I started the day in the usual way, dressed and took my dog for his morning walk, brewed a cup of sweet Black Irish tea, quickly scanned the news and then opened a file labeled “Diary 2020.”
I wrote for about ten minutes.
Jan. 21. 44 degrees this morning. Arctic by Florida standards, Parka, watch cap, gloves to walk Leo. Didn’t blow smoke but the wind cut like a knife through butter. Strange dream last night, David M., lanky, ginger nasty piece of work, tricked me into going to NYC with Neal, only Neal didn’t come and it turned out we were going to help someone move. Met the mother who told their kids they could have “a doughnut and three hot dogs for breakfast.” The work was overwhelming and I tried to quit but he kept tricking me into more. Finally, he stole my shoes and that was it. I ditched him. Only problem, when I looked up, I didn’t know where I was. NYC was foreign territory of high brick buildings. Wanted to go home but felt I should visit the art museum. Found myself in a maze of a mall. Fortunately, Leo’s barking woke me up. Having trouble with the novel. Still keeping to daily sessions but having trouble writing a page a day. Need to follow the advice in today’s post — answer the six questions to drive plot. For some reason, am having trouble switching from pantsing. The sky is a wintry, pale blue. The trees wave slowly, like a monarch parading through commoners in a gilded coach. Axios reports cell phones are banned during the impeachment trial. They’ll be twitching like a junkie jonesing for a fix. Today’s task: draft post about the importance of keeping a diary.
If you haven’t already guessed, one of my New Year’s resolutions is to keep a diary. It’s not the first such promise. I have at least a dozen notebooks, dated early in the year. But soon the entries peter out and the diary’s forgotten.
The other day, however, I stumbled upon a quote that made me think I needed to start anew this year. In a Paris Review interview, the late British novelist John Fowles says,
“I am a great believer in diaries, if only in the sense that bar exercises are good for ballet dancers: it’s often through personal diaries—however embarrassing they are to read now—that the novelist discovers his true bent, that he can narrate real events and distort them to please himself, describe character, observe other human beings, hypothesize, invent, all the rest. I think that is how I became a novelist, eventually.”
More than one writer agrees with Fowles, I found, thanks to an entry from Maria Popova’s excellent blog, “Brain Pickings.”
Keeping a diary, writers cited by Popova reveal, is an essential part of a writer’s life.
It’s a daily task that exercises the writing muscles, an early morning foray into the unconscious journeys of dreams and observations that can surprise and inspire further writing.
Today’s entry, for example, gives me a description of a departure from Florida’s sunny climate, a caustic take on a high school classmate I could use in the novel I’m composing. What I would do with that bizarre breakfast I don’t know. but I have it stored for future retrieval.
But a diary’s prose need not be polished. “The habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice,” the English writer Virginia Woolf said. “It loosens the ligaments. Never mind the misses and the stumbles.”
Looking over today’s entry, I cringe at the cliches, the gaps that make the stories within incomplete. But I like, “lanky, ginger,” as a way to describe this high school classmate and the addict metaphor for the U.S. Senators denied their cellphones. There are seeds that might sprout someday.
I’m comforted if this post, flawed as it is, inspires you to launch a diary. Brenda Ueland, author of the writing advice classic, “If You Want to Write.” advises writers to “Keep a slovenly, headlong, impulsive, honest diary…You will touch only what interests you.”
The act of keeping a diary, what Popova called “this private art,” is an essential discipline. Madeleine L’Engle (“A Wrinkle in Time“) has three rules for aspiring writers: Read, write and keep a diary or a journal as some refer to it.
John Steinbeck kept a diary while he was writing “Grapes of Wrath.” The opening was prosaic for a novel that would win the Pulitzer Prize and was cited prominently when Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962.
Later, when he shifted to writing “East of Eden,” Steinbeck began each day by writing a letter to his editor, Pascal “Pat” Covici,”a practice chronicled in “Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters.” It was a warm-up exercise that the author used a baseball image to describe–“a way of getting my mental arm in shape to pitch a good game.”
“If you want to write,” L’Engle says, “you need to keep an honest, unpublishable journal that nobody reads, nobody but you. Where you just put down what you think about life, what you think about things, what you think is fair and what you think is unfair.”
Thanks to these writers, this year I’m sold on the idea. I hope to make it a part of my morning routine, along with walking the dog and sweet tea. I urge you to consider doing the same, keeping it slovenly, headlong, impulsive and honest. Not a bad way to start a writer’s day.
Last week, I posted the first part of an interview with Greg Borowski, longtime watchdog editor for The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. who every year for the last quarter century has written a short story keyed to the Christmas holidays.
His offering this year was “The Christmas Boxes,” a poignant story about a woman who connects with her dying mother suffering from dementia when she opens a box of Christmas decorations, each with their own memory.
In this installment, he talks about whether writers of fiction need to report their stories, the differences and similarities between fiction and narrative nonfiction and the lessons nonfiction writers can learn from trying their hand at fiction.
Here’s the second part of our conversation, reprinted with permission.
You oversee projects and investigative stories? Do you hope the journalists you supervise will take inspiration for their own narratives from stories like this one?
think writers get better by writing, but also by reading good writing. And good
writing can be found in all sorts of places.
can come from anywhere.
key: Don’t read a great story and think “How could I ever do that?” Instead, approach
it as: “How did they do that?” The former makes fiction seem like an
unattainable form of art, the latter positions it as the craft it is.
can all get better at our craft by practicing it.
The story is peppered with dialogue. How important is that?
I think the dialogue is vital. I usually start out with too much and realize some of what is being said should be part of an expository paragraph, and some is just extra words and does not belong at all. I find reading the dialogue aloud helps, and reading it quickly. That forces you to say it as you’d say it, not as it is written, which helps make it feel more authentic. In some respects, the dialogue is the most intimate part of a scene — you’re not just watching what is happening from afar, you’re listening to a conversation. So, a little bit can go a long way.
does your work as a journalist influence the writing of this story?
Many of the same rules apply: Hook the reader with a strong lead — not just the lead at the start of the story, but the lead for each of the sections. Same goes for the endings. Provide hooks throughout that pull the reader along. Pare back your prose. Never be boring.
Really, the biggest advantage is the discipline any veteran reporter has to just get something on the screen to work with — and then rewrite and rewrite and rewrite, to polish your way to the strongest verbs and tightest sentences and crispest dialogue.
reporters know the stories that resonate most with readers are the ones that
speak to deeper themes and ideas. You always have to be able to answer the
question: “What is the story about?”
this case, you can answer it by saying it is a story about a woman who dies on
Christmas Eve and her estranged daughter who arrives at her bedside.
you can answer that it’s a story about: Loss. Forgiveness. Memory. Love.
The first answer — the plot — is just a means to illuminate the second, the theme.
you draw anything in the story from life?
Lots of things. Part of the original concept came from the experience with my late grandmother. Like the character, her name was Susan; her husband was Leonard. As a kid, I used to get tasked with helping my grandmother make ornaments — those kits that require precise beads and sequins. And, yes, she got to press the pins in while I put the beads on in the right order.
living room belongs to a great aunt, though there were plastic runners on the
floor instead of plastic on the couch. I remember visits as a kid where it
seemed like there was nothing you were allowed to touch. The trio of ceramic
angels were heirlooms on my mother’s side, though I got one of the instruments
wrong. (Why would angels have cymbals?).
Usually, I tuck in the names of nieces or nephews, or children of friends. My daughter, Annaliese, is in every story — not by name, but usually a referenced age or, in this story the sixth-grade.
don’t write the stories from life, but there are always pieces of life in the
story is full of textbook examples demonstrating the power of show don’t tell.
Instead of saying her soldier father died, perhaps in a war, you write, “On the end table was a photo of her father, his Army
uniform ever pressed, his smile ever easy, his eyes ever bright. Lauren had
never met him — she came along three months after he passed — but knew the
story well: Her mother was expecting a Christmas Eve phone call, but got a
knock on the door instead. The flag, precisely folded, was in a case on the
mantel.” Why did you compose it this way?
One practical thing that has strengthened my stories, I
think, is the need to keep them short enough to be printed out with Christmas
cards. They must fit on a piece of legal paper, landscape mode, four columns of
text on each side. This enforces some discipline on the process, and requires
me to develop sharp themes and crisp scenes.
The paragraph you cite is typical of at least a few that come
up each year, where I need to tell a lot in a few words. Here I was trying to
describe the living room, give a backstory for the characters and encapsulate
the conflict that needs resolution. At the same time, I wanted to convey a
feeling of wistfulness.
Do you think journalists should try their hand at fiction?
Yes. I think writers of all stripes only get better when they
try new things and push their own envelopes. Likewise, writers of fiction would
probably learn a lot by trying their hand at narrative nonfiction, as it would
force them to work on a different set of related skills.
In recent years, I have become a runner and know you don’t
get better just by running. You have to do cross-training, too, to strengthen
different muscles. The same applies here.
Every year for the past quarter-century, Greg Borowski, longtime watchdog editor at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, writes a short story keyed to the holiday. His offering this year was “The Christmas Boxes,” a poignant story about a woman who connects with her dying mother suffering from dementia when she opens a box of Christmas decorations, each with their own memory.
Writing fiction has profound implications for those trying to get better at narrative nonfiction. And vice versa. That’s what I learned recently when I interviewed Borowski for Nieman Storyboard.
Here’s an excerpt from our interview, reprinted with permission:
Your story has all the elements of narrative nonfiction. How do you manage to write a made up story that feels so real? I tend to fall back on techniques I learned as a journalist: Use only telling details. Make every word count. Cut anything that does not advance the story. Don’t use quotes/dialogue as exposition. Less is more.
With these stories, I try to write cinematically. That is, I can see the scene in my head — where people are standing, what the room looks like, every nod, gesture, voice inflection. When people are told to write descriptively, it can come off like an inventory of a room. When they describe action, it can read like stage directions. My goal is to have the reader feel like the scene is happening in front of them — for them to experience the story, not just read the story.
Beyond that, I try to do double duty with descriptions.
For instance, in the first paragraphs of the story, I wanted to get across the idea Lauren is a busy professional woman in a tough spot at Christmastime without saying any of those words. Likewise, I felt like I had a single paragraph to describe both the house where she grew up and what it was like to grow up without a father around.
Even though it’s fiction, do you have to report it? As a rule, yes. But the stories I write generally focus on relationships between people, and often carry some magical Santa-esque element.
Rather than reporting out scenes and locations, I think of this more in terms of making sure the stories hold together within themselves. That is, does the reality they create — even if it’s something fanciful or magical — ring true? As I work through the drafts, I try to scrub them with that in mind: Is the character consistent throughout the story? Do the ages and timelines fit together properly? My wife, Katy, who is usually the first person to read them, is a good check on this. So is Jim Higgins, an editor at the Journal Sentinel who coordinates getting them published in print and online each year.
When they raise questions of reality or continuity, I sometimes want to reply: “Come on. It’s fiction. Anything can happen in fiction.” But that’s lazy and untrue. Instead, their questions are a sign I need to go back and rework something.
You’re an investigative journalist. How is writing fiction the same and dramatically different from narrative journalism? The parts that are the same are easy. You need subjects/characters that are well-developed, a structure that includes conflicts or obstacles, strong dialogue and a resolution that is satisfying and true to the story. In short, something has to happen in the story and everything that is included has to drive the reader to that conclusion. Additionally, both forms require a steady hand from the writer. You’re taking the reader along for a ride, so the reader has to feel comfortable — not that they won’t be saddened or joyful along the way, or that there won’t be any twists or turns. Just comfortable that you, the author, know where you are going and can get them there.
For me, a major difference is that with narrative nonfiction you’re often trying to take real life, the ordinary, and make it feel special or magical. In my Christmas stories, I’m trying to take the magical and make it seem ordinary. That is, grounding it in reality. For instance, in this year’s story, I knew I needed a few touchstone family decorations as a plot device. I knew one would be a snow globe because, well, my daughter has several that come out at Christmas time and it seemed to fit.
It wasn’t until I typed out what was inside the snow globe — a winter scene with a church — that the next line of dialogue popped into my head:“That’s our church. That’s where I got married.” It wasn’t until I put the snow globe into the mother’s hands and allowed her to shake it, that I realized it was a metaphor for things being jumbled and then settling. And, really, that’s the arc of the story itself.
What lessons can writers of narrative nonfiction draw from writing fiction? I think there are lots of lessons to be drawn simply from trying something different.
A major lesson, though, is that to truly resonate with readers, a story has to operate on multiple levels. You need the strong characters and cliffhangers and twists to pull you along, but what’s the deeper thing the story is really about? Redemption. Forgiveness. Healing.
Once you settle on that, it should inform and shape the structure, plot and dialogue and everything else that goes into the piece.
Excuses, excuses. These two defenses cripple many writers from doing the work it takes to produce a novel, screenplay, a poem, a nonfiction book or article or an enterprise story.
I’ve heard—and made—them over the years. They keep writers from achieving many of their writing dreams which is a darn shame.
I’ve sat with writers who, with sincerity and some madness, make them. Here’s what I want to tell them:
Langston Hughes published his first major work when he was 19. Stephen King, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Gabriel Garcia Marquez were 20. 21: Bret Easton Ellis and Mary Shelley. 22: Margaret Atwood, Ray Bradbury. Worried you’re too young? Read the rest of this list.
James Michener wrote 40 books after he turned 40. Raymond Chandler was 43 years old when he published his first novel, “The Big Sleep.” Anna Sewell started writing “Black Beauty” when she was 51; she was 57 when she sold the book. Frank McCourt published his Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, “Angela’s Ashes” when he was 66. Harriet Doer’s first novel, “Stones of Ibarra” won the National Book Award. It was published when she was 74. Worried you’re too old? Read the rest of this list.
Here’s another potent excuse, one fueled by what psychologists call the “Victim Mentality.”
I’m quitting because I was rejected. Do you think you’re the first?
“First, we must ask, does it have to be a whale?” That was the response of one of the multiple publishers who turned down Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” .
“An irresponsible holiday story that will never sell.” That was the rejection Kenneth Grahame received for his classic “The Wind in the Willows.”
“An endless nightmare. I think the verdict would be ‘Oh don’t read that horrid book.’” H.G. Wells got this rejection for “The War of the Worlds,” still in print more than a century after it was published.
Joseph Heller got 22 rejections for his satirical masterpiece “Catch-22.” One of them read, “I haven’t the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say. Apparently the author intends it to be funny.” For more on famous authors and their rejections, read the rest of the list here.
There are lots of other excuses writers make. I’m too tired. My friends give me a hard time because I don’t have time for them. I’m not inspired. Revision means I’ve failed. I don’t have enough time.
Go ahead and use them. You’ll get nowhere fast.
But here’s what I’d rather say. Challenge them. You can make time. Mothers write during their baby’s nap time. When I was working demanding jobs, I got a lot done just by setting my alarm a half-hour early and writing. Scott Turow wrote the first of his best-selling thrillers, “Presumed Innocent,” on the train to his job as a federal prosecutor.
Good friends understand. Inspiration happens when you’re at your desk. And revision offers unlimited chances to make your writing better.
Excuses try to release a person from blame. When it comes to writing, as with many other endeavors, most of the time there’s no one to blame but yourself. It’s easy for me to say take responsibility, but what I’d rather say is you don’t need to make excuses. Do the work.
“Getting good as a writer, or any kind of storyteller, seems to me a lifelong pursuit,” says Jacqui Banaszynski, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and editor of Nieman Storyboard which celebrates narrative nonfiction. “And one that demands we realize there is always another level to reach and dare ourselves to take some creative risks as we get there.”
Keep that counsel close. Dare yourself. And just bear in mind that if there’s anything the history of publishing demonstrates, it’s that writing success has no shelf life, and there’s no accounting for taste.
There are two types of writers: plotters, who plan out their story, sometimes in great detail before they begin, and “pantsers,” who prefer to write without knowing the outcome in advance, content to sit at their desk and discover as they go along. I’m one of the latter.
But recently I pulled a book from my shelves that has led me to reconsider my approach. “Plot” is a 1988 primer by Ansen Dibell that takes a comprehensive look at this crucial element of storytelling.
“Ask someone what the plot of their favorite novel or story and they will tell you what happened in it. That’s useful shorthand when the conversation is about finished stories, but when it comes to writing one, it’s like saying “that a birthday cake is a large baked confection with frosting and candles,” Dibell says. ” It doesn’t tell you how to make one.”
“Plot,” says Dibell, “is built of significant events in a given story — significant because they have important consequences.” She gives two examples. Taking a shower isn’t a plot, nor is braiding your hair. Neither have any consequences. They are incidents.
But if it’s Janet Leigh stepping into the shower while homicidal maniac Tony Perkins waits to pounce in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” or the mega-long braid that is going to let a prince climb up the tower where Rapunzel is being held by a witch, these mundane incidents are transformed into plots.
For two months, I’ve worked nearly every day on a novel. I’ve written scenes and dialogue — the foundations of dramatic narrative — and summary narrative that leaps across time and space. But until I read Dibell’s book and other sources that discuss plotting, I didn’t realize I may just have been spinning my wheels because I didn’t ask some critical questions before I started.
Is there something at stake? Plotting is the way you show things matter.
Have I identified a protagonist, the person, in writing coach Jack Hart’s words, “makes things happen”?
Can I summarize my plot in a sentence, the shorter the better, even if it takes hundreds of pages to play out? Two more examples from Dibell. “A group of British schoolboys, attempting to survive after their plane crash lands on a tropical island, begins reverting to savagery. That’s the plot of William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies.” “The police chief of a New England vacation community, although terrified of the ocean, sets out to destroy a huge killer shark.” “Jaws.”
Have I established the sequence of events “that occur when a sympathetic character encounters a complicating situation that he confronts and solves,” which is two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning narrative writer Jon Franklin’s definition of story.
Have I identified plot points, “any development that sends the story spinning off in a new direction,’ in screenwriting teacher Robert McKee’s formulation? These will help me plan my story trajectory.
Is my story going somewhere? Do I have an ending in sight, or at least in mind? Knowing your ending allows you to establish foreshadowing that can help build suspense and forge your story’s meaning.
Pantsing is fine for some writers, and has worked for me in the past, mostly with short stories when the journey is relatively short. But as the word count of my book rises, I realize I’m not sure where I’m going. And I don’t feel like spending a lot of time creating a spineless mass of prose that I may end up jettisoning or face a massive rewrite. With these questions in mind, I’ve decided to stop spinning and start thinking first, pansting less and plotting more. If you’re struggling with a story, you might want to do the same.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?
Do the work. That’s a variation on the familiar “ass in chair” exhortation, but it refers to much more than typing words on a screen. Mark Lett, my longtime boss at The Detroit News and later the executive editor of The State at Columbia, S.C., used the phrase often. “Do the work” means attending to all of the tasks—some more tedious than others—that lead to results. When I’m pursuing a non-fiction story in my day job as a feature writer for Bloomberg Businessweek magazine, doing the work means, for instance, looking at every page of notes, documents, and other materials I’ve gathered in my weeks of research, even though only about 1 percent of what’s there is likely to make it into my story. As a novelist, doing the work is more about sitting at my laptop every morning and putting words to digital paper. Whether it’s 300 or 500 or 1,000 words a day, if I keep doing the work, I know I’ll eventually have enough in front of me that I can begin to see my way to the middle of a book and, finally, an end. I’ve heard writers say, “That story just wrote itself.” If only.
What’s been the biggest surprise of your writing life?
