed and submitted in manila envelopes, this was also known as “over the transom.”
Writers with more pluck than luck were known to toss their unsolicited manuscripts after office hours through a hinged window on the top of an editor or publisher’s door, left open to let hot air out before air-conditioning, hoping their story might make its way to the top of the slush pile that greeted the officeholder in the morning.
These are the kinds of stories I’m talking about, stories no one asked for, but which you have to write anyway and hope someone may find them of value.
Many people say they want to write, but they don’t know what to write about. Looking back at the stories that I am proudest of, I can detect a central fact about each of them. They are pieces that only I could have written. That realization led me to a rule I try to live by: Do the writing only you can do.
What follows is a description of those experiences, adapted from an essay first published in “The Writers Handbook 1997.” As I revised it this week, I realized that its lessons hold true some two decades later. I put them to work recently when I stumbled upon a story that I thought was interesting. I reported and wrote it on spec and then had the good fortune to sell it to Columbia Journalism Review. Over the Gmail transom.
Keeping the faith
When one of my relatives was in the midst of a painful divorce, I found myself wondering how children react to their parents’ separation. What came to mind was one of those “What if” questions that drive many writers, in this case, “What if a little girl made an inventory of every item in her father’s study the day before he moved out of the house?”
I made some notes, wrote drafts, discarded them, and tried again. I was working full-time as a newspaper reporter and the piece sat in my desk drawer, sometimes for years. I wrote other short stories, but always found myself returning to that one.
Many, many drafts later, I finally reached a point where I was willing to send it out. A long list of publications rejected the story, including Redbook, and I can’t say I blame them. I knew that it still wasn’t good enough. But in my heart, the story never died.
I kept at it: reading books about children and divorce, rewriting draft after draft, even asking my brother-in-law to drag a box of his business school textbooks out of the attic so I could copy down the titles.
And then the fates intervened: A newsroom colleague who had written award-winning fiction suggested that the story ended on page 10 of my 12-page manuscript. I made the cut and then another friend persuaded his agent, for whom short fiction normally wasn’t worth peddling, to send it around again. This time, the editors at Redbook liked the story. “Safekeeping” became my first national fiction publication.
The story ends after Emily, a precocious 12-year-old who became the main character of my story, has faked an upset stomach to stay home and record every item in the den occupied by her departing father, just as I had envisioned it all those years ago.
She imagined making a scrapbook, like the one Mrs. Markham had everyone make of their class trip. She would paste in the list of everything in his den, all the books, the pictures, the furniture. Paste in the pictures she’d taken. Write captions underneath. That way, even if her father took everything away, she would always remember what it looked like. And when he finally came home, she would surprise him. He would return, carrying all his boxes back into the den, and he would try to remember where everything went. He’d be standing there, rubbing his chin, when she walked in with the scrapbook. “Daddy, your books go here. Schoolbooks on the top shelf, paperbacks on the next one. That chair? Put that right over there. No, no, your diploma goes on that wall. Here let me show you,” Emily would say, taking charge.
How many times have you said to yourself, “That would make a great story,” but then let the idea succumb to the doubts that plague most writers? Anyone who wants to be a writer must learn to ignore the carping and criticism of the inner voice that tells us we have no talent and that our ideas are insipid, worthless. I’m proud of my Redbook story for a variety of reasons, but what makes me feel best is that I never gave up on my idea.
A friend describes me as “sports-challenged” because I have so little interest in sports. I like to point out that I might care about the World Series or the Super Bowl if my coach had given me a full uniform when I played Little League.”
For years, hearing people laugh when I recounted my comic adventures as an uncoordinated, pint-sized athlete, I used to wonder if it might make a good story, but then the voice in my head would whisper, “no one cares” about my life on the bench. That was before I resolved to do the writing only I can do.
This time I sat down and put the anecdotes on paper. On the day Super Bowl XXIX was played, my essay, “Stupor Bowl,” appeared in The Boston Globe Magazine. It recalled the days three decades before when “I was small and scrawny, a clumsy flop at tennis, golf, back-yard football, you name it. I lagged behind the pubescent progress of my friends, whose voices were deepening, whose chins were sprouting hairs, who really needed to wear jockstraps.”
