Craft Lesson: How to Cope with Emotional Interviews

Craft Lessons

Like countless others, my heart went out to the victims and families and friends of those who lived and died in the shocking June 24 collapse of the Champlain Tower South condominium in Surfside, Fla. I also had in mind the reporters who descended on the scene and faced the painful task of interviewing survivors and the loved ones of those dead or still missing. 

In my two decades as a newspaper reporter, I became well-acquainted with that aspect of the job. At one point, if you’d asked me about my beat, I’d have replied, “Death.” 

More times than I can count, I was dispatched to write about those left behind after the unthinkable happened: a child killed by a school bus, the high school friends of a classmate killed during a failed 1980 rescue mission to rescue the American hostages held captive by Iranian revolutionaries, the bride-to-be caught in a crossfire between police and a desperate parolee. My father had died when I was ten, and that often proved an effective way to show empathy for people I imposed on at one of the worst moments of their lives. Death binds. 

When I was teaching at The Poynter Institute, a reporter once emailed to ask about the appropriate response when a subject breaks down and begins to cry during an interview, a common occurrence.

“I’m not a very touchy-feely person,” the reporter said, “so I feel as though it would come across as fake or forced if I were to make myself give the subject a hug or touch their hand or something similar to that. But I feel so heartless simply continuing the interview while they dab at tears.

“Most often, these subjects are essentially strangers whom I have engaged in an emotional interview, so I feel as though I would be crossing some sort of line by moving closer to them or touching them or crying with them as though we were close friends.”

For help, I touched base with Joe Hight, then managing editor of The Oklahoman and no stranger to covering trauma in the news. 

As a reporter and editor, he covered the first mass post office shooting in 1986 in Edmond, Okla., the 1995 domestic terrorist bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and the aftermath of killer tornadoes. 

He was also president of the executive committee of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. It’s “a global network that brings together journalists, educators and health professionals to improve media coverage of trauma, conflict and tragedy, as well as the consequences of such coverage for those working in journalism.”

As reporters increasingly face emotional interviews after what seems like an unending cycle of mass shootings, wildfires, hurricanes and other catastrophic weather events, Joe’s advice remains timely. 

“You are not the only journalist who has struggled or will struggle when interviewing people who become emotional during an interview,’” he counseled.

“Certain interview questions may prompt an emotional response, especially if the subject is remembering a loved one who died tragically. It’s your response afterward that is important.

“Most people don’t need a hug from a stranger, and all of them don’t need a fake or forced response. They need someone who’s compassionate and human.”

I wish that Joe’s wise advice had been available to me as I sat with friends and family who were grieving a loss. I’m grateful, though, that it may offer help for reporters who find themselves, as they inevitably will, in that situation someday. His tips:

First of all, don’t stop the interview because someone cries and you feel uncomfortable. If you do, you might deprive the person from expressing natural and proper emotions.

Simply express again how sorry that you are about the situation or loss and then be especially sensitive to the subject from that point on. Put down your notebook and ask whether there’s anything that you can do to help, such as getting a tissue or a glass of water. (You might even want to bring tissue yourself if you think the interview could become emotional.)

When the subject becomes somewhat composed again, ask softly “Are you okay?” and then “Do you want to continue the interview?” If the answer is yes, politely express that you’re taking notes again and ask the next question in a soft tone. Then be patient and listen.

At the end of the interview, thank the subject for talking to you “during these difficult times.” Then ask if you can call later to check on facts or quotations, and possibly on information that may have been missed.

If the person sobs uncontrollably or cannot respond further, it’s then that you should consider discontinuing the interview until a later time. Before leaving, ask whether the subject wants you to contact someone or needs anything else. Then ask whether it’s okay to call or return at a certain time. A simple nod may be the reply.

Finally, if you are troubled by what happened during the interview, be sure to talk to someone who’s a sensitive and trusted listener so you can debrief from the emotions that you absorbed yourself.