That people would profess to love something I wrote. I still get a thrill when a reader posts an online comment or sends me an email saying they liked one of my pieces or books. At the other end of the spectrum, I’m still disappointed when people dislike something I’ve written (which happens much more with fiction than non-fiction). My favorite comment ever is probably an email I received from one Evan Vetere, a Wall Street Journal subscriber. I had written a Page One story about a World War II lieutenant and the Jewish boy he rescued from Dachau. Mr. Vetere wrote me: “Your profession exists so people like you can write stories like this.” I’ll never forget it
If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer what would it be?
Although it’s not entirely accurate, the one that pops immediately to mind is tortoise. I’m not a particularly slow writer, and sometimes, especially on deadline, I can be pretty fast. On September 11, 2001, I took 30,000 words of WSJ staff memos and turned them into a 3,000-word front-page story in under three hours. But I am tortoise-deliberate. I have a process that revolves mostly around elimination. In my non-fiction day job, I pile interviews, observations, documents and other stuff into big piles of clay that I then whittle away, getting ridding of stuff until what remains is my story. Fiction is different insofar as I have a lot more material I can use—virtually everything I’ve ever seen, heard, smelled, tasted, overheard, read, imagined, etc. I start by choosing what to put on the page. As the words multiply and the characters come more clearly into focus, the story actually begins to narrow because as I’m choosing where it will go, I’m also choosing where it will not, and the farther it goes in one direction, the less likely it’s going to go in infinite others. Then, when I’m rewriting, I’m doing a lot more subtraction than addition. Unlike some writers I know, I love rewriting, especially the tactile feel of using a pen to strike out words, phrases, and sentences. Eventually, I know that if I do the work and stick to my laborious process, I will give myself the best chance to produce something that someone will tell me they love.
Bryan Gruley is the award-winning, critically acclaimed author of “Bleak Harbor,” which Gillian Flynn called “an electric bolt of suspense,” and his latest crime thriller, “Purgatory Bay,” which Michael Connelly says is “impossible to put down.” Gruley was nominated for an Edgar for his debut novel, “Starvation Lake,” the first in a trilogy set in a fictional northern Michigan town. When he’s not making things up, Gruley writes long-form features on a wide variety of topics as a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek magazine. He has won numerous prizes for his journalism, and shared in The Wall Street Journal’s Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the September 11 terrorist attacks. He lives in Chicago with his wife, Pam.
When I think of the hundreds of writers I have coached over the years, the best ones impressed me with their intellect and creativity. But what stands out most are not these strengths, important as they may be. Instead, it’s their attitude that makes them special in my eyes.
Three decades of working with writers have convinced me that attitude — a way of thinking that is reflected in a person’s behavior — matters more than talent.
Talent may open the door, but attitude gets you inside the room.
Writing is a craft. It relies on a set of skills: reporting and researching, writing and revision (and more revision), understanding of structure, and facility with language, syntax, and style. Mastery requires years of study, work and above all, patience. Malcolm Gladwell famously estimated that achieving mastery in many fields requires 10,000 hours of work. True or not, there’s no doubt that becoming a good writer takes an enormous expenditure of time and effort. And without the right attitude, the willingness to do that work, the chances of success are slim to none.
In a field where so much — success and rejection, for starters — is out of a writer’s hands, attitude is one thing we can control. We can decide whether to procrastinate or write every day, give up or commit to one more revision, try our hand at a different genre, or learn and learn from other writers rather than be consumed by jealousy about their achievements.
Inspired by the wisdom of acclaimed designer Milton Glaser, legendary coach Lou Holtz and David Maraniss, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author, I found myself musing about the nature of attitude and its importance to writers seeking success, including myself. Here’s what I came up with. It’s a partial list; I hope you’ll add to it in the comment section.
Attitude matters than more than, talent.
Attitude makes the difference between giving up and sticking with a story.
Attitude means making one more phone call, writing one more draft, burrowing into your draft one more time to refine and polish your story.
Attitude means a collaborative relationship with editors rather than a toxic one.
Attitude means submitting a story the same day someone rejects it.
In the end, attitude is what makes the difference between failure and spectacular success
CRAFT QUERY: What does attitude mean to you?
May the writing go well.
Photograph by Jeff Sheldon courtesy of unsplash.com
When I think of the hundreds of writers I have coached over the years, the best ones impressed me with their intellect and creativity. But what stands out most are not these strengths, important as they may be. Instead, it’s their attitude that makes them special in my eyes.
Three decades of working with writers and editors have convinced me that attitude—a way of thinking that is reflected in a person’s behavior matters more than talent.
“Most people place an undue emphasis on talent,” influential designer Milton Glaser said. “I don’t doubt that it exists, but talent is essentially a potential for something. The issue is really not talent as an independent element, but talent in relationship to will, desire and persistence. Talent without these things vanishes and even modest talent with those characteristics grows.”
Talent may open the door, but attitude gets you inside the room. And as legendary coach Lou Holtz said, “The attitude we choose is by far the most important one we make every day.”
A good attitude can pay off. That was the
case for David Maraniss when he was writing investigations and series at The Washington Post. When news broke, he
was one of the first to pitch in. “Even if I’m doing a series,” he once told
me, “I say, ‘Look, if you guys need me, I’d be happy to do something.’ I try to
be in a position to say yes, and I try to volunteer so that I can have enormous
freedom the rest of the time.
“I find that so many reporters keep
banging away at their editors and having frustrating confrontations about what
they have to do or don’t have to do. I’ve always found it much more effective
to do what I want to do by doing some things for them.
“I like newspapers, and I love to write on deadline. And so I volunteer. But one of the reasons I do that is so that there’s a fair exchange, where they know that I’m always around when they need me, and then in return, I get a lot of freedom the rest of the time to do what I want to do.” Maraniss has gone on to write a string of best-selling critically acclaimed books.
Writing is a craft. It relies on a set of skills: the ability to generate ideas, excellence in reporting and researching, writing and revision (and more revision), understanding structure, and facility with language, syntax and style. Mastery requires years of study, work and, above all, patience. Malcolm Gladwell famously estimated that achieving mastery in many fields requires 10,000 hours of work. True or not, there’s no doubt that becoming a good writer takes an enormous expenditure of time and effort. Without the right attitude and the willingness to do that work, the chances of success are slim to none.
In a field where so much — success and rejection for starters — is out of the writer’s hands, attitude is the one thing that we can control. We can decide whether to procrastinate or write every day no matter how uninspired we feel, give up or commit to one more revision, try our hand at a different genre, or learn from other writers rather than be consumed with jealousy about their achievements.
Inspired by the wisdom of Maraniss, coach Holtz and designer Glaser, I found myself musing about the nature of attitude and its importance to writers, including myself, who seek success. It’s a list I printed out and keep close as I work. I hope it may be of value to you.
Attitude matters more than talent.
Attitude makes the difference between giving up or sticking with a story.
Attitude means making one more phone call, writing one more draft and burrowing into that draft one more time to refine and polish your story.
Attitude means a collaborative relationship with editors rather than a toxic one.
Attitude sometimes means submerging your own interests to contribute to the greater good.
Attitude means submitting a story again the same day someone rejects it.
In the end, attitude is what makes the difference between failure and spectacular success.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?
If reporting is always getting the name of the dog, writing is knowing when not to use the name of the dog.
What’s been the biggest surprise of your writing life?
The surprise is that I could even have a writing life, but that’s a lame answer, so let me go back to the first question. Another lesson I’ve learned is the importance of being methodical. Not that there’s one, perfect method, but the one that has worked for me is knowing my ending before I begin writing. I used to get so lost in writing when I didn’t do this, as if magic, rather than method, would solve the day. Now, if I know my ending, and I mean the actual ending, down to the last sentence, even the last word, it means I know that my reporting is finished and I have a story to tell as opposed to, say, a caption to write. It also means I know the emotional tone of the piece and I can structure my material to get there as consistently and efficiently as possible. In every story I’ve done over the second half of my career, including my books, I’ve known my ending before I wrote the beginning.
If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be?
I’m terrible at metaphors, so I’m going to pass on this one except to say part of writing is making peace with your weaknesses and avoiding them.
David Finkel is a journalist and author of “The Good Soldiers,” an account of a U.S. infantry battalion during the Iraq War, and “Thank You For Your Service,” a sequel that chronicles the challenges faced by soldiers and their families in war’s aftermath. An editor and writer for The Washington Post, Finkel has reported from Africa, Asia, Central America, Europe, and across the United States, and has covered wars in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Among his honors are a Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting in 2006 and a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” in 2012. He lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
When do you write? First thing in the day or last?
It depends on the writer, of course.
But many highly successful writers, whether by habit or belief, seem to find mornings to be the most productive time. Neuroscience backs them up.
An admittedly unscientific search culled through interviews with working writers, quote collections and an excellent book, “Daily Rituals: How Artists Work,” by Mason Currey, revealed repeated examples of writers choosing break of day.
“Get up very early and get going at once,” was the preference of poet W.H. Auden. “In fact, work first and wash afterwards.” Mornings were the rule for Nobel laureate Saul Bellow who would write for 3 to 4 hours at a sitting.
When Ernest Hemingway was working on a story, he said, “I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write.
Pre-dawn is the preference for Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. When I’m in writing mode for a novel,” he says, “I get up at 4:00 am and work for five to six hours.
Not every writer has the freedom or the inclination for morning writing. Exiled to military school at 15, J.D. Salinger wrote his early stories at night under his blanket by flashlight. “There’s a mislaid family of readers and writers at night,” Matt Shoard wrote in a survey of nocturnal writers. And nighttime writers are a passionate, if somewhat cranky lot. Maybe it’s the caffeine.
“Is it the peace and quiet? asked Stephanie Meyer who wrote “Twilight” mostly at night. Nighttime composition is also the preference of Danielle Steele, Jacquelyn Mitchard and Barack Obama. Allison Leotta used to write her legal crime thrillers before work as federal prosecutor. But that changed to nights after she became a mother.”Now,” says Leotta, “the sound of a softly snoring baby triggers a Pavlovian response in me to start typing.”
For every nighttime writer, though, there seem to be many more who prefer early morning, close to dream sleep when the unconscious still lurks.
Brain science suggests that a morning writing schedule is geared to creativity. Moderate levels of the stress hormone cortisol aid focus. It also helps that willpower is strongest at the start before the day’s stresses sap it. The writer can rely on the prefrontal cortex, which governs planning, decision-making, problem-solving, self-control, and acting with long-term goals in mind.
The routines of successful writers suggest that they’ve discovered, without a degree in neuroscience, the power of the morning writing session.
Children’s novelist Lloyd Alexander woke at 4 a.m. to write because, he said, “you are closer to the roots of the imagination. At the end of the day the edge is off—You’re not the same person as you were in the morning. “
Barbara Kingsolver described a routine that starts before dawn. “Four o’clock is standard. My morning begins with trying not to get up before the sun rises. But when I do, it’s because my head is too full of words, and I just need to get to my desk and start dumping them into a file. I always wake with sentences pouring into my head. So getting to my desk every day feels like a long emergency.”
Of course, some writers have no choice. Work or family demands may make it impossible to start work first thing. You may have to steal time; drafting at your desk over a quick lunch, after dinner, when the kids are in bed. Crime writer Leotta also writes when her baby is napping. I know writers who work late at night after the house is quiet. They may sacrifice sleep but meet their daily quota.
I’ve tried both times of the day, and while I sometimes find afternoons are productive, in the end I’ve come to prefer the early morning quiet before the day’s responsibilities intrude. Otherwise, as the day goes by my willpower and energy wilt. I keep in mind the words of Goethe, the German master: “Use the day before the day. Early morning hours have gold in their mouth.”
Daytime writers like Italo Calvino, the Italian journalist and fiction writer, feared the effects of nighttime writing which keep their mind moving when they preferred it would rest. “I’m terrified of writing at night,” he told an interviewer for The New York Times, “for then I can’t go to sleep. So I start slowly, slowly writing in the morning and then go on into the late afternoon. “
You may want to experiment, toggling between day and night to discover your best writing time. But if you choose AM over PM, here are suggestions to get you moving and writing.
Wake up. Get up. If you’re’ the type who tends to overlseep, don’t hit the snooze alarm. Brew your coffee or tea, take it to your desk.
Quarantine yourself. Susan Sontag vowed in her diary to tell people not to call her in the morning and she resolved not to answer the phone. Lock your office door. David Margolick uses Flents Quiet Please foam earplugs to buffer the din outside his Manhattan apartment while he’s working on his books about comedian Sid Caesar and scientist Jonas Salk.
Start off easy. If you begin first thing trying to write a masterpiece, writer’s block will likely ensue. Begin writing in your journal, making notes for the day. Read “sacred texts.” from the Bible to your favorite novel or poem, writings that inspire you to start your own compositions as the sun comes up.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?
Believe 100 percent in what you write. I know people who have angles or hot takes that they don’t believe, but know it will get attention. I know people who write in ways (everything from angle to style to the words chosen) to please others, like editors or sources or readers. Be you. Your name is at the top. If you don’t believe in every word below it, why should anyone else?
What’s been the biggest surprise of your writing life?
That I have a writing life at all. I never imagined it. I was a manager for Costco until I was 29. When I went back to school to get a journalism degree, I truly didn’t know if I would be any good at writing. I had never published anything. I thought it would be fun to be a reporter, and I figured I had read enough newspaper stories in my life that I knew good ones from bad ones. My first published article, I think, was a gamer for a baseball game as a stringer for the Denver Post, and the editor on duty seemed pleasantly surprised at how quickly I did it and how clean the copy was. People have been giving me opportunities ever since. Believe me, I sometimes don’t think I do this very well. I’m always about one painful graf or story away from thinking I’m a fraud about to be exposed.
If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be?
I’m devoted to non-fiction, so I’m a bigger fan of similes. They feel more honest. As a writer, I’m like a winding trail in the woods. You might not always see where you’re going, but I think you’ll appreciate exploring what’s around the next bend.
John Branch has been a sports reporter for The New York Times since 2005. His feature about a deadly avalanche in Washington state, “Snow Fall,” won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013, and his work has been featured six times in “Best American Sports Writing.” His series about the death of NHL enforcer Derek Boogaard was a finalist for the Pulitzer and the subject of his book, “Boy on Ice,” which won the PEN/ESPN Prize for Literary Sports Writing. His latest book, about a championship rodeo family in Utah, is called “The Last Cowboys.”
Craft Query: How would you answer these three questions?
On the surface, Ernest Heminway’s iconic 1927 story, “Hills Like White Elephants,” is about a man and a woman having a conversation and drinking together while waiting for a train.
Lurking beneath the surface, however, is the question between the two over whether the woman will have an abortion. The words “pregnant” and “abortion” are missing.
The warm wind blew the bead curtain against the table. “The beer’s nice and cool,” the man said. “It’s lovely,” the girl said. “It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” the man said. “It’s not really an operation at all.” The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on. “I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in.” The girl did not say anything. “I’ll go with you and I’ll stay with you all the time. They just let the air in and then it’s all perfectly natural.” Then what will we do afterward?” “We’ll be fine afterward. Just like we were before.”
At work here is his theory of omission, or more colloquially, “the iceberg theory of writing.”
It’s found in chapter sixteen of Hemingway’s nonfiction book about bullfighting, “Death in the Afternoon,” when he segues into reflections about the writing process.
“A good writer should know as near everything as possible,” Hemingway writes. That knowledge, he qualifies, should not necessarily show up in the story.
“If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who emits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.”
When the lookouts were on theTitanic on April 14, 1912, what they feared was not the jagged tops of ice that broke the surface of the North Atlantic but the mountain beneath.
The same principle holds in writing. What makes a story powerful is all the work —the process approach to writing — that lies beneath. It isn’t wasted effort, as many of us fear, but instead constitutes the essential ingredient that gives writing its greatest strengths. We write most effectively from an overabundance of material.
“Read before you write”
In “Reporter,” the 2018 memoir by Seymour Hersh, the famed investigative reporter, would spend “hours in libraries or newspaper morgues, (the home of newspaper clippings in the days before the Internet) finding everything he could in the way of background,” Don Nelson writes in a review of the book for Nieman Storyboard. For journalists and fiction writers, the “core lesson” is “read before you write.”
Donald M. Murray kept a large trash can by his desk when he was freelancing for Reader’s Digest, The Saturday Evening Post and other so-called “slick” magazines of the 1960s. He noticed that when the trash can overflowed with discarded material, the stories were better. They were worse if he found himself diving in to find something — anything — to fill space.
David Finkel filled up lots of notebooks when he was a staff writer for The Washington Post Magazine.
“I tend to write down everything I see, even if it’s something like, ‘2 rocks off to left- sedimentary??-resemble poodle.’ My hope is that as the reporting process continues, the significance of my notations will emerge. Usually, that doesn’t happen. Out of a 50-page notebook, I’ll have five pages of possibly usable quotes, ten pages of other possibly usable notes, and 35 pages of hieroglyphics.” G
Finkel was an experienced feature writer, and later, a prize-winning author. He had more freedom than a reporter covering a meeting, say, or a speech, who has to file a story within an hour. (Finkel, who later went on to win a MacArthur “genius” fellowship, is also overly modest; many reporters who admire his stories and books would be happy to find in their notes what he considers “hieroglyphics.”)
When Wall Street Journal reporter Alix Freedman found her notebooks filled to bursting, she remembered an editor’s description of journalism’s essential challenge: “Distill a beer keg’s worth of information into a perfume bottle.”
As a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, Freedman was accustomed to amassing a vast amount of material, more than enough to support her findings. She could spend months on a story, easily filling that metaphorical beer keg. Notwithstanding, the Journal’s news hole, the amount of column space available for the day’s edition, had its limits, even for front page blockbusters.
Freedman came up with a method to meet the challenge. On a sheet of paper, she listed all the facts, quotes, statistics, scenes, examples and themes she’d uncovered in her reporting. She gave each one a letter grade, like a schoolteacher marking up tests.
Only the A’s made it into her story.
Her aim, she said, was to “maximize impact,” to use “not just an example but a telling example. Not just a quote but a quote on point.”
Writers aren’t always sure what information will prove to be important, so they tend to fill their notebooks or drafts with an overabundance of material. Much of it never will appear in the final story.
In 1986, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Jon Franklin put all of his knowledge about writing narrative nonfiction into a book. Three decades later it stands the test of time
In 1979, Jon Franklin won the first Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for “Mrs. Kelly’s Monster,” a dramatic rendering of a brain operation that focused on a surgeon who fought and lost a battle with a tumor.
Six years later, in 1985, Franklin won his second Pulitzer, this one for explanatory reporting for “The Mind Fixers, “a seven-part series about the new science of molecular psychiatry.
The book still succeeds because Franklin is not just a superb writer, but a reflective practitioner and willing teacher who shares the lessons of his craft with clarity and generosity. He describes his methodology as a “step-by-step cookbook approach.” If you follow it, as I learned, you can write successful narrative nonfiction.
I purchased the book shortly after it appeared, put its lessons into practice, and can testify to its power. To prepare for a new writing project, I recently dove back into my copy.
I was pleased to see that it was just as instructive and inspirational as I remembered.
Here are some of the most cogent lessons, mostly in Franklin’s own words, that jumped out at me as keepers; consider it a sort of Cliff Notes version of a book that deserves a spot on every storyteller’s bookshelf.
Franklin presents a coherent, easy to follow (if challenging to achieve) formula to build a story that can produce compelling stories.
He based his prize-winning theories on his study of short fiction, specifically the stories of Ernest Heminway, John Steinbeck and other writers that appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, Colliers and other popular magazines of the 1930’s and ‘40. These publications, he said, amounted to “the universal school for writers.”
The fiction they published rested on a simple but elegant formula: a complication, plus a body (or) development) and a resolution.” Franklin applies and expands the lessons of that form to the nonfiction story.
