A native of Florida’s panhandle, Rosalind Bentley is a Features/Enterprise writer at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution focusing on culture, arts and sometimes food. A graduate of Florida A&M University, she received her MFA in narrative non-fiction from the University of Georgia. She has covered a variety of stories over the years from the election of Nelson Mandela as South Africa’s first Black president, for which she won first place in editorial writing from the National Women’s Political Caucus, to the important role of Black women who fed the civil rights movement. A two-time James Beard Award finalist, her AJC profile of U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey was anthologized in Best American Newspaper Narratives 2012. While in Minnesota, she was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for a special project on race relations. Also, during her time on the tundra, she learned what’s called hot-dish in the upper Midwest is actually a version of a proper Southern casserole.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?
It’s a tie between “Read, read, read,” and revision is your friend. You have to read the great writers and you have to read the not-so-great ones to learn what’s good and what’s not. This can be tricky because a well-turned phrase can seduce you into believing a piece is better than it is. But over time, you’ll develop a more discerning palate. The lessons from the great writers will find their way into your work: short declarative sentences; end a sentence on a strong word; avoid adverbs.
Revision helps you get there, as does reading your work aloud, but you have to know when to stop. At some point you’ve got to turn the story in.
What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?
It doesn’t get easier. You stare at the screen. You decide you are, in fact, an imposter. You panic. And then you get on with it.
That said, if I’m really struggling with a piece, in all likelihood I haven’t done enough reporting. Solid reporting is necessary to write with confidence. So, I go back and ask more questions, or I do more research. The stage fright comes when I put too much pressure on myself to make a story “special.” (Imposter alert!) It’s at that point that I pace around the kitchen, make a cup of tea, then go back to the keyboard and write the piece as though I’m telling the story to a friend.
If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be and why?
Oooowee. Let’s see. I’m a kid about to jump into a round of double-dutch. I watch the rhythm of the turning ropes, probably too long, then in I jump. My feet pump and pump and pump, until I stumble. I step to the side, watch the ropes turn again, pick up the rhythm, then leap. I do this over and over until I feel I can leave the game not with a stumble, but with a backflip where I clear the ropes and land on my feet.
What’s the single best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?
Boil your story down to a sentence. If you can’t do that, your story is likely to ramble and lose its theme. If possible, boil the story down to a word. Write the sentence or word on a Post-It note and keep it visible until you’re done with the story. That always helps me stay on point.