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Guest Craft Lesson: What postcards can teach writers by Jacqui Banaszynski

Craft Lessons

Postcards have always held a special place in my life. If I were a collector, postcards would be high on my list. Not for the initial image, but for the act of sending and receiving, and the magic of storytelling involved in that action.

When I send students off into the world or reporters on assignment, the one thing I ask is that they send me a postcard. I’m always delighted when one follows through. I love seeing the images they choose, being introduced to their handwriting (a rare thing these days) and being enchanted by the mini-story they’ve chosen to tell me.

Because that’s another huge value of postcards. They are the perfect venue for practicing the craft ~ and purpose ~ of storytelling.

For years, when I traveled, I would send at least one postcard a day. I’d usually write at day’s end, perhaps at a bistro over a glass of wine, or maybe mid-afternoon over a coffee. My goal was not to say “Hey! I’m at the Parthenon!” But to instead share a moment or scene or experience from that day. To tell a story.

The ritual of putting pen to paper caused me to slow down and reflect on my day. To enter that mental/emotional story space that writers occupy.

Knowing I would write reminded me to report ~ to pay closer attention to the world as I moved through it. It caused me to be on alert to the little dramas that played out around me ~ to note the particular blue of the African dusk, the disorientation that came from staring at the stars in the southern hemisphere, how a table of Romanians kept guard over their too-drunk friend. (And yes, to find a post office and a stamp.)

Knowing the writing space was limited ~ maybe a 2×2 inch square ~ took the pressure off. The blank page/screen can seem endless and intimidating. A 2×2-inch postcard square? Hardly.

The reality of that space limit helped me focus. Verbs had to be active. Descriptions spare. Detours eliminated.

Writing on paper instead of the computer meant I had to accept my first draft and then let it go. No do-overs. (In daily news parlance, hit the SEND button!)

Knowing I would be writing to someone I cared about me made me care about what I wrote. It became an investment in a personal connection. I wanted them to see what I saw, to feel some of what I felt, to wonder a bit at my wonderment.

And that means I had to draw on the craft tools that writers employ to create story magic: scene, description, action, metaphor, dialog, sensory detail, tension, emotion.

All in a 2×2-inch square.

I carried this practice forward to classes and workshops. I once had students write a postcard a day for a month. Another time I had workshop writers pick someone they wanted to thank ~ maybe an inspiring teacher or the editor who gave them a chance or the brother who paid their rent one desperate month in college (Thank you, Jeff.) ~ and send that person a postcard. Capture their relationship and gratitude in a 2×2-inch square.

Of late I have transferred some of this practice to Facebook. When I’m overseas, I make it a mission to post a true story each day ~ what I think of as a nano-narrative. It still teaches me what, as writers, we all need to learn, relearn and practice:

  • Pay attention to the world around you. Slow down. Open yourself to experience. See with your eyes, your mind and your heart.
  • Find the center of a story. Develop a moment, a character, a scene, an experience.
  • Choose words that are vivid and precise, evocative and metaphorical.
  • Lower your standards and learn the value of Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Draft.” Quit thinking at some point and write.
  • Write ~ deeply and personally ~ to someone you care about. Then learn to care about everyone who might read your writing.

Here are two of my nano-narratives from trips as evidence of all of the above. They are far from perfect. Just little stories.

Romanian Retrospective 14 (10.15.2012) Breakfast in Socodor, far western Transylvania. This was served the morning after a huge welcome dinner the night before. All made at Simina Mistreanu’s mother’s village farm or that of the neighbors. The tomatoes were picked that morning, served with the dew still on them and sweet as apples. Cheese and bread were delivered fresh by neighbors. Large plate of fat-back served with enthusiasm, but I said my health insurance would be cancelled if I indulged.

CHINA DISPATCH 9 (July 11, 2009) ~ I was prayed awake by chanting. Drifted over to the Daci Monastery next to the hotel, paid 3 yuan (45 cents) and entered an oasis of peace. Hundreds of women had shed shoes and purses, donned brown robes from a common laundry basket, and wound round and round the temple through a maze of prayer cushions, chanting in a low, meditative melody as an elderly monk rang a small brass bell to keep time.