Among the highlights:
“A story consists of a sequence of actions that occur when a sympathetic character encounters a complicating situation that he confronts and solves.”
“A complication is any problem encountered by any human being; it’s an event that triggers a situation that complicates our lives…” For instance, a surgeon confronts an intractable tumor or ‘Joe loses his job.”
“To be of literary value, a complication must be not only basic but also significant to the human condition.”
“A resolution is simply any change in the character or situation that resolves the complication.”
“Most newspaper stories are endings without beginnings attached.” You can find story ideas by finding a good ending and reversing the order.
You implement the formula by writing the complication, developments and resolution on three by five cards.
You must cast them in three words and in terms of action: “Cancer strikes Joe.” “Joe overcomes cancer.”
Avoid static or passive verbs: has, had, were, was, is, be, am, being been. Verbs must be action verbs.
“Once you’ve stated your complications and resolution in terms of clear action, identify the actions your character takes in his attempts to overcome the complication… using three-word active statements, you should be able to form a chronological chain of actions that lead either directly or indirectly from the complication to the resolution. This composes the development of your story. The complication, the action events that flow from it, and finally the resolution compose the backbone of the true story. A fiction writer would say you now have your plot.”
Outlining is essential. “With an outline you can think your story through, quickly and without great effort. Massive structural problems will stand out, and you can solve them with the stroke of a pen. You can think the story through, time and again, very quickly, and still retain the energy, enthusiasm and freshness you need to do a good job when it comes time to actually write the story.”
An outline might look like this
Complication: Company fires Joe
1. Depression paralyzes Joe
2. Joe regains confidence
3. Joe sues company
Resolution: Joe regains job
The story must adhere rigorously to the facts. You can’t make up anything to fit your focus.
“If all else is done properly, The most dramatic aspect of any story is growth and change in the main character. The growth and change should be made the central part of the outline, so that it will emerge as the backbone of the story.
In addition to the craft lessons, Franklin also reproduces “Mrs. Kelly’s Monster,” which won the Pulitzer, “ and his series, “The Ballad of Old Man Peters,” both of which he annotates.
Although the rest of the books contains more information about structure and revision, the lessons I itemized are the most vital for anyone contemplating a piece of narrative nonfiction.
I bought the book shortly after it appeared when word of its publication was spreading among narrative and would-be-narrative writers and their editors. I decided to try and put its lessons into practice as soon as possible.
By chance, a call to theSt. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) reached me in the features department where I worked as a staff writer.
The caller was an elderly man named Bert Mudd who had an interesting, but dubious, story to tell. Mudd said his older brother Thaddeus had been murdered in his home in Viginia. Bert Mudd was going to find his murderer. With my marked up copy of “Writing for Story” staring at me from my desk, I asked if I could tag along.
Once I returned, with bulging notebooks and several audio tapes, I set to work.
It took a while before I could match Franklin’s formula, but eventually, I came up with:
Complication: Brother hunts killer
Resolution: Brother identifies killer
In between, I sketched out Mudd’s the developments: his travels north, fruitless encounters with authorities, his indefatigable sleuthing that led to a chance encounter with the man who would be charged, along with another man, with his brother’s killing. Because I’m working from memory here, I can’t replicate what I wrote on the cards that charted the development of the story between the complication and the resolution, but the three-word complication and resolution are tattooed into my brain.
The story, “His Brother’s Keeper,” was splashed across the front page of the features section. That day, I received two phone calls. One was from the editor of a local magazine who offered me a freelance assignment. The other came from an English professor at the University of Tampa. She invited me to give a reading of the story.
The other day, I asked Franklin to what he attributed the staying power of the lessons in his book. He replied:
“I think the lessons had power when I was able to channel our forbears. Adapt the things they knew, re-digest it and recast it for the modern reader. It also dovetails into things we are just discovering about the brain and behavior.
I first discovered complication resolution from that wonderful book, “The Professional Story Writer and His Art.” But the authors got it from Chekhov, and I’m sure Chekhov stood on the shoulders of giants. So in my own way I was sort of writing literary history.
‘These ways of conceptualizing story go back at least three thousand years — and may be genetically controlled. Certainly the anatomy of story mirrors the anatomy of the human brain. Catch the harmonics of that and you will hold fire in your hands. (That from John Steinbeck.)
I was half biopsychologist even back then.”
If you’re interested in writing narrative nonfiction, you owe it to yourself to get Franklin’s book, either by buying it or borrowing it from your local library. It’s formulaic, to be sure, but the formula works. I recommend you also take a look at “Jon Franklin and “Mrs. Kelly’s Monster,”” a 2012 Nieman Storyboard article by its editor, Paige Williams, who interviewed Franklin and reproduces the annotation found at the back of his book. In her introduction, Paige, now a staff writer at The New Yorker, said the story “never fails to captivate or instruct.”
There’s nothing worse than turning in a story and then being summoned by your editor who peppers you with questions you failed to answer. What hospital were the victims sent to ? What are their conditions? Did police lodge any charges? What was the name of the school principal? What was the name of the dog?
As a rookie reporter covering fires and accidents, I carried a checklist to make sure I got all the information I needed, or at least could answer the questions my editor might have. Over time, they became second nature, although I still jotted questions down before I headed out to a crime scene or accident? Better safe than sorry.
When a story was more complicated than a two-alarm fire or a car crash with injuries, I needed more than ever to make sure my story was complete. To cover all the bases.
Recently, I interviewed David Margolick about a story he wrote about a loud and noxious building project in his Manhattan neighborhood. The reporting was meticulously and richly detailed, from the health effects on neighbors — human, canine and feline — to the construction process and the description of the owners’ plans for an ostentatious underground entertainment center.
I was astounded by the lengths he went to to report the story. Given his history as a longtime contributor to Vanity Fair, former legal affairs writer for The New York Times and six-time book author, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Still, the lengths he went to were remarkably thorough. They display a consummate professional at work.
I sought out the presidents of the block associations on West 69th St., where the mansion will go, and West 68th St., where I live. I asked them for the names of residents closest to the construction site. To make sure I got diverse points of view, I asked those people for additional names, and also spoke to random people on the street. I went to several block association events. I also needed to identify the husband and wife who are responsible for the project, since they are hiding behind a corporate shell. This was something that virtually no one in the neighborhood had yet managed to do, but I did in surprisingly short order.
Because the man in the couple is a French businessman, I hired a French-speaking researcher to check the French and Belgian papers for information about him. Because she is a jazz singer, I checked out various musical websites, including a podcast in which she expressed great concern for rocks, trees, animals, air and various other entities her vanity project has disrupted. I never spoke to them, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Apart from contacting publicists, I reached out to all three architects who’d worked on the project; the owners’ lawyer; their representative on the construction site; one of their fellow investors in various cultural productions they’ve backed; and the Juilliard School, where he’d been a trustee, and set up a scholarship for struggling jazz musicians. (The violinist forced to flee because of the disruption — a move that set her back $5,000 — might have appreciated some of that largesse.)
Margolick’s remarkably comprehensive approach brought to mind a reporting rubric, one far more complete and sophisticated than the checklist from my cub reporter days. They are six elements that William E. Blundelldevised for himself when he was writing and editing page one stories for the Wall Street Journal and later shared as an influential writing coach in his classic guide, “The Art and Craft of Feature Writing.”
He described them in “Best Newspaper Writing 1982,” the year he won the award for best non-deadline writing. Blundell said he used these six areas to organize his material. “A few of these things are of interest, and others may not be, but I always consider all six of them,” he said.
1. History. When did this start? Who started it? What are the pivotal events on a timeline? Does my main theme development have roots in the past? What are they?
2. Scope. What is the extent of the problem? How many people are affected? How much money is at stake?
3. Central reasons. Why is this happening? What are the economic, social or political forces that created it, influence it, threaten it?
4. Impacts.“Who is helped or hurt by this,” Blundell said, “and to what extent and what’s their emotional response to it?”
5. Gathering and action of contrary forces. “If this is going on, is somebody trying to do anything about it, and how is that working out?” Blundell said.
6. The future. “If this stuff keeps up,” he said, “what are things going to look like five or 10 years from now, in the eyes of the people who are directly involved?”
Blundell used the six points to organize his reporting before he wrote. I think they can be equally valuable earlier in the process; Margolick demonstrates the value of going the extra mile in your reporting.
Blundell’s six points provide a roadmap for this kind of comprehensive research, reporting, and interviews.
Whether you’re on a daily deadline or working on a longer project like a magazine article or nonfiction book, they offer powerful assistance with the reporter’s never-ending challenge: developing expertise needed to write with clarity, completeness, accuracy and, above all, authority.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a mystery writer?
My years in journalism taught me that writing is a job—something you do whether you feel like it or not. You do not wait to be inspired. You do not search for your muse. You just plant your ass in your chair and write. The corollary for a novelist is to set a daily goal and stick to it. For me, that means writing 2,000 good words a day. If I do it in two hours, I get the rest of the day off. When the writing comes hard, I stay behind the keyboard until I reach my goal. That’s the only way I can finish a book.
What’s been the biggest surprise of your writing life?
That I have learned much of what I know about my craft from musicians. I could ramble on at length about all I have learned about tone, mood, pacing, story architecture, characterization, and economy of language from the likes of Otis Redding, Carol King, Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan, and hundreds of others. I am obsessed with how different the same song can be when it is performed by different artists. When the Chiffons belt out “One fine day, you’re gonna want me for your girl,” you KNOW it’s going to happen. But when Natalie Merchant croons the same lyrics set to the same melody, you realize it’s just a pipe dream. There are hundreds of examples of performers taking someone else’s song and making it their own. This, more than anything else, helped me find my voice as a writer.
If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a mystery writer, what would it be and why?
As a journalist, I was a planner. I often outlined, and I usually wrote the ending first so I knew where I was going. As a novelist, I never plan. I just start with a general idea of what a book will be about and set my characters loose to see what happens. As I move from paragraph to paragraph, from chapter to chapter, I’m like a scent hound. (I know that’s a simile, not a metaphor, but I’ve always been a rebel.) I stop to sniff at every bush, every character, every turn in the road. Like a dog on a walk, I explore the world I am creating, discovering my story as I go. If I knew how it was going to end before I started, my desire to write the book would evaporate.
Bruce DeSilva grew up in a tiny Massachusetts mill town where the mill closed when he was ten. He had an austere childhood bereft of iPods, X-Boxes, and all the other cool stuff that hadn’t been invented yet. In this parochial little town, metaphors and alliteration were also in short supply. Nevertheless, his crime fiction, which include “Rogue Island,” “Providence Rag,” “Cliff Walk,” “A Scourge of Vipers,” and most recently, “The Dread Line,” has won the Edgar and Macavity Awards; has been listed as a finalist for the Shamus, Anthony, and Barry Awards; and has been published in ten foreign languages. He has reviewed books for The New York Times Sunday Book Review, the New York Journal of Books, and The Associated Press. Previously he was a journalist for forty years, most recently as writing coach world-wide for AP, editing stories that won nearly every major journalism prize including the Polk and the Pulitzer.
“It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.”
“This is a story about…”
“…takes no holidays.” Fill in the blank” Death, Crime. I confess I wrote a story that began “Fire takes no holidays.” My only excuse: I was young and very stupid.
How about a line that follows a lead about a person who exemplifies a trend:
“… is not alone,” as in “Chip is not alone. He’ one of millions of people worldwide who think their ideas are worth blogging about”.
Does your novel or screenplay feature a rebel without a cause, a snarky girl who saves the day, or estranged parents brought together after their child is kidnapped?
Every one of these examples is a cliché, a tired, overused phrase, or stereotyped plot or character that are the refuge of writers too lazy or weak to come up with something original. They’re annoying, too.
Clichés are flabby. They weaken the power of prose. They can cost you readers who are looking for writing that is fresh.
Clichés are an understandable refuge when you’re struggling to make meaning out of words, especially on deadline.
When you’re drafting a story, the public domain of words and phrases from popular culture automatically pops into the top of your conscious mind. Before you throw in the towel give up and throw your laptop out the window, cut yourself some slack, don’t be too hard on yourself. In a way, reliance on clichés is not your fault.
“Clichés are prominent features of everyone’s first drafts…” Yagoda writes. “How could they not be? We hear and read them all the time and our brains are filled with them.”
“You can certainly get your point across through clichés,” he concedes. “Iindeed, part of their appeal is the way they allow a nearly effortless, paint by numbers communication.”
But clichés are deadly, and “their first victim,” he says, “ is thought.”
Clichés deaden the mind. They ignore the reader’s demand for originality.
Too many writers choose ready-made prose, George Orwell says in his influential 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” “gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else.”
In Orwell’s oft-quoted list of writing rules, avoid clichés tops the list.
“Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”
Clichés aren’t limited to news writers, Yagoda says, though they are prime offenders. They’re a trap for writers of other forms, too.
“Journalists’ worst writing comes at points when they haven’t done enough reporting and have to fudge or generalize; critics and essayists when they haven’t fully worked out their points or are parroting someone else’s; novelists when they haven’t done the imaginative work necessary to make types and stock situations into real people doing real things.”
Ernest Hemingway once said what the writer needs is a “built-in shit detector.” I’d add a built-in cliché finder.
To dodge clichés, ask yourself if you’ve ever heard a phrase before and where you heard it. Check dictionaries to make sure you’re using it correctly. The Urban Dictionary is especially useful for time-worn slang; it provides the history of usage, tracing “my bad,” for instance to the 1995 movie “Clueless.” Two decades of “my bad” have transformed a clever phrase into a cliché.
Your ears may be the best weapon you have.
If writing is all about revision, then “revision is all about reading,” Yagoda says. “And you need to be a good reader to hear your own clichés and the other ill-advised compositional decisions you’ve made.”
Reading aloud increases your chance of recognizing and deleting the commonplace words and phrases that deadline writing or first drafts generate. It also exposes you to original expression that can be a model of expression.
Before you use a phrase you think is original, check the Internet or your own publication’s archives. A producer at WLS-TV in Chicago created a wonderful list of clichés that reporters and producers could check their scripts against before airtime.
I like The Internet’s Best List of Clichés. Check your stories against its comprehensive list of clichés, bromides, and buzz words. Right now “deep dive,” meaning a through examination of a subject is hot in business writing and journalism.”
I’m beginning to see it more and more in headlines and copy (I used it recently). It has a nice alliterative ring, but I’ve resolved to avoid it in favor of something more original, if I can identify one.
Finally, turn a cliché around. Years ago, I read a business story in the early about computer sales that used “hearts and minds,” a phrase that came into currency during the Vietnam War five decades earlier! It screamed cliché. I thought about it for a minute and thought it might have worked better as ”win the hearts, minds, and modems.”
Avoiding leads is a full time job for writers who care that their prose is as original as they can make it. In the writing improvement bible, “On Writing Well,” William Zinsser sets the standard for “cliché detectors.”
“You will never make your mark as a writer,” he says, “unless you develop a respect for words and a curiosity about their shades of meaning that is almost obsessive.”
Your June interview with Nieman Storyboard is a master class in reporting and writing. What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?
Write what you see and feel: don’t censor yourself. But don’t indulge yourself, either. You’re not out to dazzle but to communicate and, with any luck, move. The fewer words, and even syllables, the better.
What’s been the biggest surprise of your writing life?
That editors will not only run what I write, but actually like and want it. I still feel that whenever something that pleases me appears — or that a phrase I like has survived — I’ve pulled a fast one.
If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be?
A workhorse. It’s never come easily to me, but with enough effort, I’ve usually —and eventually —gotten the job done.
David Margolick is a veteran journalist and author. For many years he was a legal affairs reporter and columnist at The New York Times, for which he covered, among other stories, the trial of O.J. Simpson. He’s also been a long-time contributing editor at Vanity Fair, where he’s profiled Tony Blair, Benjamin Netanyahu, and many others. He is the author, most recently, of The Promise and the Dream: The Untold Story of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. His prior books include Dreadful: The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns; Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock, a study of the principal figures in the iconic photograph from the 1957 school desegregation crisis; Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink; Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song; and A Predator Priest. He has written for the New York Times Book Review, the New York Review of Books, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the Guardian, and is currently writing books on Sid Caesar and Jonas Salk.
Lately, I’ve been plagued by gremlins, those mischievous sprites that cause problems when you’re trying to get something done without fault.
Just recently, I submitted a freelance article that, after several revisions, had finally been accepted for publication. I copyedited it. I ran spellcheck. Several times.
I hit send and then — it’s always the case, it seems — gremlins popped up, smirking, their job done.
A missing article.
A misplaced quotation mark.
A word repeated twice in the same sentence: “that that”
Minor stuff, sure, but the kind of errors that keep writers up at night, worrying whether they got things right. The kind that makes an editor wonder she’s been dealing with an amateur all along and won’t make the same mistake twice.
These are the kinds of mistakes you see in a newspaper, a book or on a website that make you wonder what else they got wrong. Like facts. Or quotes.
I’d made another big mistake. I’d lost touch with Moira.
Moira is a young Irishwoman with a lilting, though slightly robotic, voice. She lives inside my MacBook Pro, nestled under the System Preferences.
Moira is a text-to-speech feature, (TTS) a digital proofreader that, when I have the brains to use her, makes my copy cleaner, smoother and less prone, if not always immune, to gaffes.
All I need do is go to the Dictation and Speech feature in System Preferences, choose among number of voices, select a key to activate TTS and I’m ready to roll.
Moira reads everything I define, from Word and Google documents to emails and text on Web sites, as soon as I simultaneously hit the control and K keys. Hit them again and she pauses in time for me to correct my mistakes.
Losing touch with Moira brought to mind a column I wrote in 2013 extolling the virtues of text-to-speech. Reading it over, I recalled all the advantages TTS offers. (As you’ll see, I’ve switched loyalties from Alex, my first, very robotic-sounding first TTS reader, to the accented tune of Moira.)
“In the three years that TTS has become part of my editing toolkit, Alex has improved my writing, bolstered accuracy and made my stories more graceful. Text-to-speech lets me hear my stories, simultaneously comparing them with the written version, allowing me to detect flaws of word choice, pacing and grammar that I can change on the fly.
When I listen carefully to Alex, he tells me when “know” should be “now.” He guides me to unnecessary sentences and paragraphs. I still rely on the spell and grammar checker, but Alex always manages to find lingering mistakes. I relied on him for every word in my latest book that already had the benefit of a first-rate copy editor. Alex still found missing words, homonyms, such as “then” and “than,” and things I revised but then neglected to delete my original mistake. These days, I let Alex “edit’ my copy before I even activate spell-check.
The brain conspires to keep us from getting things right. We make unconscious errors based on our kinesthetic memory that preserves motions and explains why we can ride a bicycle for the first time since childhood and, after a few wobbles, confidently pedal away. It stores keystrokes as well, which is why I habitually spell judgment with two e’s.
Romance novelist Carolyn Jewel, I noted back then, raved in a testimonial about Text Aloud, her preferred TTS. Hearing her work read aloud by a computer kept her from “supplying meaning that isn’t really there. Lots of writers recommend literally reading one’s work aloud because it’s a great way to catch clunky phrases and repetitive bits. I tried that once, but it’s pretty hard on the voice, and it still doesn’t solve the issue of your eyes and brain conspiring to ‘fix’ typos for you.”
Reading aloud works really well, especially if there’s someone to read to you. But when that’s not possible, text-to-speech is a valuable substitute. Five years after I wrote that column, I’m still a fan of TTS. I’ve started using it again, reacquainting myself with Moira and marveling at the way she keeps the gremlins at bay. I recommend it highly. If those gremlins pop up, I can only blame myself.