Silence the inner critic. Keep faith in your ideas because they are the ones that will set you — and your stories — apart.
“We’ve got the O.J. 911 tapes,” the disc jockey promised. “Coming up after these messages.”
Like other commuters on this July morning in 1994, I was hooked. When the playback finally came over my car radio, I heard Nicole Brown Simpson’s voice —fed-up, frightened, resigned; but that wasn’t what brought tears to my eyes. It was the voice in the background — the shouts of her husband, O.J. Simpson, the former football great and pitchmen accused of murdering her — out of control, choking on contempt and rage.
I knew that sound. I had heard it echoing off the walls in our house. I’ve felt the lump of remorse that screaming at the top of my lungs leaves in the back of my throat and the pit of my stomach. “I have to write about this,” I thought. “But I don’t want to.”
Like most journalists, I feared the word “I.”
I was warned off the first person at the start of my career by a chorus of voices — a jaded competitor at my first paper, a fearsome city editor, skeptical colleagues. “Reporters don’t belong in their stories. That’s what bylines are for.” They added, “Besides, nobody cares about your personal life. If it was really interesting, some reporter would be writing about you.”
I didn’t need both hands to count the times I used the first person in twenty years of reporting: a deadline account about a stint volunteering at a mental hospital during a state workers’ strike; a recollection of a year in the Peace Corps; a Father’s Day message to my unborn daughter; a travel piece about the search for a soldier’s grave in Europe; a brief stint as a fill-in columnist. But in all of these I stayed back, my presence little more than a personal pronoun.
Writing about yourself is often difficult for reporters and editors whose work focuses on others. But writing about yourself, honestly, even painfully, can make you a better reporter and editor: more empathetic, more skilled, better able to spot the universal truth in the individual story.
Unlike the column, which usually delivers judgment on others, or the feature which focuses on someone other than the writer, or the op-ed essay which explores an issue or situation, the personal essay is not detached. It trains its sights on the writer’s own life and the writer’s emotional, psychological and intellectual reactions to the most intimate experiences.
“The personal essayist,” Phillip Lopate says in “The Art of the Personal Essay, “looks back at the choices that were made, the roads not taken, the limiting familial and historic circumstances, and what might be called the catastrophe of personality.”
In essays and books, my mentor, the late Donald M. Murray, plumbed the painful parts of his life, including a dark childhood and the death of a child. “What makes you mad,” he advised writers searching for what to write about. “What makes you happy? What past events were turning points in your life that you’d like to understand?”
Every writer has a territory, a landscape of experience and emotional history unique to them. Like any landscape, there are safe havens and dangerous places. I could easily have written a light-hearted piece about being the father of three girls, one that made me look good. But the topic that needed exploring, I knew, was my darker side: my temper with my kids. The essay I wrote begins with this painful scene:
It’s late at night, and I’m screaming at my kids again. Yelling at the top of my lungs at three little girls, lying still and terrified in their beds. Like a referee in a lopsided boxing match, my wife is trying to pull me away, but I am in the grip of a fury I am unwilling to relinquish. “And if you don’t get to sleep right now,” I shout, “there are going to be consequences you’re not going to like.”
Lary Bloom, editor of Northeast, the Sunday magazine of The Hartford Courant and author of “The Writer Within: A Guide to Creative Nonfiction,” puts the form to a rigorous test. “You don’t have a personal essay unless you have a religious experience,” he says. “Then it’s the task of the writer to recreate that moment.”
For me, that meant trying to recreate an unforgettable moment that occurred when I was a boy. I became convinced it held answers to my own battles with anger. It wasn’t an excuse; my behavior was inexcusable.
I am no more than 9, and I am standing just outside our family kitchen. My father has come home drunk again. He is in his mid-40s, (about the age I am today). By now, he has had three strokes, landmines in his brain that he seems to shrug off, like his hangovers, but which in a year will kill him. He has lost his job selling paper products, which he detested, and has had no luck finding another. He and my mother begin arguing in the kitchen. Somehow he has gotten hold of her rosary beads. I hear his anger, her protests, and then, suddenly, they are struggling over the black necklace. (Has he found her at the kitchen table, praying for him? I can imagine his rage. “If your God is so good, why are the sheriffs coming to the door about the bills I can’t pay? Why am I broke? Why can’t I find a job? Why am I so sick? Why, dammit? Why?”) Out of control now, he tears the rosary apart. I can still hear the beads dancing like marbles on the linoleum.