Craft Lesson: Time is on our side

Craft Lessons

“When do you write?” asks a writer friend who juggles family, a demanding university teaching job, and studying in an MFA program. 

Implicit in the question, I believe, is another, more pressing one: “How do you find time to write?”

That’s a question I’ve often been asked, not because I’m the most productive writer in the world.

I am not.

But the question misses the mark. It’s not about finding time to write, but making it. 

For inspiration, I turn for inspiration to busy people who have made time to pursue writing dreams that may lie outside their day jobs or family lives.

Best-selling author Scott Turow also had a demanding day job — as a federal prosecutor in Chicago — when he wrote the first 120 pages of his first novel, “Presumed Innocent.”

“I used to write on the morning commuter train,” he told an interviewer in 1986. “It was sometimes no more than a paragraph a day, but it kept the candle burning.”

Anne Tyler sat down to write her early novels in her Baltimore home after her children went to school.

In the 19th century, Anthony Trollope wrote novels in the morning before he set off to work from the English countryside to his job as a postal official in London. His discipline was astounding.

“I finished on Thursday the novel I was writing, and on Friday I began another,” Trollope wrote in 1880. “Nothing really frightens me but the idea of enforced idleness. As long as I can write books even though they be not published, I think I can be happy.”

Many years ago, influenced by Scott Turow’s commuter approach, I adopted it on my morning Metro ride from suburban Maryland to the National Press Building in Washington, D.C. The early ’90s was the busiest time in my life. I had a consuming job as a Washington correspondent, and at home, my wife Kathy and I had a toddler and infant twins. I suggested Kathy and I wear tee-shirts emblazoned with the title of the Warren Zevon song, “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead.”

Instead of trying to make up zzzzz’s on the subway, however, I was able over a period of several weeks to draft and revise a short story about a Mom forced to take over as coach of her daughter’s Little League team. “Calling the Shots” was published, after a year of waiting, in 1998 in Elysian Fields Quarterly, a literary baseball journal.

These days, as a freelancer and retiree, of course I have much more flexibility. I check the news, listen to The New York Times podcast “The Daily,” and then write several times during the day, juggling assignments, drafting content for my newsletter, hanging out with three precious grandchildren, dog walking and working on fiction and memoir.

By the evening, I’m usually too tired for anything but YouTubeTV. That was the case years ago in Washington, too. I never had the energy to look at the short story that captured my attention that morning.

Still, brief daily sessions of 15-30 minutes, as Turrow proved, demonstrates the value taking advantage of every free moment to wite. 

Writing regularly, even if only a single paragraph at a time, develops critical mass over time.

So what are ways to make time to write?

  • Use the mass-transit or another incremental approach. You don’t climb a mountain with one step, but with many.
  • Decide what matters — watching, for the tenth time, the “Soup Nazi” Seinfeld episode, or taking the half-hour to write.

I’ve always loved this quote on the subject from essayist Annie Dillard (who wrote “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”). “You can take your choice. You can keep a tidy house, and when St. Peter asks you what you did with your life, you can say, ‘I kept a tidy house, I made my own cheese balls.’ “

  • Exercise. Even a brisk 15-minute walk can pay off with relaxation-producing endorphins and an energy boost.  
  • Lower your expectations. Large blocks of time you dream of can prove useless if you agonize over the quality of what you’re producing. Every time you realize your fingers are poised over the keyboard, start banging away. It’s called freewriting and is best done in timed bursts, anywhere from a few minutes to, my preference, a screenfull. 
  • Manage your time, as I wrote in the most recent “Chip’s Writing Lessons.”. Examine your schedule, daily, weekly, even monthly, for pockets of time and energy. Be mindful of your circadian rhythms, those times of the day when you have the most energy.
  • Wake up 15 minutes earlier. Take a bite out of lunch.