PS. Since I first wrote about TTS, Microsoft has vastly upgraded its TTS feature, once vastly inferior to the Apple version. Windows 10 is now on par. One caveat: no Moira.
What’s the most important lessons you’ve learned as an editor?
The most important lesson I’ve learned as an editor is to recognize the intrinsic strength of the stories. In my previous work as a reporter, the sentences and paragraphs felt fragile – and to fool with them too much would risk breaking the story apart. Now, however, being an editor has allowed me to truly see how much revision and tinkering can bring to a story. I wish I’d played more when I was a reporter with structure, focus, and endings. I wish I’d felt more like I do now. These days, when I’m working on a story, it feels as if I’m in the basement of my childhood home, in my father’s cozy workshop, seated on a stool at the long, narrow bench. There, I take apart the words, the sentences, the sections and scrutinize them, figuring out the most powerful way to put them together. Once you have the goods from the reporting, you’re set. We should never be scared to try different approaches with the writing.
What’s been the biggest surprise of your editing life?
Of all the surprises that have come with turning myself into an editor and writing coach, perhaps the most striking is how much I would come to love this work. It had never occurred to me to go into editing, since reporting had been my life’s calling. I was sure I’d never find any other job that lit me up from the inside the way reporting did. In those days, hours would pass by like minutes. I loved getting lost inside stories, getting to know strangers, chasing the moments that mattered, tangling apart complicated policies, science, medicine and ethics. It felt like I was tapping every skill in my brain and heart.
But after getting my sea legs in editing, I found myself falling in love again. It’s as if I’m on a new beat, only this time it’s inside the newsroom, and each reporter is a story I’m trying to develop and grow. Just as in reporting, I get lost inside the stories, picking apart the pieces, trying to open up the doors that a reporter didn’t see, and becoming obsessed and fascinated by each one. I thought editing would be a way station for me until I got back to reporting. Instead, it’s turned into a second love.
If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as an editor, what would it be?
I’ve never been a gardener, and I don’t know much about plants, but I sometimes feel like a gardener at The Baltimore Sun. To me, it feels as if each reporter is a different species, with particular traits, needs and skills. Each needs to be nurtured. And when I roam the newsroom, stopping at desks to chat, it’s as if I’m the reporter, trying to figure out what the story is behind each person. What are they struggling with, what do they really want to do, and how can I help take them to the next level?
It reminds me of the orchid on the tiled shelf behind my kitchen sink. I watch over it. Sometimes, I turn it slightly to better catch the rays of the sun. Or I gently wipe the dust off the leaves, or whisper encouragingly to it as I give it a drink of water. If I do a good job, that plant will thrive. If I do a good job at work, the reporter is lit up, inspired, renewed. Maybe we’ve dug a story out of their mental attic, one they’d given up on, or we’ve come up with another approach to a routine daily, or brainstormed a great enterprise story. For so many, it doesn’t take much to get them to face the sun. On good days, I see their imaginations and ambitions growing, their hearts blooming. They go from saplings to tall, strong trees. They find their inner core. Sometimes, I feel as if I’m in worn overalls, a faded hat on my head, at sunset, looking out over the sprawling fields. I take in the wildflowers, the orchards, the willow trees. And I feel joy.
Diana K. Sugg is a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist and writing coach/enterprise editor at The Baltimore Sun, where she loves to nurture stories and reporters. She has edited award-winning series on the unseen, insidious effects of crime on Baltimore citizens, the struggles of refugees in a city high school, and the attempts to integrate Baltimore schools.Previously, she was a veteran beat reporter whose crime and medical coverage won national prizes. She worked at the Associated Press in Philadelphia, The Spartanburg (S.C.) Herald-Journal, The Sacramento Bee and The Baltimore Sun, where she won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for beat reporting for her medical stories. Her work has been featured in the country’s most popular journalism textbooks, and she’s spoken widely to journalists around the country about reporting and learning to follow your heart. She earned a master’s degree at Ohio State’s Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism. She has served as a Pulitzer juror and on the National Advisory Board of the Poynter Institute.
Craft Query: How would you answer these three questions?
She’s a writer whose angst might surprise you. Before she joined The New York Times Magazine as a staff writer, Columbia Journalism Review “called her one of the nation’s most successful freelance writers,” including simultaneous gigs at the Times Magazine and GQ. Oh, and she’s also the author of a best-selling debut novel, “Fleishman Is In Trouble.”
So how could someone this successful feel this way?
Psychologists have a name for this affliction: imposter, or fraud, syndrome. In 1978, psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes coined the term to “describe an experience of feeling incompetent and of having deceived others about one’s abilities.”
It may be hard to feel sorry for them. When’s the last time you set foot on the moon? Walked the red carpet? Lived in the White House. Stop whining.
But consider this: every time they succeed, they’re terrified whether they can do it again and if not, will be exposed to the world as the frauds they’re convinced they are.
It should because imposters don’t have to be mega-stars. Imposter syndrome targets everyone from the neophyte struggling with their first stories, to the consummate pro with credits to die for.
I think of it as the “Who am I?” syndrome that pesters all of us \with doubts about our worth or abilities.
“Who are you to think you can write a novel or a narrative series or a screenplay,” the inner critic hisses. “You’ve never written one. You never went to journalism school or have an MFA in Creative Writing. Just who the hell do you think you are, you charlatan?”
Right about then, your fingers stop typing.
Here’s the thing, though.
Learning that wildly successful people often feel like great pretenders can be very liberating. If they can feel this way sometimes, maybe, I tell myself, I’m not such a loser after all.
All of us at one point or another — every day perhaps, every story, every draft or revision — may face that moment that we’re convinced we are a failure and today is the day “they” (whoever “they” are) will find out.
To succeed, you have to push back against the cries of ‘imposter” that ring in your head when you start a story, or face the fifth revision. They can drown out creativity, stifle optimism and stop a promising project in its tracks.
Years ago, I had an idea for a book. I did a lot of work on it, but eventually, I lost faith in it and myself. You’ll never get it done, I told myself. And even if you do no publisher will want it. So I quit. Years later, all I feel is regret. That’s the curse of imposter syndrome.
If that’s the penalty, what’s the reprieve? What can a successful “imposter” teach those of us who may not cash the same paychecks but have the same creative dreams and the same emotional misgivings?
What works for Taffy Brodesser-Akner is something she acknowledged to her New York Times interviewer “will sound nuts.”
“When I was in film school in the 90s, we talked a lot about the hero on his (always his) journey, in the face of adversity. I learned how to write a very fatuous script about what a person does in moments of great stress. I think if you look at every single moment of adversity or self-doubt in your life and imagine yourself as the hero of a 90s movie — a thriller, a rom-com, a satire, whatever — it’s easy to answer the question: What does the hero do next? You figure that out and do it. It always amounts to the same thing, which is to rise up and do the hard thing anyway.”
I wish I had that mantra sounding in my head when I hit a wall on that book project. But it’s never too late. Even if you do feel like a fraud sometimes, that advice may be just what you need to combat imposter syndrome.
So join the flock of frauds out there (Pssst. Most of us feel this way sometimes) and prove yourself wrong.
Standing behind the mask of every imposter is a hero.
CRAFT QUERY: How do you “rise up and do the hard thing anyway?”
May the writing go well.
Photograph by Niklas Kikl courtesy of unsplash.com
What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned as a writer?
(Those are such good questions that I’m going to answer each of them twice.)
The two answers to this one are paradoxical. One lesson is to listen to what other people say about your writing; the other is not to listen to what others say about your writing. The trick is knowing which one the situation calls for. Starting out, when something I wrote was turned down, I would take it as a judgment both on my piece and myself. The latter is of course ridiculous, but human. Writers, actors, musicians—everyone who’s rejected a lot—have got to learn, early on, to separate their work from their worth as a person. What came a little later, for me, was to understand that an editor’s view of something I’d written was just his or her opinion, not ultimate truth. If I have faith in an idea or a finished piece, and it’s turned down, I’ve learned to just keep sending it out, if possible making it a little better each time. It usually (not always) finds a home somewhere. At the same time, it’s important to learn to take honest criticism or suggestions in good faith. Right now, I’m developing a book idea, and when I described it to a writer friend, who I respect a lot, she suggested, if not a 180-degree turn, then at least a 120. At one point, I would have nodded and made polite sounds, but then kept going on exactly the same way. But I’ve learned my lesson over the years, and when I thought about what she said, I realized she was totally right. I’m going with her idea.
What’s been the biggest surprise of your writing life?
The first answer is a positive one, the second mixed. Number one has to do with the subjects I’ve written about. Most of them have to do with things I’ve been interested in since college or high school or even before—literature, sports, humor, music, American culture in general. But I wouldn’t have expected that I would develop a side specialty in language and writing—with four books so far, dozens and dozens of articles, and a website on an obscure point of usage that I’ve been writing for nearly nine years and has had 2.3 million page views (notoneoffbritishisms.com). Looking back, though, I shouldn’t be surprised at all. Probably half of my childhood memories have to do with hearing a word or expression for the first time or an unfamiliar or unusual way. This interest-bordering-on-obsession of mine had been hiding in plain sight all along. The second surprise relates to that blog, and another I write on an equally obscure topic (moviesinothermovies.com), and specifically my monetary compensation for them, which is nada, zilch, bupkis. That’s the same rate I’m getting for answering these excellent questions. The surprising thing is loads of writers—not just me— are doing good work for free, or perhaps the hope or promise that the work will promote their books, or lectures, or trucker hats, or whatever. Writing gratis would have been unthinkable when I was starting out. If you didn’t have a staff job, you freelanced, a Grub Street hack, with all that that entailed. The current climate is bemusing. It’s unfortunate that readers have come to expect not to pay for what they read online; I’m not sure if that genie can be put back in the bottle. And corporate owners who rake in profits and don’t pay writers (or artists) for “content” are detestable. But there’s so much good, clever, passionate, knowing stuff out there on relatively narrow or obscure topics, stuff that just isn’t commercial. It’s sort of a 19th-century thing, and not completely terrible, that these enthusiasts have day jobs supporting their writing habit.
If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be?
I’ve got a single answer for this one, with two parts. The metaphor for me as a writer is a floor cleaning company. First, I vacuum up every possible thing on a subject: stuff I read (especially), interviews, possibilities and notions that I follow through in my own mind. Then, after I’ve put something down, I bring out the polishing machine and run it back and forth over the floor for a long time, smoothing out all the roughness and buffing the surface till it gleams.
Ben Yagoda is the author, coauthor or editor of twelve books, among them “The Sound on the Page, ” “When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It,” “How to Not Write Bad” and “The Art of Fact.” He has written about language, writing and many other topics for Slate.com, the New York Times Book Review and Magazine, The American Scholar, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and magazines that start with every letter of the alphabet except K, Q, X, and Z. Between 2011 and 2018, he contributed roughly one post a week to Lingua Franca, a Chronicle of Higher Education blog about language and writing. You can find links to all his posts here. His personal blogs are Not One-Off Britishisms and Movies in Other Movies. He’s a native of New Rochelle, New York; a graduate of Yale; and a resident of Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. In 2018, he retired after twenty-five years teaching writing and journalism at the University of Delaware. Before that, he worked as a film critic for the Philadelphia Daily News and an editor for Philadelphia and other magazines. He currently consults, edits, and works with writers.
In 2006 I was living in a stripped-out Chevy van in a Denver, Colorado Walmart parking lot with a Rottweiler and a cat. Three years later, I was in England at Oxford University, speaking at TED Global courtesy of Dan Pink, bestselling author and former head speechwriter for former Vice President Al Gore.
How did I go from one place to the other in such a short amount of time? Simple. By writing for my life. One of the things that only a handful of people know about me is that at the time I was competing to speak at TED Global, not just attend it, I had two TED talks prepared and accepted. Organizers had to choose the one they did and decided on it because it best fit that year’s theme — on being invisible.
The talk I didn’t give was entitled “Writing for My Life.” It was writing for my life in a competition Dan Pink hosted that landed me in one of three spots as a finalist.
In the last days I stayed up all night writing a free ebook to be a give away to would-be voters in an online competition. The ebook was the next chapter I suggested adding to Dan Pink’s best-selling book, The Adventures of Johnny Bunko. It was part of my strategy to get people’s attention, and to win the popular vote and the attention of motivational speaker and business blogger, Seth Godin.
Once I was notified I’d be talking at TED Global 2009, I began to write my TED talk. That same week I had received word about another essay contest for a book by Tim Russert, at the time a Senior Vice President of NBC. That win led to more opportunities and an agent.
Writing, like I say, literally saved my life. This post is not the talk, “writing for my life,” but it’s based on it.
Since 2009 I’ve realized that when we write with authenticity about anger, fear, betrayal, and the things that move us, scare us, and challenge us, we heal. I know this to be a fact.
How It Began
I began writing for my life at the age of 10. My father would get drunk, come into my room with his belt in hand, commanded I strip off all my clothes, and then he’d beat and molest me for no reason other than he felt like it. One day I said, out of the blue, “Let me write a paper about why you shouldn’t do this.” He stopped short, belt in hand.
He started college at age 30. A shoe salesman, a high school friend had come into his shoe store one day. He asked him what he was doing, and he told him he was a dentist. My father came home that day, declared if “that dumb ass could graduate from college and medical school, he could too.” He listed the house for sale that day, and a year later was enrolled in the University of Tennessee. At the time he came into my room, he had just graduated from dental school and was working on a post-graduate degree. He’d been the first in his family ever to graduate from high school, and with six years of higher education finished and more in the wings, he was nuts about school. He was always studying or writing papers.
He listened to me, appeared to think about it for a few minutes, then said, “Okay.” I worked on the one and a half page paper for over an hour then left my room and took it to him. He was sitting at the kitchen table, drinking sweet tea and eating a sandwich. He read my essay, looked solemn for a moment, then suggested a few changes. He never beat me again. I had to write a lot of papers for the next four years, but my writing saved me.
Since then, I’ve written a lot — both to save my life and the lives of others. I avoided homelessness earlier in life by entering a short-story contest for the local newspaper and winning a turkey and $50. I landed a job with the paper shortly after that and saved my housing situation.
I wrote about ‘Buddy,’ a golden Labrador whose owner, a runner, was going to have the dog put down rather than give him up to a home where he wouldn’t be able to run every day. His owner was moving out-of-state, and Buddy couldn’t go with him. He loved running too much and would be miserable confined to a yard. His owner reached out to the newspaper in one last attempt to find a new owner. The editor thought it was a stupid story, not really newsworthy, and so he gave it to me, the “new guy.” So, I wrote for Buddy’s life. I wrote about Buddy’s “last run,” and the “last sights, last treats, last hugs” he encountered along the way he and his owner ran every day. The story ran, and another runner adopted buddy within 24 hours. The outpouring of letters and calls surprised the editor and the newsroom.
I wrote for me, for others, and I wrote when others had stopped writing. The year was 1989, and a local sailor came to the paper wanting to tell his story about the explosion of the USS Iowa only weeks before. I listened as he cried, describing the scene. He was the first man into the turret and recalled having to break limbs of dead sailors to get them out of the turret. My stories reignited interest in the explosion. The Navy claimed two gay sailors having a lover’s quarrel had set off the explosion — even though both men were married and shipmates claimed the men were not gay. Their wives lost all benefits because the Navy ruled the explosion and their involvement a “crime,” and closed the case. Then my story ran — not just locally, but nationally. The media attention forced the Navy to reopen the investigation and reverse their decision (although never admitting they were wrong) The widows of the two sailors accused of wrongdoing received death benefits after all.
I’m not bragging. I’m using examples from my life to show you how powerful writing can be if we understand what it can do. Writing is more than just entertainment, amusement, or education. It can heal us, strengthen us, and change us if we let it. When non-profits write for funding, when lovers write love notes, when those with mental health issues write to exorcise their demons, they’re all writing for their lives. No matter what your situation is, you can write for your health, healing, and life too.
How To Write For Your Life
Millions of us write every day. We write emails, Facebook posts, texts, reports, and proposals. We write for work, for school, for family and friends. But we rarely “write for our lives.”
What does it mean to “write for your life”? Define it how you will, but I say “writing for your life,” means writing to be heard and to make a difference. Being heard means someone understands you, gets you, and your message touches them, changes them, pulls them up short and makes them think, or take a second look.
Understand your end goal and keep it in front of you. I was at a writer’s conference with a client of mine this past August. We were talking about her daughter being worried that her classmates wouldn’t all like her unless she fit in better (clothes, hair, etc.). I asked her what her daughter’s “end game” was — did she want to be liked, or want to be an actress? Once you know what your end game or ultimate goal is, you can ignore the distractions and rabbit trails all around you and focus on your message and getting it heard. Her daughter wanted to be an actress — and that would mean doing things that guaranteed not everyone would like her — like being true to her hairstyle and fashion and music sense. When you know what your end goal is, everything that won’t help you reach that goal is no longer important.
Cry, but Turn Off the Tears in Your Writing. I was working with another client on her memoir. It read like a year’s worth of therapy notes — tears, pain, grief, and anguish. It was cathartic for her, wrenching for the reader who committed to reading it, but nothing anyone else would find a “good read.” Readers, I explained, aren’t looking for more of what they’ve experienced. They’re looking for solutions, insights, awareness, and tips and stories on how you escaped the pain, how you healed, how you survived.
When she changed her narrative from victim to survivor, and seriously looked at how she had gotten out of her abusive relationship she began to write differently. She wrote about how she found the strength to move out of state, and how she learned to take care of herself. In her writing, she found the strength she’d always taken for granted and integrated all her broken pieces into one whole — her book. She chose not to publish it, but simply cherish it and refer back to it. Sometimes we don’t need an audience. Sometimes we just need to listen to ourselves.
When you write for your life, write to show where you’re strong, why you matter, what you stand for, not why someone should rescue you or how pitiful you are. Not only does that kind of writing become a part of you, but it also gets into your brain and changes your perception of yourself. It heals you. There’s nothing wrong with crying, or with sharing your journey, your past, or your pain. Just do it in such a way people understand it doesn’t define you. It happened to you, and you’re dealing with it.
Be Authentic. Your history and the details of your story don’t have to have all the elements and drama for a made-for-television-movie. The story just has to be real and to be you. When Buddy’s owner came to the newspaper, he was looking for someone to adopt his dog, so he didn’t have to put him down. It was a love story, not a tragedy. I didn’t embellish, or plead, or try to convince anyone they should adopt him. I just told the story and detailed a day in the life of a dog who loved to run with his master. When you tell an authentic story, readers get it. You don’t need special effects, or “spin,” or tricks. You don’t need to manipulate them into feeling something you assumer or think they “should” feel. You just need to be real.
Don’t have a scripted ending. One of the things my clients worry about is crafting their ending before they’ve even begun to write the book. Don’t. The ending will take care of itself if the story is authentic and pulled from your heart. Trust yourself and the process to let it play out. Don’t try to control the ending. Let it emerge. You might be pleasantly surprised by how good it is.
Don’t question whether it’s “good” or “newsworthy” or important. If it’s important to you, it will be important to those who matter, and those who share your pain, insight, thoughts, or wisdom. While working for Media General, I started my first blog, http://apublicdeath.blogspot.com/2007/06/christopher-scott-emmett.html. I was selected in a journalist’s lottery to attend and watch the execution of Christopher Scott Emmett. Emmett was convicted in October of 2001 for the capital murder of co-worker John Langley in Danville, Virginia. I was pressured to write about being a pro-or-anti death penalty. But the fact was, I didn’t know what I believed. Having been a police officer briefly, and worked for the Boulder, CO prosecutor’s office, I had the background and exposure to murders. But I didn’t know where I stood on the topic of the death penalty. So, I chronicled my journey, my doubts, my fears, my questions, and my experience.