First published in The Boston Globe Magazine, the essay was reprinted in the Sunday magazines of the Detroit Free Press and The Hartford Courant. One reader attacked a magazine for publishing a “self-described child abuser.” Former co-workers were horrified. But for every negative reaction came letters or phone calls: “I wish my father was still alive so I could show it to him,” or “I’m going to share this with my siblings,” and “I saw myself in your story.” Eventually, it was published in two anthologies, including “Telling Stories, Taking Risks: Journalism Writing at the Century’s Edge.” And, eventually, I got therapy.
Years later I wrote an essay about another secret I had to write about, kicking a 25-year addiction to marijuana. It opened this way:
On New Year’s Eve 22 years ago, I smoked my last joint. I smoked my first in ’68, blissfully inhaling the Woodstock generation party line: `Pot’s not addictive and harmless compared to booze.’ But alcohol killed my father when he was 46, so I turned my back on his drug of choice; smoking grass when I could get it. And I started getting it a lot during a lonely stint in the Peace Corps. A bowlful banished homesickness and transformed yam paste into gourmet fare. I liked everything about pot—my purple bong, my rolling papers—especially how it made me feel; witty, wise, with it. But I also used dope as a shield, girding myself for parties with a smoke-induced cocoon.
As time passed I was crashing more than flying. Pot short-circuited my motor control. It sabotaged short-term memory. It inspired creative brainstorms that never went past the idea stage. Along with the munchies, I got paranoia, irritability and an ominous clanging in my chest. The happy circles passing around joints thinned as the ’70s became the ’80s. I knew I should quit but was afraid. Pot was never a gateway to harder drugs; just a crutch I convinced myself I couldn’t do without. My wife provided the moment of truth: `I’m not having kids with a pothead.’
I tried going cold turkey before, but the monkey always climbed back on. This time I got help. A psychologist showed me how hypnosis curbed cravings for marijuana’s dubious pleasures. I rechanneled my energies into rehabbing our old house and writing fiction. I discovered that parties without paranoia were actually fun. I won’t say I was never tempted, but at 35, I wanted to be a father more.
At the beach two summers ago I spied a baggy with distinctive green contents. I opened it. Like a whiff of patchouli, the scent carried me back. Briefly, the urge to roll a doobie swept over me. Then, like a wave, it receded. I emptied the bag, and the wind scattered the stems and dried leaves.
Smoke-free for two decades, I still worry the monkey will show up again, not for me, but for my three teen-age daughters. I always kept this part of my past a secret from them. Not anymore.
I recorded “The Hardest Habit to Kick: A Confession” for National Public Radio.
Explore a dangerous region of your writer’s territory by writing a piece nobody can write but you.
Letting The Story Speak
It was a dream assignment. The Washington Post Magazine assigned me to write a profile of the first Vietnamese graduate of West Point. Tam Minh Pham was a young man who marched with the long gray line of cadets in 1974, returning home just in time for the fall of his country and six years imprisonment. But his American roommate never forgot him and, 20 years later, marshaled his classmates to cut through bureaucratic red tape and bring their buddy to America for a new life.
It didn’t take much reporting for me to decide that this was a powerful story, worthy of the length of a cover piece. The only problem: the top editor didn’t agree and I was advised to keep it short. But when it came time to write, I had trouble holding back. I decided to write the first draft for myself and worry about length later. I began this way:
As usual, bribes loosened the guards’ tongues. Another transfer was coming. But this time, after four years in jungle camps guarded by the North Vietnamese army, the inmates were going to a prison run by the Cong An, the security police. When he heard the rumor, Tam Minh Pham knew what to do. For years, he’d heard the stories about the cruel men in yellow uniforms who took people away in the dead of night, about the torture, the killings. He waited for the camp to quiet down and the night air to fill with the scent of cooking fires, and then he crept out of his bamboo hut to the garden.
There, buried under the tiny plot where he was allowed to plant vegetables, was an American ammunition box filled with journals he’d kept about his experiences at West Point, writings, if discovered, would probably cost him life.