You don’t have to an ending, a position, or a scripted narrative to write for your life. You just need to have something to say that you desperately want others to hear. And, if you’re not sure what it is you want others to hear, write it anyway. The purpose will emerge.
Becky Blanton was a TED Global speaker in 2009. A journalist for 23 years, Becky is and has been a full-time ghostwriter for ten years since her TED Global talk. She has worked with three-time bestselling author, publisher, and corporate ghostwriter Melissa G Wilson of Networlding.com for more than six years. Becky is also a developmental editor for business books and business memoirs for CEOs, Fortune 500 companies, and business speakers. Right now, she’s writing to save herself again. She has a paralyzed vocal cord as a result of a common cold virus and hasn’t been able to speak for six months. Without surgery to correct it, she’ll never talk again. Writing for one’s life can take many forms, but all of them heal. Hope always finds a way.
“It’s a matter of how you define writer’s block. Of course I have times when the words don’t come; that’s when I do some of the many other building or tidying tasks involved in the writing, publishing, or publicizing of a book (or story, or play, or screenplay). If there’s a day on which my brain is completely sluggish I call that a research day and jump down a particular internet rabbit hole or go to the library. What I never do is panic and declare that the muse has abandoned me just because I’m not feeling it that day. (It strikes me now that this is much like keeping up a long-term love relationship.)”
Gay Talese is generally considered one of the pioneers of today’s narrative nonfiction movement.
In the 1960s, Talese, then a reporter for The New York Times, and later as a contributor to Esquire magazine, began producing a series of singular stories — among them a seminal portrait of Frank Sinatra that redefined the profile — credited with helping to launch a literary journalism movement that continues to this day.
I recently read “A Writer’s Life,” Talese’s 2006 memoir that takes readers behind the scenes of his most famous stories. It’s also an autobiography that traces his development as a writer. For fans of the New Journalism and Gay Talese, it’s a bounty of revealing information and inspiration.
His recollections of the stories he’s covered, from the famous profile of an aging Frank Sinatra (“Frank Sinatra Has a Cold”) to the 1965 civil rights march in Selma, Alabama, display his trademark devotion to detail and dialogue and a richly woven style of the finest fiction writers.
Little wonder. As an ambitious young sportswriter at The New York Times, Talese “nevertheless continued to read and be influenced primarily by writers of fiction,” he writes. Reading literary supplements and The New Yorker, the son of an Italian immigrant who made bespoke suits would go on to make his name as a writer of celebrated nonfiction.
He describes a seminal moment in his development: a short story by John O’Hara about court tennis that presaged the standards of his own work as a daily journalist, magazine contributor and author.
“…it did not seem to matter in this case whether or not O’Hara was writing fiction; insofar as he had woven into a story the facts and details about the club and the game, he had met the demanding standards of accuracy as upheld daily by the desk editors in the Times sports department.”
What impressed Talese most was the good fiction writer’s ability to place the reader there , which is what he would go on to do in his own work. Immersing himself in the lives of his subjects became his method for putting readers into the lives of his subjects. Today, it’s common practice for narrative journalists. Back then, it was revolutionary.
Above all, Talese was a reporter who trafficked in facts, but would not be limited by them. In that way, “A Writer’s Life” is a master class in drawing the distinction between the two.
“Without faking the facts, my reportorial approach would be fictional,” he writes, “with lots of intimate detail, scene-setting, dialogue, and a close identity with my chosen characters and their conflicts.”
The memoir is replete with descriptions of a writing habit that revolves around painstaking handwritten drafts and endless revisions that set an example for any writer who dares imitate him.
And for those fascinated, as am I, by the rituals of successful writers, Talese doesn’t disappoint.
“When I am writing, each morning at around 8 I’m at my desk with a tray of muffins and a thermos filled with hot coffee at my side, and I sit working for about 4 hours and then leave for a quick lunch at a coffee shop, follows perhaps by a set or two of tennis. By 4 p.m. I’m back at my desk revising, discarding, or adding to what I had written earlier.”
At 8 p.m. he’s enjoying a numbing dry martini before dinner.
For decades, his writing instrument of choice was a manual typewriter which he lavished with obsessive care.
“Although my portable Olivetti manual typewriters purchased during the 1950’s are dented and wobbly after my having hammered out more than a million words through miles of moving ribbons (I have also secured several loose letters to their arms with threads of dental floss) I nonetheless continue to use these machines at times because of the aesthetic appeal of their typefaces, their classical configuration imposed upon each and every word.”
Eventually, he succumbs to the computer age (Macintosh), but for most of his writing, he now reverts to the instruments that predate the digital recorders of thought or even the banging of his beloved Olivettis.
“I was now reconciled,” he says, “to accepting what I had experienced throughout my working life; Whatever serious writing I was capable of doing would be done most likely in my own handwriting, on a yellow lined- pad, with a pencil.”
Talese is definitely a quirky guy. He keeps twins of everything he needs to write in his Manhattan and summer home: computers, printers, typewriters, photocopiers, wastebaskets, pencil sharpeners, fountain pens, even clothes.
Emulating Marcel Proust’s cork-lined bedroom, he covers his home office walls with Styrofoam panels, “each Panel 10 ft long, 2 feet wide, an inch thick;” not, apparently, to deafen distracting sounds, but to attach his notes and manuscript pages with the tool of his father’s trade: dressmaking pins, “or, on those rare occasions when my work is flowing, the many manuscript pages filled with finished prose that dangle overhead like a line of drying white laundry, fluttering slightly from the effects of a distant fan.” A single phrase that makes visible the joy of reading his style.
Talese devotes most of the book to the stories behind his stories—his coverage of the Lorena Bobbit case, a closely chaperoned visit to China, his many stories of the boxer Floyd Patterson, and the actor Peter O’Toole.
I would have liked to have heard about how he wrote “Mr. Bad News,” a fascinating portrait of Alden Whitman, an obituary writer for The York Times,” which I first encountered in 1972 in his early collection of nonfiction, “Fame and Obscurity: A Book About New York, a Bridge and Celebrities on the Edge,” when I was a young reporter for a small daily newspaper with dreams of writing fiction. I treasure my dog-eared, autographed copy.
Talese turned my attention, like many writers of my generation, to narrative nonfiction. To better understand the birth and demands of the form, “The New Journalism,” an anthology edited by Tom Wolfe, himself an early master of the form, and E.W. Johnson, should be read as a companion piece to Talese’s memoir.
Wolfe’s introduction is a semester’s worth of training while the stories demonstrate what is possible using Talese’s methods. The book was instrumental in my development as a narrative writer and many others I have known.
“Mr. Bad News,’” which Esquire thankfully keeps in print as one of its classic nonfiction articles, showed me that the tools of the fiction writer — scenes, dialogue, detail, conflict, complication, climax and, above all, voice — could be employed in writing nonfiction narrative. His decades-old stories remain great reads. The best of these encounters are contained in “The Gay Talese Reader.”
In the memoir, he trains his attention on the 1950s proving ground of dubious journalistic methods unheard of today. Listen to his description of the ethical standards when he was rising in the Times newsroom:
“We were courtiers, wooers, ingratiating negotiators who traded on what we might provide those who dealt with us. We offered voice to the muted, clarification to the misunderstood, exoneration to the maligned. Potentially we were hornblowers for publicity Hounds, trial balloonists for political opportunists, lamplighters for theatrical stars and other luminaries. We were invited to Broadway openings, banquets, and other Galas. We became accustomed to having our telephone calls returned from important people, and being upgraded as airline passengers through our connections with their public relations offices, and having our parking tickets fixed through the influence of reporter friends who covered the police department. Whatever we lacked in personal ethics and moral character we might rationalize by telling ourselves that we were the underpaid protectors of the public interest. We exposed greedy landlords, corrupt judges, swindlers on Wall Street. But nothing published was more perishable than what we wrote.”
You can’t but hope some of Gay Talese, his precise vocabulary, the contrast between short sentences and winding ones that transfix, rubs off on your own work. “A Writer’s Life” can certainly help.
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
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.
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.
“If writing a book is impossible, write a chapter. If writing a chapter is impossible, write a page. If writing a page is impossible, write a paragraph. If writing a paragraph is impossible, write a sentence. If writing a sentence is impossible, write a word and teach yourself everything there is to know about that word and then write another, connected word and see where the connection leads.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned as a poet?
I’ve learned the inherent worth of small stories. I grew up thinking that poems had no chance of becoming iconic unless they were grasping for huge unwieldy concepts, unless they were somewhat blurry and confounding, unless the reader was armed with a sharp shovel to burrow for meaning. Now I know there’s a community that craves mirrored lives and new ways to move sanely from day to day. There’s nothing that can’t become a poem, and that poem can be clear, accessible, and as lyrical as our lives are.
What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?
I am constantly astonished that people want to read what I write. Sometimes I feel like I’m writing in a vacuum, writing what I’ve always wanted to read, and subconsciously I’m always prepared to be my own audience. If there were never an audience or a chance to be published, I’d still be writing, because that’s how I check my temperature, see if I’m still firmly rooted in the world I want. I still find it amazing when someone says “I’ve felt that, I just didn’t know there was a way to say it.”
I shouldn’t be surprised. I’ve often said that to other writers. I guess that’s how the community grows.
If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a poet, what would it be and why?
A tornado—fevered and famously unpredictable. No one ever knows where I’m going to touch down and how much damage I will do.
Patricia Smith is the author of eight books of poetry including “Incendiary Art“, winner of the 2018 Kingsley Tufts Award, the 2017 LA Times Book Prize, the 2018 NAACP Image Award and finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize;“Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah,” winner of the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American Poets; and “Blood Dazzler,” a National Book Award finalist. She is a Guggenheim fellow, an NEA grant recipient, a former fellow at Civitella Ranieri, Yaddo and MacDowell, a Cave Canem faculty member, and a professor at both the College of Staten Island and the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College.
Worrying is an occupational hazard for artists. Writers fear they’ve lost their touch, that their last story was just that and that they’ve run out of ideas. Or they write an opening that seems to work and then they get stuck, and don’t know how to continue or where to end.
Frank O’Connor, the legendary Irish short story writer, didn’t worry when he started composing a short story. They would eventually fill a dozen collections and appeared regularly in The New Yorker magazine for nearly two decades until his death in 1966.
“I don’t give a hoot what the writing’s like; I write any sort of rubbish which will cover the main outlines of the story, then I can begin to see it,” he told a Paris Reviewinterviewer in 1957, at the height of his fame.
“Rubbish” on the page or screen would terrify most writers, but O’Connor knew that it wouldn’t decompose because he was a passionate, some might say obsessive, believer in the power of revision.
Revision, from the Latin for “look at again,” is the final and most important step of the writing process. Writing is all about revision.
O’Connor revised, “Endlessly, endlessly, endlessly.” In one collection, he said, “there are stories I have rewritten 50 times.” He continued to revise stories even after they were published.
Revision is a gift to writers who are wise enough to take advantage of it.
Instead of worrying, why not ask questions that can drive your next revision and produce your final draft?
Is my story:
Well-organized, with a beginning that grabs a reader’s attention, a middle that keeps the reader engaged and an ending that lingers in the reader’s mind?
Are my characters believable?
Does the dialogue sound the way people speak to — and past — each other?
Are the descriptions vivid, full of sensory details that trigger brain imagery?
Too many writers jump the gun. They begin judging their work before it’s ready for critical consideration. Draft first. Get your story down no matter how flawed you think it is. Only then is it time to take the opportunities revision offer.
We discover our stories by writing them. And we make our meaning clear by revising them.
That’s why my advice to writers fearful that their story is a pile of rubbish is to follow the example of Ned Rorem and Frank O’Connor.
Don’t worry. Write first. Leave the judging until later.
When a friend asked us to find World War II grave in France, we didn’t understand it would send us on a pilgrimage through America’s and Europe’s past
The Mercedes taxi sped along the country highway. For the tenth time since we left Paris that June morning, I looked at the piece of paper in my hand.
U.S. Military Cemetery.
9 miles west of St. Lo.
Pfc. John Juba Jr. Inf. 4 Div.
Killed Aug. 4, 1944. 20 years old.
That was all I knew about the man whose grave my wife and I were on the way to visit. Kathy and I were on a delayed 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 back home.
Pat Callahan didn’t know much about John Juba either; his half-brother had been killed before he was born. Pat didn’t know how he died; only that he was buried in France in a grave no one in the family had ever seen. He asked if my wife and I would mind visiting the cemetery on our vacation, maybe take a picture of the gravestone for his mother.
If it’s on your way, of course, Pat said when he handed me the directions, and that was how we left it.
It wasn’t on our way, as it turned out, but all through our vacation the X marked beside Marigny on our map of France nagged at us. I’d never met Pat’s mother. Was she wondering if we’d found the cemetery? Did she wait to hear what the place where her son was buried looked like? In the end, we didn’t want to disappoint a woman who’d lost her first son in a war and never had the chance to pray at his grave. The day after we arrived in Paris we set out by train for Marigny, about 300 miles to the west.
Four hours later, the taxi we hired at the St. Lo station raced through the rolling Normandy countryside, quickly eating up the nine miles left of our journey. For the first time that day I began to relax. We’d find the grave, take some pictures and make it back to Paris for a boat ride on the Seine without any problem.
I didn’t know there were any Americans buried in Marigny anymore, the taxi driver said over his shoulder.
I was still trying to explain, in my rusty French, about the directions in my hand and how there had to be an American cemetery there because that’s where this soldier was buried, when the cabbie turned off the highway toward Marigny and pointed to a sign planted in a grassy traffic island.
German military cemetery, it said in French and German. Kathy and I were staring at each other now, beginning to panic. They just don’t pick up cemeteries and move them, I said. It’s got to be there.
We came to a sleepy Main Street of stone shops, and the cabbie stopped to consult a woman on the sidewalk.
American cemetery? she said, yes, there used to be one outside of town, but it’s not there anymore. There are only Germans there now.
I wasn’t ready to give up yet. Maybe the Americans are buried with the Germans, I suggested to the driver. He shook his head, but drove on. A few miles out of town, on a narrow road that wound its way through apple orchards and pastures, he turned onto a dirt driveway and pulled up in front of a tall, stone fence.
Behind it, we found a tree-shaded meadow lined with neat rows of yellow rosebushes, like Normandy’s hedgerows, stretching to the horizon. This was a curious cemetery.
There weren’t many gravestones visible, just groups of brown crosses set in a row and staggered among the rosebushes. The graves 11,169 of them, we learned from a brochure in the chapel were marked by stone rectangles set into the earth. We only needed to read a few of the names inscribed on them, Heinz, Friedrich, Gunther, to realize that our search for John Juba’s grave hadn’t ended. It had just begun.
I think it was about 15 years ago they moved all the American graves, the cabbie told us on the way back to St. Lo. As far as I know, there’s only one American cemetery in Normandy now. It’s a big one up north at Colleville sur Mer, on the shore. You could take a train to Bayeux and get a taxi out there. It’s only about 30 kilometers.
We were hot, tired and hungry, but neither of us wanted to stop yet. We got on another train, and in less than an hour, a taxi deposited us in front of the visitors building at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.
In Normandy, we find a clue
In the office we found Pedro Rivera, a New Mexico native who was the cemetery’s superintendent and asked for his help. Yes, he told us, there had been an American cemetery at Marigny once, but it was a temporary one. After the war, the graves were moved to permanent cemeteries like this one perched on a cliff overlooking Omaha Beach and the English Channel.
He reached up to a wall shelf lined with half a dozen thick, black books, pulled one down and began flipping pages lined with columns of tiny print. If John Juba were buried overseas, Rivera said, his name would be in here. The books contained the names of American war dead buried overseas or commemorated as unknown or missing: 35,000 names from World War I and more than 182,000 from World War II.
American war dead like in cemeteries around the world, Rivera told us, but a Normandy casualty could be found in only two places. Here, on the site of the largest amphibious assault in the history of the world, or in another cemetery about 60 miles south, in the province of Brittany.
Here he is, the superintendent said, his finger stopping at the bottom of a page. John Juba Jr. He was a Pfc. He paused and then looked up at us.
Oh, I’m sorry, he said. He’s in Brittany.
At least we’ll be able to tell his mother where he is buried, I told Kathy outside the visitors building. She nodded, but we were both disappointed. We had a few hours to catch our train back to Paris, so we strolled in the cemetery, mixing with the crowds of schoolchildren, families of tourists and a contingent of French soldiers. The cemetery draws more than a million people a year, Rivera told us.
We passed by a 22-foot bronze statute of a young man. The Spirit of American Youth rising from the Waves. The dead at Normandy lie under a carpet of grass kept green by lawn sprinklers waving back and forth over the white-marble headstones, 9,386 of them, set in single-file rows that reach to infinity. Beyond them, we came to the cliffs of Normandy and gazed down at the beach hundreds of yards below.
From books and movies, I knew something about the history made on this spot, but it was hard to imagine it then.
It was raining on D-Day. Today the sun was warm, the sky as blue as the water and dotted with puffy white clouds. Not an armada of ships, just a single sailboat; no dead, just a lone family sunbathing on the beach.
You know, if we stop now, Kathy said, all we can bring back is what they gave us in the first place: an address.
I was surprised she wanted to go on. By now, we knew that visiting John Juba’s grave was going to mean spending another vacation day doing it. We’d have to return to Paris first and then set out again this time for Brittany.
I wouldn’t blame you if you wanted to quit, I said. We tried.
‘It’s become a pilgrimage’
I know, she said, but we can’t stop now. She smiled. It’s become a pilgrimage, like going to Lourdes.
The train to Paris was crowded, and we had to take seats apart. Kathy sat opposite two American college kids who, it turned out, had been at Normandy that day too. Omaha Beach attracted them for a reason different from ours though.
We went, said the taller of the pair, otherwise identical in shorts and nylon backpacks, to lie on the beach, you know, catch some rays.
John Juba was 18 years old, about the same age as these two college kids when he was drafted out of trade school in 1942. Everyone called him Johnny. He loved to play football and baseball. He was engaged to a girl named Dorothy.
We didn’t know any of this when we were searching for his grave. It wasn’t until we returned home that I learned more about him from his mother, Mrs. Ann Callahan, 76, who lives in the Hartford Park Housing Project in Providence.
Johnny grew up in New Kensington, Pa., where the family lived at the time. He wasn’t happy to be drafted, his mother said. But she recalled a letter he once wrote from overseas.
I’d rather be here, he wrote, than see a man that has a family.
He stepped on a mine and it blew his legs off, his mother said. He was still alive in the hospital, but when he found he lost his legs, the shock killed him,
John Juba’s resting place
It was raining two days later when we stepped out of a taxi at the gate to the Brittany American Cemetery and Memorial. There was no one in sight and the visitors building was locked. We were headed for the graves when I realized that I had forgotten to bring flowers.
It had taken 37 years for someone to visit John Juba’s grave and I wanted it to be a special occasion. Kathy was right. This was a pilgrimage, a journey to the grave of a soldier who could have been anyone’s son, brother, father, husband. In some unspoken way, I felt that we had become his family, at least for this one day, and I knew that his family would have brought flowers.
Wait here, I told Kathy and set off the rural highway in search of wildflowers. I was about to settle for a flowering carrot weed when I heard a radio through the open window of a stone farmhouse and saw beside it a garden bursting with white roses and snapdragons.
The old man who answered the back door wore scuffed black clogs, gardening clothes and a cap. His apple cheeks were whiskery with white stubble. I had interrupted his lunch; behind him, in the spartan, stone kitchen, a bowl of bread, cheese and cherries sat on a table covered with an oilcloth.
In my clumsy French, I told him about our search for the American soldier’s grave and asked for permission to pick a few flowers from his garden. He turned away without a word.
I was about to leave myself ready to believe that the French do hate all Americans when he reappeared with a pair of pruning shears. He waved away my suggestion of payment. Bring your wife back with you after you’ve seen the grave, he said. We’ll visit and drink some wine.
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 half time. 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.
Granite stones in the grass marked each section. I saw one labeled D on the right and ran over, excited and nervous at the same time. What if he wasn’t here either?
Over here, I yelled to Kathy, a hundred yards behind me. I cringed as my shout broke the stillness, and a man appeared in the window of a house next door. Within moments he emerged, a middle-aged man in a tan raincoat who introduced himself as Donald Davis, the superintendent of the cemetery.
D-10-8, he said. That’s right down here. He led us down nine rows of graves, turned down the tenth and began to count off crosses. At the eighth, we stopped and found John Juba’s name cut into the white marble.
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.
‘The Young Who Died Delivered Us”
The old Frenchman was outside trimming his rosebushes when we returned. He invited us into the kitchen, where the air was tangy with wood smoke, and poured port wine into three china cups.
His name was Piere Letranchant. He was 72 years old and for most of his life had lived in this farm country outside St. James. His wife’s family, in fact, had once owned the 27 acres of land where John Juba was buried. It had been a dairy farm until the Americans bought it after the war.
The cemetery was quiet most of the time, he said, except in November or on the last day of May when crowds come. Those are your holidays, no?
But young people like you, he said, shaking his head, they never come to visit. The young have forgotten all this. He didn’t sound angry, just a little sad.
What have they forgotten? we asked.
That the young who died delivered us, he said. The young, they should come here.
(This story first appeared in The Providence Journal Sunday Magazine, 1980.)
Remember the upstream theory of problem-solving: If your 17th graph isn’t working, the problem is probably in the 12th graph. If your writing isn’t working, the issue is probably the reporting. If the reporting isn’t working, the issue is probably the story idea.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?
Revision is where writing can go from good to great, or mediocre to good, or bad to mediocre. This is a lesson that I’ve learned later in life, especially after I got out of daily newspaper reporting (especially my days at a small newspaper where I wrote two stories a day, every day). It’s a lesson that I preach to my undergraduate students, even when they are doing basic, 400-word live-event coverage stories. This is especially important when it comes to doing narrative work. I tell my students in my Literary Journalism class that we’re going to be sculptors, and their first draft is just going to be the raw stone. They need to get it all out there, and then we’ll start chipping away until it becomes a wonderful piece of journalism in story form. The best revision also happens when you have an editor who has also bought into telling the best story possible, someone who can stand back and look at the story in a way the reporter/writer can’t. We like to think of writing as a solitary endeavor, and in some forms of writing, it can be. But narrative or literary journalism should be anything but solitary.
What’s been the biggest surprise of your writing life?
I think the biggest surprise for me has been the fact that I’ve gotten into broadcast writing with Gangrey: The Podcast. One of my classes as an undergrad was a “Writing For The Media” class, and we had some broadcast writing that we had to do there, and I was like, I will never do this type of writing. I was going to be a newspaper reporter and I was always going to write for people’s eyes, not their ears. And then I started doing the podcast. I’ve spent so much time working on getting better at writing the introductions to my various guests and writing promos and other types of stuff. Additionally, with the podcast, I’ve absolutely fallen in love with audio production. I love interviewing other reporters and writers about their work, but I really look forward to putting that together in an increasingly more complex type of production. And I’m constantly thinking about other possible podcasts that I can try and get off the ground, stuff that is more than just interviews, and as such, will require more production work. I never thought that is the direction my writing would go.
If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be and why?
The best I can come up with is simply the fact that my writing is all over the map. I’m writing now more than I ever have, but it’s not necessarily always going places that we think of when we think about writing. Earlier this year, I was raising money for Dylan’s Wings of Change, one of the charities that sprang up after the Sandy Hook shooting, and I thought long and hard about the writing I posted on Facebook asking for contributions. I even revised that stuff! But I’m also writing for my podcast, which is different from the writing I’ve done for Nieman Storyboard, which is different from what I’ve done for The Daily Beast, all of which is different from my book, “Running with Ghosts, ” which is also different from the pieces of journalism I wrote for SB Nation Longform back before it shut down in 2016. Right now, I’m working on a new book project that I hope to have a publisher for soon (there’s another type of writing I’ve been doing – the book proposal) that will focus on how to report and write narrative journalism, which uses my podcast interviews as source material. There’s also a myriad of other types of writing I want to do someday. I’ve got a couple movie ideas bouncing around in my head that I would love to write screenplays for. I just started my first piece of fiction since I was in grad school back in 2004 (it will probably never see the light of day) the other day after I went on a run and this idea popped into my head. And of course, I’m always thinking of new possibilities for the podcast. I am, quite frankly, all over the place.
But sometimes, the going gets rough and your dreams seem far out of reach. Your latest story just got its tenth rejection, an editor just turned down your pitch, an agent said try elsewhere. Or you’re supposed to be writing but are just spinning your wheels,; you hate your latestsdraft but you don’t know how to fix it.
At times like this, it can be useful to consider why you chose this life in the first place.
Who wouldn’t want Hollywood or a famous literary agent with a stable of writers you admire to come calling? Who wouldn’t be thrilled to land a coveted assignment based on the strength of your news stories?
I certainly harbored those dreams of glory and success as I toiled as a newspaper reporter, later wrote short stories, a screenplay and a full-length play. I imagined my name in lights on Broadway. Still waiting.
The reality is that you have no power over how your work will be received. You can only control what you write. Everything after that is up to other people.
So why should you bother? Writing is hard, lonely work. It keeps you from your family and friends. It robs you of time to leisurely watch the world go by. If you’re not careful, it can suck the life out you.
It can be tedious, especially when you’re struggling to find the right architecture for your story. Writing can be an uphill slog as you build your characters into vivid, believable creatures or render scenes that bring drama and comedy to life.
It can be especially hard when a story you’ve been working on for months just won’t come to life. It has good points, a beginning that came out of nowhere, or a voice or point of view that you’re proud to reveal.
But the middle is a muddle and no matter how hard you try the ending is flat.
I wish I wasn’t speaking from experience, but I am, so as I look at this latest short story for perhaps the 20th time, I find myself asking, why bother? It would be so easy to throw the drafts into the trash, hit the delete button and move on. I understand Amazon has openings in its fulfillment centers.
There’s only one reason to write
There’s only one plausible reason why anyone would commit to this life: you love the craft of writing for the sake of it. It’s the single most important reason why you, or anyone, would — or should — choose this path.
It’s not only for the talented, but for those who understand that, as the French master Gustave Flaubert said in a letter to Vincent van Gogh, “talent is a long patience and originality an effort of will and intense observation.”
And then I realized why I keep trying. Because sitting at your desk trying to make meaning out of words brings meaning to your own life and, if you’re fortunate, to others who read your work, even if for now, it’s a small but loyal audience of family and friends.
Knowing why you write can help you when the struggles seem Sisyphean, a burden as overwhelming as the one the doomed Greek king was forced to carry up a hill every day only to see it roll down.
Writing demands resilience as much as talent and discipline. And the rewards are elusive.
So it can be helpful and inspiring to learn why other writers have answered the question that plumbs their motivation.
Why others write
Joan Didion answered it in an essay called, “Why I Write.”
“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”
Flannery O’Connor, the Southern writer, said she wrote “because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”
Aerogramme Writer’s Studio collected the thoughts of twenty-one writers who answered the questions in a variety of ways. As a former investigative reporter, one of my favorites came from the British journalist George Orwell:
“When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.”
Indian author Nitya Prakash also has others in mind. He is motivated by a desire to tell untold stories, to give voice to the voiceless and to heal.
“I write,” he says, “for those that have no voice, for the silent ones who’ve been damaged beyond repair; I write for the broken child within me…”
These are all valid and valuable reasons to write. They helped after I asked myself why I write after a long and exhausting day, juggling freelance assignments, blogging, coaching and trying to find time to work on my own writing.
I shouldn’t complain. I’m grateful for the gigs and the freedom to write.
Even so, it’s a feeling we all have when facing a story is the last thing you want to do.
There has to be an easier, less stressful way to spend my time on earth. I’m pretty sure you say the same thing from time to time.
That’s why the reason that spoke to me most deeply as someone who spends his days at the keyboard came from the writer and activist Gloria Steinem. “Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.”
Come up with reasons to write
But I knew I had to come up with my own answers to understand what compelled me to get me through the days when I imagined I could be happier doing something else.
I write because:
I have to.
It makes me feel whole.
It exercises my brain.
It fuels my creativity.
It feeds my soul.
It immerses me in the life of the mind.
It fills my psychic bank with optimism and hope.
It makes me money, not much, but green stuff nonetheless.
It makes me feel like an artist, an explorer, a seeker of truth.
It deepens my understanding of the human condition.
It makes me see the art of the possible.
It’s a gift I have to keep deserving.
I hope some of my reasons help you decide why you should write. But you should come up with your own.
All of us are storytellers, whether we do it with a pencil and paper, a laptop or a video camera. It’s in our DNA, the human impulse to create, to remember someone familiar or to create someone you’ve never imagined before you sat down to write.
Ask yourself: Why do I write? The answers will keep you going when all seems lost and you wonder why you’re spending your days and nights wrestling with words.
“I’m continually, constantly, everlastingly, refreshingly surprised by how hard writing is. It’s like a case of amnesia — between stories I forget how awful it was. But I remember again as soon as I sit down in front of the computer. I’m also surprised by how much writers fumble around in the dark, just hoping for a blast of fortunate inspiration. And I’m surprised by what a minor factor inspiration is in the overall process. It helps. But frankly, it’s the glazed donut of thinking. Writing is breaking rocks with a shovel. It takes a certain kind of strength.”
“Yes, we should be unswerving in our missions to put passion down on paper, unearthing our deepest secrets and most beautiful bits of humanity. But then, later, each of us must step back from those raw pieces of ourselves and critically assess, revise, and—brace yourself—sell them to the hungry and unsympathetic public. This latter process is not only excruciating for most of us (hell, if we were good at sales we would be making good money working in sales), but it can poison that earlier, unselfconscious creative act of composition.”
Liao, an essayist and fiction writer, recounts how her experience with rejection and the advice of a friend led her to shoot for 100 rejections a year.
By actively seeking rejections, her perspective has changed in a way that should help anyone wrestling with the pain of turndowns of their work.
“Now, I see rejection as a conversation: for every piece that is rejected, at least one other person read it, thought about it, and really considered whether it would be a good fit for publication. What’s more, it’s a conversation between two minds that truly love literature, as the financial margins of journals and small presses are slimmer than the sheaf of pages that I carry with me each day to revise before going to my day job.
It’s a witty and wise essay.
It should take the sting out of your next rejection and prompt you to send your story out in the world once more hoping for the joy of acceptance, or, at the very least, the muted pleasure of an encouraging rejection letter.
In the world of newswriting, leads get most of the attention, but endings are equally, if not more, important
The quote has become the default ending in journalism and readers and writers are all poorer for it.
The other day I randomly picked some news websites, clicked on stories, and scrolled to the bottom. Try it yourself. Open a story, and let your eyes drift to the end. There they are, those disembodied voices that bring way too many news stories to a close.
“It’s just an interesting old building.”
“People are scared,” Covington Allison said. “County government should make sure all people are taken care of. … Do the the right thing.”
“Some of these nighttime collisions are due to chance, but much more often the nocturnal migrants are lured to their deaths by the lights,” the lab reports.
Ending a story with a quote is a reflex action, understandable, especially in the crush of deadline, but overused to the point of cliché. Worse, the kicker quote deprives writers — and more important, readers—of other, more effective ways to make their stories memorable.
In the world of newswriting, leads get most of the attention, but endings are equally, if not more, important.
If leads are like “flashlights that shine down into the story,” as The New Yorker’s John McPhee once put it, endings can be eternal flames that keep a story alive in a reader’s head and heart.
At the end of her three-part narrative series, “Metal to Bone” in the St. Petersburg Times, Anne Hull used a fact instead of a quote to convey the impact of a street crime on a woman police officer.
Lisa rarely thinks of Eugene, although she refuses to leave her back exposed, even while having dinner at a restaurant. Her back is always against a wall.
“You can’t have a decent story if it doesn’t leave you with a strong feeling or sense of image,” says Rick Bragg, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing.
Two stories end in quotes. A profile of the southern Sheriff who persuaded a mother to confess that she drowned her two children and blamed a black man for the crime concludes with a comment from the cop: “Susan Smith is smart in every area,” he said, “except life.”
A story about an Alabama prison for elderly and disabled inmates ends with a comment about undertaking students at a local university who prepare prisoners’ bodies for burial:
“They make ’em up real nice,” the warden said.
In a profile of a black Indian of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Bragg certainly had the material to use the same device.
Mr. Bannock sits and sweats in his house, working day and night with his needle. He has never had time for a family. He lives for Fat Tuesday.
“I need my mornin’ glory,” he said.
Most writers would have ended the story there with that colorful quote, but Bragg chose a detail instead that struck the chord of his theme: one man’s devotion to a tradition larger than himself.
A few years ago he had a heart attack but did not have time to die. He had 40 yards of velvet to cut and sew.
There are several reasons why, when faced with a blank space at the end of a story, most reporters plug in a quote.
One is expediency; it’s a quick and easy way to finish.
Anxiety is another possibility for rookies and veteran journalists alike. The ending will leave the reader with the most definitive statement on the takeaway from the story. It feels “safer,” and less like editorializing, to put that on a source than yourself as the reporter. But no one knows a story better than the writer; it’s their right — and responsibility — to end the story in a way that has the most accurate and powerful impact.
But there’s another subtler explanation, that has to do with the process of reporting.
Reporters often begin in the dark, uncertain about the meaning of the events or issues that they must chronicle or explain. At least once during this confusing journey, the reporter hears — or reads — something that produces a moment of sudden clarity.
The words jump off a page or emerge from a source’s mouth and into the notebook or audio recorder, and suddenly the reporter grasps the meaning. The squawky violin plays a true note. The piece slides into the puzzle. All that’s missing are the quote marks.
And the very next thought is, “Whew! I’ve got my ending!”
That moment helps the reporter understand the story, but it doesn’t have the same effect on the reader who hasn’t come along on the same journey of discovery and who needs different kinds of information to satisfactorily complete the reading process.
“A good ending absolutely, positively, must do three things at a minimum,” says Bruce DeSilva, former Associated Press writing coach.
Tell the reader the story is over.
Nail the central point of the story to the reader’s mind.
Resonate. “You should hear it echoing in your head when you put the paper down, when you turn the page [or scroll down the screen.] It shouldn’t just end and have a central point,” DeSilva says. “It should stay with you and make you think a little bit. The very best endings do something in addition to that. They surprise you a little. There’s a kind of twist to them that’s unexpected. And yet when you think about it for a second, you realize it’s exactly right.
“My advice to young people is to know what your ending is before you start writing,” says Ken Fuson, one of the greatest stylists at the Des Moines Register.
In some cases, the writer just needs to reorganize. Take that kicker quote and move it up higher, to buttress a description, or punctuate a section. Find something else that reinforces the story’s theme. Think harder about the ending. Write the ending first so you’ll have a destination to aim for. Or at least know what it is.
Ideally, every story should build to a logical conclusion, and the best stories should have endings that resonate beyond the last word.
Sometimes, a quote ending seems the most appropriate way to bring a story to a close.
In his October 2019 story about a Wisconsin county doctor who has spent decades in a small town, and became an expert treating Amish families with rare diseases, Mark Johnson of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel uses a kicker quote to explain the doctor’s decision to stay local instead of moving to the city. “Yet it is just this setting,” he says in the final paragraph, “that has allowed it to become one of the most interesting practices I could ever have imagined.”
Whatever ending you choose, don’t make it an afterthought. Very few readers will return to that brilliant lead you sweated over. The last thing they’ll read, if you’ve done your job right, is the end. Make it count.
The story recounts the mysterious death of Song Yang, a Chinese immigrant sex worker who dies during a police raid. At the end of the story, her mother pays a tribute. It doesn’t end with a quote. Instead:
One evening, Shi paused outside a building where some women were offering massages to passing men. Raising the drooping bags held in her hands, she explained that she had just left the food pantry at the Episcopal church on Main Street, where she had recently been baptized. She said the pastor had emphasized the importance of sharing what you have.
The mother placed a bag of sweet potatoes in the doorway that had once been Song Yang’s domain. It was an offering of sorts, a gift to women like her daughter. Then she was gone, assumed into the Flushing blur.
I asked Barry, in a recent interview for Nieman Storbyoard, why he chose that ending.
“If I’m going to take the reader through 9,500 words,” he said, “the last sentence better be goddamn good. It has to be worth the journey.”
I blew it with an ending more than once, but one sticks in my head.
It was a story about Joe DeMilio, a man who smoked all his life, woke with a cough on Thanksgiving and by the following Mother’s Day he was dead from lung cancer.
When I interviewed his widow, Marie, at their home, I asked for a tour. (Reporting tip: always ask for a tour. You can find revealing details that enliven a story and speak volumes about character.)
In their bedroom, Marie looked at the bed she shared with her husband for decades. I ended the story with Marie talking to me.
“It feels like one big nightmare,” she says. “Maybe I will wake up, and he will be in bed with me. But I know it’s not going to be so. Would you believe it? I take his aftershave lotion and spray it on his pillow just so I can smell him. Just the smell of it makes me feel like he’s with me.”
I’ve regretted that kicker quote ever since. How much stronger the story, I think, had it ended with a narrative ending:
“It feels like one big nightmare,” she says. “Maybe I will wake up, and he will be in bed with me. But I know it’s not going to be so.” Before she gets in bed at night, Marie DeMilio sprinkles her husband’s aftershave on her pillow. Just to feel close to him.
Next time, before you hit send, ask yourself if you can’t find a replacement for that quote ending, one that will linger in your readers’ minds.
Adapted from a column which appeared on Poynter Online
“The ending is where a writer’s thinking and understanding and level of sophistication comes to full bloom. The ending is where the emotional impact remains flat or fizzles or soars. The ending, when done well, can feel simultaneously inevitable and surprising.”
Writing may start in your head, but it has to come out of there, onto the page or the screen.
For that to happen, you have to sit down with a pen and notebook or in front of a computer.
Not everyone recognizes that.
Jericho Brown, a poet and head of the creative writing program at Emory University, posed this question to a class the other day: if you show up for other people—for dentist appointments, making sure kids get to school on time, etc.—why can’t you show up for yourself, to write?
Some might say laziness, but that’s a facile explanation. More likely, it’s resistance, the fear that there’s no point. I have no ideas, you think. I don’t know how to keep going. I’m just no good.
They’re understandable worries, but you have to fight them.
Whatever the reasons, you have to turn up. That’s the only way you can come close to achieving your dreams. It takes discipline, as even the most successful writers have learned.
“I have to walk into my writing room and pick up my pen every weekday morning,” says Anne Tyler, whose discipline has produced 22 novels. “If I waited till I felt like writing, I’d never write at all.”
Tyler doesn’t wait for a muse, that mythical source of inspiration for the creative artist. Like other successful and productive writers, she turns up.
“I go to the office everyday and I work,” says musician Nick Cave. “Inspiration itself is not something I have any control over.”
Depending on the needs of your family and your work life — if writing is, as it is for most, a second job — you may not be able to write every day. Sometimes a few days or a week may go by, although the longer between sessions, the greater the chance of losing momentum.