That opening scene went on for another 500 words, much too long for the kind of story I knew the editor was expecting. Fortunately, he was willing to take a look. A few days later, word came back that some changes were needed; “The Liberation of Tam Minh Pham,” now scheduled for the cover, needed to be longer.
The quickest way to lose an editor’s interest is to give them something different than expected. At the same time, writers need to let the story speak if they are going to produce stories that break barriers for themselves and their readers.
Tapping Your Private Stock
We were on our honeymoon in Europe, a month-long trip that had already taken us to Germany, Holland and Paris. Now with a week left before we headed home, we were making good on a promise to a friend: to visit the grave of a man we had never met, who had died in a war fought before my wife and I were born.
Pfc. John Juba, the half-brother of our friend back home, had died in the 1944 Normandy invasion, but no one in his family had ever seen his grave. Finding it took two train trips, four cab rides, and visits to three cemeteries before we finally stood in front of the marble tombstone in the Brittany countryside where the soldier was buried.
In my hand was a bouquet of white roses that an elderly farmer had let us cut from his garden. Beside us stood a man named Donald Davis, the cemetery’s superintendent. In “The Young Who Died Delivered Us,” the account of our search, I described the moment this way:
The graves at Brittany lie beyond the Wall of the Missing __ 4,313 white crosses and Stars of David lined up on a manicured field like a marching band at halftime. Five varieties of grass keep it green all year round. The cemetery was empty and so quiet we could hear the rain falling on the flower beds bordering the graves…I laid the flowers in front of the cross and knelt to take a picture for his mother.
Wait. Davis bent down and turned the bouquet around so the flowers faced the camera. Otherwise, all you’ll get is a picture of the stems. Every trade had its secrets.
Rest in peace, John, I said under my breath.
We are deluged today by what novelist and short story writer A. Manette Ansay (“Read This and Tell Me What It Says”) refers to as “public domain” images and language; clichés, commonplace descriptions and derivative plots that blur any attempts at originality. Draw instead on your individual experiences by tapping the “private stock” of experience, memory, and feeling that is inside you.
We all have stories that only we can tell. Search for the particulars, the telling details, and observations that give resonance and meaning to your story, that set it apart, and your chances of producing a piece with universal appeal are strong.
In my case, the story of that pilgrimage to a soldier’s grave has paid off with the publication of “The Young Who Died Delivered Us” in six different Sunday newspaper magazines as well as a reprinting in a popular textbook. But most rewarding were the letters from readers who saw themselves in our search. Wrote one man who helped lay out the cemetery where John Juba is buried: “You seem to have caught the feelings experienced by us who were there.”
Spreading the Word
It was an offhand comment from an interview subject. I was reporting a story for Knight-Ridder Newspapers about guns and children when Mary Steber of Liverpool, N.Y., told me that she and her suburban family had never worried about guns until their 14-year-old son, Michael, was shot to death while watching a football game at a classmate’s house. The friend’s father, a retired policeman, kept a collection of firearms in an unlocked closet.
“You warn your kids about sex and drugs and alcohol and getting in a car with a stranger,” Mrs. Steber said. “Yet guns were never mentioned in our house. We never thought of it as a problem.”
Now whenever Michael’s siblings visit a new friend, they make a point of reassuring their parents, “Don’t worry, they don’t have guns.”
When I heard that, I thought, “What a great message for parents.” Our own daughters had just reached the age of sleep-overs and visits to their friends’ homes. Before we let them pay a visit, we started asking parents of our kids’ friends, “Do you have guns in your house?”
Almost every day, it seemed, the news reports yet another shooting of a child with a gun left unattended. Perhaps the Steber family’s common-sense approach, if heeded by enough parents and gun-owners, might save a life.
To spread the word, I wrote an essay I called “It’s 10 p.m.; Do You Know Where Your Guns Are?” and began sending it around to newspaper op-ed pages. So far, its child-protecting message reached readers of The Christian Science Monitor, St. Petersburg Times, and the Orlando Sentinel.
Is there a message you think needs to be heard? A story in your “private stock” that needs tapping? A tale that’s telling you how it must be written? A dangerous territory worth exploring? An idea you’ve never lost faith in? Ask yourself, “What’s the writing only I can do?” And then do it.
May the writing go well.