To turn up regularly, you’ll need to find—or steal—writing time when you can. An example from my writing life can show you one way.
When I had a job that demanded 10-12 hours a day and a family with a toddler and twin infants, the only time I could write was first thing in the morning when the house was asleep.
I would brew a cup of strong tea and make my way downstairs, careful to avoid squeaks that might awake my sleeping family, to the basement where, crammed into a corner, I had installed a desk and chair.
I usually had less than an hour before I had to get ready for work. I would make notes, draft passages and revise on my desktop and hit save.
I then took a Metro subway to the National Press Building in Washington DC, where I worked as a newspaper reporter. The ride was just 30 minutes long, but I decided to take advantage of that time as well.
I had been inspired to do so after reading that Scott Turow finished his best-selling crime thriller, “Presumed Innocent,” on his commute to Chicago where he worked as an assistant U.S. attorney.
“I wrote 26 to 28 minutes a day,” he told an interviewer after his success. “It doesn’t sound like a lot, maybe, but if I hadn’t done it, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
At the time, I had been working, without much success, in my pre-dawn basement sessions, on a short story about a sports-challenged mother thrust into the role of coach one Saturday at her daughter’s Little League game.
I don’t have a clue where the idea came from, except for the fact that I am sports-challenged with a boyhood history of humiliating days on the baseball field.
But drawing on those experiences, and armed with a legal pad, I found myself drafting with ease as the subway made its subterranean way to my day job. Perhaps because it seemed less permanent than words flickering on my computer screen.
There were mornings when I had to use my commute to keep up with work, but I managed to finish a complete draft in a few weeks. I then spent a few more weeks revising it, marking up a printout I carried in my briefcase. Turning up to write was paying off.
After I finished the story, I sent it to magazines.
Soon, I had a tidy pile of rejection slips. I assumed I had exhausted all the possibilities.
The experience taught me a vital lesson about my craft that I hope you’ll take to heart. It doesn’t matter whenever, wherever, or for how long you write. At dawn. On your lunch break. Before bed. On a park bench. In a coffee shop or your home office. Or the subway.
You don’t have to write for very long. But you must stick with it. Try not to miss a day, or you’ll lose momentum. Very soon you’ll have a draft you can revise and that book chapter, essay or story will be that much closer to completion.
What’s most important is that you never stop turning up to write. As often as possible. That way “the muse” knows where to find you.
CRAFT QUERY: How do you make sure you turn up to write?
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned as a writer?
I saw that Dan Barry said that a big lesson for him was that the process gets harder. That feels true. But for me the process has gotten easier. I am not Sisyphus kicking that stone downhill. But I feel that I am at least rolling it on a level plain. But it only gets easier if you are willing to relearn the big lessons with each project. I’m talking about books now. I’ve written six in twelve years. I have a process that I borrowed from Bill Howarth’s description of John McPhee. I need my raw material, my index cards, my file folders, my bulletin board. If I try a shortcut, if I lean too heavily on my experience, if I try to dance over a step, I usually crash to the bottom of the staircase. Use the process. Follow the steps. Trust the process. You have to trust. Even if it’s not going well at this moment, keep at it. Realize that the imperfection you feel right now is necessary. There was a great bowler from Texas named Billy Welu who used to be a color commentator for televised bowling tournaments. He would point out that some bowlers with big hooks needed to roll the ball at the edge of the gutter in order for it to curve into the pocket for a strike. “Trust is a must,” he would say in a Texas drawl, “or your game is a bust.”
What’s been the biggest surprise of your writing life?
My biggest surprise as a writer came when I was about 30 years old. It surprised me again when I was about 60 years old. This had to do with my personal and professional identity. That is, how I identified myself. I meet people all the time who say, “I’m not a writer, but I am working on a novel.” Or “I write reports at work all day, but I’m not saying I’m a writer.” I play rock and roll piano. And on occasion I hit a golf ball. I am not Jimi Hendrix or Tiger Woods, but I feel comfortable calling myself a musician and a golfer. I was trained in graduate school to become a young English professor. And I wrote a Ph.D. dissertation about Chaucer, but I did not consider myself a writer. I became a newspaper writing coach, but did not call myself a writer. In 1979 I had about 250 bylines in the St. Petersburg Times. Finally, it hit me: “You know, Roy, maybe you could be a writer.” It feels crazy in retrospect: becoming a writing coach BEFORE I embraced the identity as a writer. Thirty years later, I could easily say I was a writer and a teacher of writing. Then it happened again. I wrote the book “Writing Tools” – followed by five more with Little, Brown. LB published Emily Dickinson! “Holy shit,” I thought, “I’m not just a writer – I’m an author!” If you write, you’re a writer. If you auth, you’re an author.
If you had to choose a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be?
I am fascinated by the work of Phoukhoun Phimsthasak, a woman who made her way from Laos to America. She has an amazing personal story of escape, rescue, renewal, and hard, hard work. My wife and I know her as Jane. She does manicures and pedicures. As I metaphor, I can think of myself as a nail specialist. I work with an elaborate tool set, and a process that has a set of predictable steps, with some special challenges and surprises along the way. My mission relates to both utility and beauty, but also to listening and public service. It’s also about relationship building and referral, because there are a lot of nail specialists out there and many of them are good. But I want you to keep coming back to me.
Roy Peter Clark is senior scholar at the Poynter Institute. He has taught writing at every level — to schoolchildren and Pulitzer Prize- winning authors — for more than forty years. A writer who teaches and a teacher who writes, he has written or edited 19 books, including “Writing Tools”, “The Glamour of Grammar, “”Help! for Writers,” “How to Write Short,” and “The Art of X-Ray Reading.” His latest — a writing book about writing books — is due out in January: “Murder Your Darlings: And Other Gentle Writing Advice from Aristotle to Zinsser.” He lives in St. Petersburg, Florida, hits a golf ball now and then, and plays keyboard in a blues band .
“If you talk to someone long enough, you find common points. These things comes out, and you ask for them. If I ask too early, they won’t come through But if we talk long enough and they feel they can trust me, then they hand over things.”
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a reporter?
Listen. Sounds basic but in the hustle to get out the news, sometimes it gets lost. It’s OK and even a good habit to allow long pauses in an interview. Quiet moments give the subject a chance to reflect. It’s hard to stifle the impulse to fill that space with a follow-up, clarification or comment, but sometimes that moment produces a deeper response. I learned this essential lesson while working with my colleague, Dave Killen, a film editor, on a documentary series. He needed people’s answers to trail off naturally. As the interviewer, that meant less give-and-take in favor of a more intentional effort to allow more space between questions. Some of the richest responses emerged from those pauses.
What’s been the biggest surprise of your reporting life?
It’s humbling to be trusted with someone’s story, especially if it involves sexual assault. I’ve written a lot about victims of sex crimes and other crime victims still coping with deep trauma and an unsatisfying criminal justice system. Their faith in institutions and in people is often shaken or even shattered. Trusting me, a journalist and stranger, with their accounts is a big leap of faith and a reminder of the critical role we play as truth-tellers.
If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a reporter, what would it be?
I’d say my career has been a dark mirror of sorts. I’ve spent most of my 26-year career reporting on crime and justice. I’ve written about white supremacists, bad cops, predators and serial killers. The dark side of human nature — greed, rage and power — intrigues me. I chalk that up to growing up in Rhode Island in the 1970s and 1980s where public corruption and organized crime were always page one news.
Noelle Crombie is an enterprise reporter at The Oregonian. She has reported extensively on crime and justice. She reported and wrote “Ghosts of Highway 20,” a 7,000 word narrative and 5-part documentary series focused on the victims of serial killer who targeted vulnerable women along U.S. 20 in Oregon. From 2012 through 2016, she led The Oregonian‘s groundbreaking cannabis coverage, which focused on government accountability. Before coming to The Oregonian in 1999, she was a reporter for The Day in New London, Connecticut. She grew up in Rhode Island and received a bachelor’s degree in government from Smith College.
Craft Query: How would you answer these questions?
Using a tape recorder has taught me my most important lesson of interviewing: to shut up. It was a painful learning experience, having to listen to myself stepping on people’s words, cutting them off just as they were getting enthusiastic or appeared about to make a revealing statement.
There were far too many times I heard myself asking overly long and leading questions, instead of simply saying, “Why?” or “How did it happen?” or “When did all this begin?” or “What do you mean?” and then closing my mouth and letting people answer.
People hate silence
It took a long time but eventually, I learned an important lesson: people hate silence. It makes them uncomfortable. And when they’re being interviewed, they’re especially sensitive to a reporter’s behavior. They’ll answer your question and then wait for the interruption that almost always follows. If you don’t butt in, they will keep talking.
There’s a great scene in the 1976 movie, “All the President’s Men,” when Robert Redford, as Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, is asking a Republican businessman how his $25,000 check ended up in the Watergate money trail. It’s a dangerous question, and the source is skittish. “I know I shouldn’t be telling you this, he says.
Woodward remains silent; you can almost see him praying, “Tell me, please.” But he restrains himself and, suddenly, the man blurts out a damaging truth and then can’t stop. Before long, he’s implicated a top Nixon campaign official in the coverup. The moral here: To get people to talk, we need to learn the power of silence and master the art of listening.
Effective writers know they need to get their sources to reveal themselves, to provide the information they need for their stories, and, most important, to offer the human voices that bring a narrative to life.
“Silence opens the door to hearing dialogue, rare and valuable in breaking stories,” says Brady Dennis, of The Washington Post.
Two types of quotes
James B. Stewart in “Follow the Story: How to Write Successful Nonfiction” draws a distinction between “contemporary quotes — the journalism staple, spoken in answer to a reporter’s question — and “narrative quotes,“ uttered as dialogue or snatches of a character’s speech.
Contemporary quotes have their place. In many cases, the only way reporters can get a quote from President Donald Trump is to ask a question and capture his shouted response over the din of whirring helicopters of Air Force One.
Narrative quotes are much more revealing and require a reporter’s listening ear that is capable of snatching the butterfly of dialogue as it floats through the air. Good stories combine the two types.
“They weren’t fancy women,” said their sister Billie Walker. “They loved good conversation. And sugar biscuits.”
Just 11 words, in quotes, yet they speak volumes about the victims. That’s a powerful contemporary quote, but Gettleman also listens for narrative ones, too.
As the service closed, relatives walked slowly back to their pickups. Gettleman captures a four-word narrative quote that
reflects the region’s dialect and the minister’s concern for his flock.
”Y’all be careful now,” the pastor said.
Learning to listen
“Learning to listen has been the great lesson of my life,” David Ritz wrote in The Writer.“
“You can’t capture a subject or render someone lifelike, you can’t create a living voice, with all its unique twists and turns, without listening. Now there are those who listen while waiting breathlessly to break in. For years, that was me.”
Ritz learned to embrace the idea of “patient listening, deep-down listening, listening with the heart as well as the head, listening in a way that lets the person know you care, that you want to hear what she has to say, that you’re enjoying the sound of her voice.”
That’s what an effective interviewer learns to do.
For decades, historian Robert A. Caro has been convincing people who knew and worked with the notoriously private President Lyndon B. Johnson to open up. His secret: silence.
“In interviews, silence is the weapon, silence and people’s need to fill it,” Caro writes in “Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing,” his illuminating book about the reporting methods behind his magisterial biographies of LBJ.
Caro employs a strategy other interviewers would be wise to adopt.
“When I’m waiting for the person I’m interviewing to break a silence by giving me a piece of information I want, I write “SU” (for Shut Up!) in my notebook. If anyone were ever to look through my notebooks, he would find a lot of “SU”s.”
During your next interview, ask your question. Then:
Shut your mouth.
If you have trouble, count to 10.
Write “SU!” in your notebook.
Make eye contact, smile, nod, but don’t speak.
Let your sources do the talking for you.
You’ll be amazed at the riches that follow.
May the interviewing go well.
Comment question: How do you get your sources to open up?
It’s a surprising venue, until you realize the publication is fascinated by his electric typewriter. It’s a Smith Corona Electra 210.
Caro wrote his first book, “The Power Broker” on one. He likes them so much he bought seventeen of them when the manufacturer ceased production of the model decades ago. Nowadays, some people keep them around mostly to address envelopes and for short notes.
I’ve read lots of interviews with Caro; this conversation, which focuses on the value of analog vs. digital in his research and word processing, is one of the more interesting.
Top quote: “Today everybody believes fast is good. Sometimes slow is good.”
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?
The thing that unlocked writing for me—writing of all kinds, but fiction especially—was so simple it feels almost silly to type it out: finish things. For years, I thought of myself as someone who wanted to be a writer; for years, I maintained an archive of partial chapters belonging to novels I would one day write. But it wasn’t until I zoomed way in, wrote short, and shared what I’d written with others that I actually started to learn and improve. Turns out, a story can totally be four paragraphs long! And a four-paragraph story, unlike four paragraphs of a notional novel, is something you can meaningfully discuss. A four-paragraph story can be a stepping stone to a two-page story, then four, then twenty. I’d never have gotten to the novels if I hadn’t started and finished the really short stuff first.
What’s been the biggest surprise of your writing life?
Translation! When I was drafting my first novel, I never even bothered to imagine translation. Maybe that’s because all of my writing before that had been for a blog, and who’s ever going to translate your blog? Maybe it’s because simply getting published in the U.S., in English, seemed an extravagant enough vision. In either case, when my first novel wast ranslated into other languages, it upended my sense of what I’d produced. Not only a series of sentences, but a plan—a detailed blueprint — for another creative mind to render something onto the page. I don’t think I’m quite good enough a writer to “write for translation” yet—to keep that future transformation in my head as I’m drafting the original in English — but I’d like to get there.
If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be?
This might just be my last novel Sourdough talking, but… I think I’m a fermenter?? My process is: throw a lot of stuff together — ideas, sentences, experiences, feelings, all from my notebook, where I am always jotting — and mix it up. Then, let it sit, and watch as life begins to bloom in the interstices. If a real-life fermentation is often powered by yeasts, then this metaphorical digester’s engine is imagination, which feeds on the real, stretching it 120% and rotating it through six dimensions before spitting it out as a name, or a phrase, or a scene. I can trace this process back to blogging, which has that same magpie spirit, and maybe also to journalism! I remember hearing journalists talk about “saving string”—a terrific phrase —and this is just a version of that, except that I’m intentionally tangling up the strands.
Robin Sloan’s first novel, “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore“, was a New York Times Best Seller, translated into more than twenty languages. His latest novel, “Sourdough,” was published in 2017. With his partner Kathryn Tomajan, Robin produces California extra virgin olive oil under the label Fat Gold. He lives in Oakland and works out of the Murray Street Media Lab in South Berkeley, down by the railroad tracks. From 2002 to 2012, he worked at the intersection of media and technology, first at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, and then at Current TV and Twitter, both in San Francisco.
“it helps to abandon hope. If I sit at my computer, determined to write a New Yorker story I won’t get beyond the first sentence. It’s better to put no pressure on it. What would happen if I followed the previous sentence with this one, I’ll think. If the eighth draft is torture, the first should be fun. At least if you’re writing humor.”
Journalists, like all writers, draw connections between disparate events and developments. They fashion mosaics from an overwhelming number of bits of information, details and facts. And, often, the journalist must do it in a matter of hours, if not minutes.
Think fast. Think on your feet. React to events as they unfold.
To do it well demands quick intelligence and a talent for critical thinking. If you can’t think, smart and fast, you can’t report well, and you certainly won’t write well.
Trying to write a story, without figuring out what you’re trying to say, whether it’s a news piece, a novel or screenplay, is like hacking your way through a jungle with a butter knife: frustrating and fruitless.
That’s where questions come in. They are the machete that hacks through a landscape tangled with the quotes, statistics, details and other facts that sprout up as you report or draft.
One question looms above all: what is my story about?
Finding The Central Idea
“The most important thing in the story is finding the central idea,” Washington Post sports columnist Thomas Boswell says.
“It’s one thing to be given a topic, but you have to find the idea or the concept within that topic. Once you find that idea or thread, all the other anecdotes, illustrations and quotes are pearls that you hang on this thread. The thread may seem very humble, the pearls may seem very flashy, but it’s still the thread that makes the necklace.”
To unravel the thread requires the writer to focus, a vital component of the writing process, sandwiched between developing ideas and reporting the story, drafting and revising the text.
You should begin that quest for meaning even before you start interviewing or researching. While that sounds counterintuitive—how can I know what my story is about before I report?—writers are most successful when they first draw on one of their most crucial sources: themselves.
That way, they tap into their own humanity and can search for the universal messages that will connect their stories to everyone.
Say, for instance, there’s a controversy in your community because the school board is considering cutting funds for after-school arts programs. Tonight, you’re assigned to cover the meeting when it will come to a vote.
Obviously, you can’t predict the future, but you are already an expert about some things.
You’ve gone to high school, for starters. You probably took an arts class. Maybe you played in the steel drum band, built sets for a play or sang in the glee club.
You already possess some knowledge about your subject, enough to launch a quest for the focus of your story, or theme, as your literature teachers called it.
It’s the spine without which your story is just a blob of unformed information of little interest and use to your audience.
It’s the heart that makes your story beat with power.
It would be nice to be able to just ask yourself, “What’s the theme of my story?” and come up with a ready response.
But if you’ve ever had an editor ask you that question and found yourself stumbling over your words, you know how difficult it can be to answer.
Four Questions…And One More
“Newspaper writing, especially on deadline, is so hectic and complicated—the fact-gathering, the phrase-finding, the inconvenience, the pressure—that it’s easy to forget the basics of storytelling,” says David Von Drehle, who writes a national political column for The Washington Post, “Namely, what happened, and why does it matter?”
Regardless of medium or genre, these are the challenges all storytellers face.
Von Drehle posed four additional questions that will enable you to begin the quest for focus even before the meeting starts.
1. Why does it matter? 2. What’s the point? 3. Why is this story being told? 4. What does it say about life, about the world, about the times we live in?
You could easily start muttering the answers to yourself or tell a colleague or editor what you think.
Open a file or flip to a fresh page in your notebook and start writing as fast as you can. Don’t stop if you misspell a word, or get punctuation wrong. There will be time to fix that. Spend your time recording your thoughts as they fly off your fingers.
I’ll show you what I mean. Warning: It’s messy, but I’m just trying to get my thoughts down as quickly as possible. If I used any of this in the story, I can quickly fix the mistakes.
For the first three focusing questions, write for 15 seconds.
because arts enrich kids’ lives. helps them experience the world beyond their own lives become full richer human beings
point is that arts matters in education. It matters as much as math and science and sports and PE
Told because parents and students need to be alerted that these critical programs may be cut depriving
For the fourth question, write for 20 seconds. I’m giving you more time because I think it’s such a brilliant question.
4. At a time when school are so much about sports, arts take a back seat and students are cheated of the chance to act, paint, etc.Sports get the money. Unfair, Wrongheaded.
Just think. What if every story you write or read answered—or addressed—that question?
What if readers, viewers and listeners knew they would be on the receiving end of such knowledge?
Perhaps the news industry wouldn’t be in as much trouble as it is.
Too often, news writing is poorly focused, if focused at all, badly organized, shoddily written and barely edited.
But offer high-quality information produced by a thoughtful writer and it will be greeted by an eager, built-in audience.
“People come to a newspaper craving a unifying human presence—the narrator in a piece of fiction, the guide who knows the way, or the colleague whose view one values,” Jack Fuller writes in his book “News Values: Ideas for an Information Age.”
The same holds true for news sites, magazines, podcasts and the myriad ways news and information is delivered.
People crave meaning in the short stories, nonfiction books and novels they read and the dramas they watch as well.
Von Drehle’s questions provide the opportunity to furnish these valuable commodities of knowledge and wisdom. They also enable you to answer the most important question, the one your audience (and your editor) will ask.
What’s my story really about?
That’s why I added a fifth question to Von Drehle’s excellent list.
What’s my story really about—in one word?
This time you only get five seconds to answer it. Don’t worry. I just want a one-word answer.
5. Deprivation (Notice how it was embedded in one of the earlier answers. And that’s my answer. Yours may be different.)
Why one word?
Of all the definitions of theme, my favorite is “meaning in a word.” The strongest themes are emotional, resonant, universal.
“Money,” “cuts” and “funding” are topics, not themes. You have to dig deep for this answer, (hence really) not settle for the facile label that may tell you what the story is about on the surface, but doesn’t reveal all its complexities.
With your focus in mind, you can now go outside yourself for specifics.
Don’t just talk to school officials; ask students and their parents how they would be deprived or what would be lost if the funding for the arts was cut. Chances are you’ll head into the meeting with lively anecdotes, examples and quotes.
Someone who might not want to read a story about a school board meeting might be interested in how public officials are planning to deprive students of subjects that enrich their lives.
Never stop searching
Of course, the search for focus doesn’t end when you answer those questions before you head out on an assignment or start a new writing project.
Events can change. The protest your editor said he witnessed on the way to work could be a new farmer’s market.
The school board, pressured by protests by students and their families, could in fact vote to increase arts funding.
Be mindful that the focus might change and hope you have enough integrity to say, “It’s not the same.”
That’s why you should freewrite answers to the five questions at every step of the process:
Before the reporting
During the reporting
After the reporting
Before the writing
Before the revision
Before you scream “Impossible!,” remember I only asked you to freewrite for a total of 70 seconds.
One minute and 10 seconds.
Heck, most reporters waste way more time than that trying to craft the “perfect lead” only to make a mess of the rest of the story because they ran out of time.
And don’t dismiss freewriting simply because it’s easy. Bear in mind that you’re drafting words that may make it into your finished story.
Finding your theme will drive your reporting, your writing and revising.
Most important, these five questions will enable you to find the heart of every story you write.
Every story has a heart. Your job as a writer is to find it.
“Writing fiction, especially a long work of fiction, can be a difficult, lonely job; it’s like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub. There’s plenty of opportunity for self-doubt. If I write rapidly, putting down my story exactly as it comes into my mind, only looking back to check the names of my characters and the relevant parts of their back stories, I find that I can keep up with my original enthusiasm and at the same time outrun the self-doubt that’s always waiting to settle in.”
“You learn to write the same way you learn to play golf. You do it, and keep doing it until you get it right. A lot of people think something mystical happens to you, that maybe the Muse kisses you on the ear. But writing isn’t divinely-inspired—it’s hard work.”
“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life — and that is why I succeed.”
“Generally, I don’t attempt to produce a certain number of words a day. The discipline is to work whether you are producing a lot or not, because the day you produce a lot is not necessarily the day you do your best work. So it’s trying to do it as regularly as you can without making it—without imposing too rigid a timetable on your self. That would be my ideal.”
I’m always on the lookout for stories about inspirational people. The finest ones introduce me to women and men and ideas that I’m not familiar with and which deepen my knowledge of the human condition.
Often, and this is the best part, they end up inspiring me to take action or to look at life in different ways.
It features five pre-eminent scientists—Alan Lightman, Hope Jahren, Robert Sapolsky, Priyamvada Natarajan, and Caleb Scharf—writing about the individuals who helped them find their calling.
I like reading about science, neuroscience especially, but as a generalist, I find much science writing hard to decipher. I admire it when scientists can talk about their work or themselves in accessible fashion. And I admire writers who can help scientists connect with the lay reader.
The article by the five scientists reminded me of a conversation I had with Amy Ellis Nutt, of The Washington Post and one of the best science writers working in journalism today.
While at the Newark Star-Ledger, she wrote an award-winning series, “The Seekers,” which explored five of the biggest unanswered questions in science by focusing on the scientists trying to answer them.
In an interview for “Best Newspaper Writing 2003,” I asked Amy how she was able to get her cerebral subjects to talk about the beginning of their passion.
“It sometimes took a little coaxing,” she told me. She succeeded by asking each one the same question.
“‘Was there a moment, a time in your life, when it sort of all came together for you, when you realized what you wanted to do?”
“Almost all of them had a moment.” Nutt said. “(Astronomer) Wendy Freedman said it was out on the lake looking at the stars with her father. Almost all of them had that, and it was beautiful.”
If you’re profiling someone, it’s a great question to ask?
“Was there a moment in your life when you realized that you wanted to be a teacher/nurse/investment banker/programmer…?
It’s the kind of question that can crack an interview wide open.
Each of the five stories in this collection is beautiful. These scientists are also gifted writers. They summon their mentors to the page with vivid imagery.
Physicist and novelist Alan Lightman described how his mentor looked 50 years ago:
“The photo shows a man in his late 20s, about 5 feet 6, slight in build, dark hair beginning to thin, dressed in a button-down shirt and blue sweater, and a Mona Lisa smile.”
Their disciplines can be mind-spinning. Hope Jahren studies stable isotope biogeochemistry, but when she writes about the influence of Helen Keller, she speaks a language of the thrill of discovery that writers familiar with that joy can grasp.
“Have you ever been at sea in a dense fog, when it seemed as if a tangible white darkness shut you in, and the great ship, tense and anxious, groped her way toward the shore with plummet and sounding-line, and you waited with beating heart for something to happen?
If there’s a better description of what it feels like to wait for the mass spectrometer to spit out the first data point of a brand new experiment, I can’t imagine what it would be. However, that passage wasn’t written by a chemist, or a physicist, or a biologist … it was written by a 20-something woman who could neither see nor hear.”
Lessons about science, learning, teaching, and heroes imbue these five stories.
Reading them will leave you with a question: who inspired you to become a writer?
Every trade has its secrets, every job has its tools: the carpenter’s hammer and saw, the plumber’s wrench, the painter’s palette and brushes. In Shakespeare’s time, actors used to carry bags that contained the tools of their art: makeup, costumes, and props that enabled them to switch in and out of character as the drama on stage demanded.
Props are indispensable to create the illusion of reality. As a writer and coach, I’m always searching for ones that will help me create the magic that is good writing, whether it’s a news story, magazine article, personal essay, or fiction.
Props is also an abbreviation for propeller-driven airplanes. Whether they’re on the stage or in the air, props are my metaphors for mental skills and attitudes that will help you achieve excellence in your writing.
Here are ten of them that will keep you aloft and prop you up when the ride gets bumpy.
1. A tightrope. If you’re going to be a writer, you need to take risks. Writers need to be counterphobic, that is, do what they’re afraid to do.
“The beginning of a new book feels like stepping off a cliff into the abyss,” he says. “A long free-fall. One of these days, I’m going to end up flat on my face.”
He does it anyway.
Walk a tightrope every day. Where is the one place in town you’ve never been because you’re afraid to go there? ? It may be a housing project, or it may be the boardroom of the biggest bank in town.
Try a new approach to writing a story. Write a poem even if you’re not a poet.
Ask yourself every day, “Have I taken a risk?”
2. A net. The best writers cast trawler’s nets on stories. They cast them wide and deep.
They interview 10 people to get the one quote that sums up the theme. They spend half a day mining interviews for the anecdote that animates the story.
They hunt through records and reports, looking for the one detail that explains the universal or a fact that captures a person or event.
To write the “Ghosts of Highway 20,” a riveting five-part cold case reconstruction about a serial killer, The Oregonian‘s Noelle Crombie and her colleagues Beth Nakamura and Dave Killen “pored over thousands of police reports and court records.”
Anne Hull of the St. Petersburg Times described a female police officer in Tampa as “a brown-haired woman in a police uniform and size-4 steel-toe boots.” A telling detail, drawn from weeks of observation, “can help explain the sum of a person,” Hull says. In this case, she said, it was “the Terminator meets a ballerina.”
3. Someone else’s shoes. Empathy—the ability to feel what another person feels, to walk in another’s shoes—is the writer’s greatest gift, and perhaps most important tool.
“Compassion is largely a quality of the imagination,” says the Colombian doctor and activist Héctor Abad Gómez. “It consists of the ability to imagine what we would feel if we were suffering the same situation.”
Pulitzer winner Richard Ben Cramer, talking about the reporting he did in the Middle East in the late ‘70s, says he tried to give readers a sense of what it was like to be living in a situation of terror, of life on the edge: “It’s very hard to know what someone would feel in a situation unless you at least feel something of it yourself.”
4. A loom. Writers weave connections for their audiences.
We connect the police report at the station house to a burglarized home in a poor neighborhood.
We connect City Hall with the sewage project.
We connect the characters in our fiction with action, dialogue and point of view.
Writing is a process of making connections, of discovering patterns.
Weave literary threads in your stories, mixing up short sentences with long ones.
Break up the pace with single-line paragraphs in your fiction and essays.
Rely on analogies, similes and metaphors to convey difficult topics, using these devices to connect with your readers’ imaginations.
In her story about the August 2019 mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio, The NewYorker’s Paige Williams used one such rhetorical device to describe a moment after the shooting started.
“One man ran so hard that when he face-planted on the sidewalk he skidded, like a baseball player sliding into second.”
Williams spotted the movement on a surveillance video; “it immediately reminded me of a baseball runner,” she told me. Similes “can make an unfamiliar situation familiar to a reader. A simile involving physical force can impart feeling/sensation.”
5. A zoom lens. Good writers go in close on a subject and then in a single nut graph pull back to reveal, in Nieman Storyboard editor Jacqui Banaszynski’s words, “a tiny bit of context that sets your story in a bigger world: perhaps politics, economics, history, culture.”
Writers need to go in very close. There’s a famous passage in a column by columnist Jimmy Breslin about the light coming in and glinting off a mobster’s diamond pinky ring. Pay attention to the barely noticed details.
David Finkel of The Washington Post and a MacArthur Fellow said he tries “to look at any site that will be the focus of a narrative passage as if I were a photographer. I not only stand near something, I move away. For the long view. I crouch down, I move left and right. I try to view it from every angle possible to see what might be revealed.”
6. Six words.”Tell your story in six words,” is the advice that Associated Press feature writer Tad Bartimus used to give.
By reducing it to the single phrase, shrinking it almost to a line of poetry, you can capture the tension of the story.
You can do it in three words or just one word as long as they sum up the theme of the story.
One classic example, perhaps the shortest short story ever written: “For Sale: Baby shoes, never used.”
7. An accelerator pedal. ”There are some kinds of writing,” William Faulkner said, “that you have to do very fast. Like riding a bicycle on a tightrope.”
This is the voice that says, “You’re an incompetent. You can’t write. That story you wrote yesterday? You’ve lost it. You haven’t done the reporting today. You’re a loser.”
To trick the watcher at the gate, write as fast as you can, which leaves you more time to revise. Take off and don’t look back. Caution: avoid this on highways.
8. Scissors. Or their electronic equivalent: the delete key. In “The Elements of Style,” William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White say, “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat the subject only in outline, but that every word tell.”
Less is more.
How many gallons of maple sap does it take to make a gallon of maple syrup?
Between thirty and forty. New Englanders say.
Boil away the sap.
Don’t be afraid to cut things from your story. If you’ve done the reporting, they will be there, just as the nine-tenths of an iceberg rests below the surface of the sea, a “theory of omission” coined by Ernest Hemingway..
9. A trash can. Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Nobel Prize-winning writer, once said, “If you see something is no good, throw it away and begin again. A lot of writers have failed because they have too much pity.”
Writers will have little pity for sources, but feel sorry for the weakest prose because it flows from our keyboard.
. “Hey!” a reporter will protest, “I spent two hours on that lead. I can’t throw it away.” Yes, you can, and if it doesn’t work, you should. Try again, faster this time.
Remember Singer: “I say that a wastepaper basket is a writer’s best friend. My wastepaper basket is on a steady diet.”
10. A bible. These are the sacred writing texts you read for guidance or inspiration. Books or stories that you keep nearby when you’re getting ready to write and are trying to go to the next level of excellence.
The Bible with a capital “B” helps writers, too.
Joan Beck, the late columnist for the Chicago Tribune, “always read a couple of chapters in the Bible every morning. Whether I’m working or not. Those cadences get imprinted in your brain. When you write, you tend to write in those kinds of patterns and rhythms. The cadences—but only in the King James Version—are so effective. You use them as sort of a touchstone.”
When stumped, take inspiration from writers you admire. Here’s a sampling of what I read for inspiration.
You’re ready to write. The coffee steams on your desk. The computer hums. Inspiration awaits. You lower your fingers to the keys.
Then you hear it. A whisper in your ear.
What’s that? Where did that come from?
“You suck!” it repeats. The hiss is louder.
Wait a minute. It’s coming from inside your head.
“You can’t write. You’re a loser.”
And now you’re sitting there, fingers paralyzed, your coffee growing cold.
For years, I agonized over my writing. Pen hovering over the blank page. Fingers paralyzed above the keyboard.
I used to think it was just me, a profane newspaper reporter whose potty mouth delivered this warning when I started to write.
“You suck, Chip”
Then after years leading writing seminars and coaching hundreds of writers, I discovered I was not alone. Writers all over, including some whose names will surprise you, hear the same negative refrain.
“I’m afraid of failing at whatever story I’m writing—that it won’t come up for me, or that I won’t be able to finish it.”
“I have never completed anything in my life to my absolute and lasting satisfaction.” That’s John Cheever, who wrote some of the 20th centuries’ most celebrated novels and short stories.
“You’re an incompetent,” your inner voice may say. “You can’t write. That piece you published yesterday? Your news stories, narratives, novels, screenplays, memoirs? All a fluke. You’re a fraud. Why didn’t you go to law school like your parents wanted?”
Whenever I imitate this voice, at writing seminars, conferences, one-on-ones, it’s greeted with knowing chuckles.
It’s a rueful laughter, though, because we know how much pain that voice has caused. How many stories it’s stopped dead in their tracks. How many writing dreams sit moribund in hard drives. How many unfinished drafts hide inside desk drawers.
An editor at the Los Angeles Times heard it so often she told me it was like a radio station—USUCK FM—playing inside her head all day long.
“The Fraud Police” is the name Neal Gaiman’s wife, Amanda, gave to the voices of self-doubt plaguing her best-selling husband. They are the security guards outside the station that’s home to USUCK FM.
The Watcher at the Gate
USUCK FM is a presence that lives inside all of us, a refrain of pessimism that keeps us from discovering the writing only we can do.
Tommy Tomlinson knows that voice well.
A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, Tomlinson was a multiple award-winning columnist for The Charlotte Observer. He’s published in Esquire, and Sports Illustrated, and anthologized in “Best American Newspaper Writing” and twice in “Best American Sports Writing.”
“It’s that voice,” he writes, “that tells you you’re not good enough, the voice that wonders why you ever believe in yourself, the one that leans into ear when you’re facedown on the ground and tells you you’re a failure. There are no ads on USUCK-FM and no music. There are only public service announcements. There’s no point you’ll never make it. Don’t even try.”
Gail Godwin, the best-selling novelist and essayist, calls her inner critic “The Watcher at the Gate” that keeps guard over her creativity and prevents her from writing.
“It is amazing the lengths a Watcher will go to keep you from pursuing the flow of your imagination,” she wrote in a 2000 essay. “Watchers are notorious pencil sharpeners, ribbon changers, plant waterers, home repairers and abhorrers of messy rooms or messy pages. They are compulsive looker-uppers. They are superstitious scaredy-cats. They cultivate self-important eccentricities they think are suitable for ‘writers.’ And they’d rather die (and kill your inspiration with them) than risk making a fool of themselves.”
Lower Your Standards.
William Stafford never heard the voice of self-doubt. He woke up before dawn every day and wrote. Before he died in 1993 at the age of 79, he had written thousands of poems, and published scores of books. He was never blocked because he located the transmitter for USUCK FM: impossibly high standards.
“I believe that the so-called ‘writing block’ is a product of some kind of disproportion between your standards and your performance. One should lower his standards until there is no felt threshold to go over in writing. It’s easy to write. You just shouldn’t have standards that inhibit you from writing.”
I’ve come to believe in Stafford’s counsel so much that I don’t just lower my standards. I abandon them. I allow myself to write as badly as I can.
I advise you to do the same. Lowering your standards is a way to sneak past the watcher at the gate and tune out USUCK FM.
I always add that caveat. You have to lower your standards to break through writer’s block.
Drafting is where you discover your story, your voice, your characters, the building blocks that will erect the edifice of your imagination.
After the draft, you have to be the toughest critic of your own work, checking that the spelling is correct, that your news story is accurate, fair and balanced. That your characters are full-bodied, their motives clear, the conflict established from the get-go, the climax stunning. That’s what revision is for and why it’s so important. But this assessment, as Stafford says, comes after you’ve written.
Freewrite Your Way to Fluency
Lowering your standards is a good idea—in theory. But how do you apply it?
It’s a writing strategy developed by Peter Elbow, who believed that writing called on “two skills that are so different that they usually conflict with each other: creating and criticizing.”
His solution: put your fingers to the keys or pick up your pen and begin writing.
As fast as possible.
No pausing to find just the right word.
No worries about spelling or punctuation, at times even sense. (I can hear your inner critic screaming, “Stop!” Pay no attention. Keep going.)
The trick is to type so fast that the clacking of the keys drowns out that voice.
“Freewriting helps with the root psychological or existential difficulty in writing: finding words in your head and putting them down on a blank piece of paper.”
You’ll be surprised by what happens. “The way I start writing is always the same,” said Cynthia Gorney, when she was writing award-winning features for The Washington Post. “I start to babble, sometimes starting in the middle of the story and usually fairly quickly I see how it’s going to start. It just starts shaping itself. “
At first my freewritings aren’t very coherent. I may start by writing, “I have no ideas or energy. Not a clue what to say.” But if I persist even if it’s just for ten to fifteen minutes, the Watcher lifts the gates, USUCK FM stops playing and prose worth reading appears on the screen.
Ever since I started lowering my standards by freewriting, I’ve achieved more success than ever before.
I write faster. I agonize less. I have more time for revision. I publish more.
If you want to switch the dial on your writing radio station, I suggest you let your creator create by lowering your standards.
Put that into practice by freewriting, generating drafts that can be turned over to the critic. Don’t be afraid to babble at first. The critic is always waiting , when you give it the chance, to make your writing better.
“Just start typing and don’t stop,” says social media consultant Sree Sreenivasan, who’s embraced the practice. “Keep going without hitting the backspace even if you have errors. This opens your mind and forces you to get something down. You can always rewrite.”
Use the clock as your ally. Pick a subject. The story, novel chapter or screenplay that won’t budge. Agree to freewrite for 15 minutes, then gulp and go. You’re just going to talk to the page, think with your fingers and connect with that voice that is truly you, without your inner critic interfering. Whenever you’re blocked, make this your solution.
Type fast, so fast that you can slip past the DJ at USUCK FM before he has time to cry out, “Hey, you, come back here! You suck!”
“Not only do I read aloud, my editor reads aloud. During the process, Mike Gordon will read the story and pick out things he wants to talk about, and then he’ll call you over to his desk and you just sit there and he reads the story aloud, and it’s excruciating. It’s excruciating and incredibly powerful at the same time because you immediately see all the places where you’re slowing down because he can’t read well out loud. So if he’s not reading it well, then I’m probably not writing it well. So you go back and try again until you get it to flow a little better.”