At the beginning, quantity, not quality, rules. What sounds counter-intuitive — to  write well, I must first write badly — reflects the reality that the writer, especially at first, is not the best judge of the material.

Writing is a process of discovery. You need something to revise, however awful you think it is. Writing can’t take its final shape until you have enough distance, psychic or temporal, to see the holes, the flaws, unanswered questions and flabbiness that can be stripped away with a writer’s helpful friend: the “delete” key.

Finally, I take heart from the words of Robert B. Parker, the late master of detective fiction.

“There is no one right way. Each of us finds a way that works for him. But there is a wrong way. The wrong way is to finish your writing day with no more words on paper than when you began. Writers write.”

Craft Lesson: The Thief of Time

Craft Lessons

Over the years, I’ve met many writers with countless ideas for stories, magazine articles, novels and screenplays. Some have succeeded in finishing (and even publishing) their work, but many never survived the exhilarating flash of inspiration that launches a piece of writing. Oh, they’d begin with great hope, with a single line, or a few paragraphs or pages. But stuck in a quicksand of doubt, they couldn’t go on. Doubt, that crushing emotion, overtook them. Writer’s block ensued. Nevertheless, they resolved to go on. Tomorrow, they promised. Over the weekend when I had free time. During the vacation that was coming up. Time after time, they did what many people have done since the beginning of time. They put it off.

The Romans, an Empire that had its beginnings before the birth of Christ, had a word for this failing of the human spirit: procrastinatus. Pro meaning “forward” and “crastinus” signifying “of tomorrow,” a linguistic origin transformed over centuries into the English procrastinate, “the act of intentionally putting off something that should be done,” according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. It took an English poet, Edward Young to capture its essence. “Procrastination is the thief of time; Year after year it steals, till all are fled,” he wrote in Night Thoughts,” a series of poems composed between 1742 and 1745, during the dark hours of night, when the anguish over abandoned dreams is greatest.

“Many of us go through life with an array of undone tasks, large and small, nibbling at our conscience,” the writer James Surowiecki has observed. Of course, it’s not just writing that procrastination defeats. It’s the garage cleaning you’ve been meaning to put off, the mud-caked car that needs washing, the tax forms due in April, any number of tasks that nibble away, but still remain untouched. For writers, though, procrastination is the enemy of progress, the stomach-churning agony of being unable to move on and finish a story, no matter how exciting the idea, relentless the deadline, or disappointing the failure to act.

Over a career of five decades, I too became an expert at one of the most common of human failings, an ancient flaw that lies behind mountains of abandoned dreams, a towering torment of the half-finished, the half-done. Procrastination has been a companion at some point on nearly every writing journey I ever embarked on.

There are infinite ways to procrastinate: pace, video games, disappear into the black hole of social media, binge-watch, even tackle distasteful household chores. For me, one of the most successful approaches is to research. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, the topic I’ve spent a lot of time studying—the craft of writing—is the one that’s kept me from doing the writing I should do.

Challenging as procrastination is, years of experience in my own work and helping other writers with theirs has taught me not to surrender to despair. Delay can be defeated.

The first step is to acknowledge that everyone procrastinates. All of us face tasks we’d rather avoid, whether it’s conducting that first interview, writing that first line, responding to an email, or just doing the dishes. Recognizing this reality means you must be ever vigilant for the telltale signs of resistance. For me, it’s the simple act of hesitation, realizing that my fingers are hovering over the keyboard, paralyzed.

In this case, my solution, one reached after years of procrastination, is to lower, nay abandon, my standards and type as fast as I can, thinking with my fingers, and trying to drown out the voice of doubt that clamors to be heard with the clatter of keys. What I wrote was immaterial. “I want to write a short story about a man struggling with dementia but I have no idea how to start,” or “Damn, my post on procrastination is due tomorrow morning..”

This freewriting, I’ve discovered is more than just throat-clearing; very soon, miraculously, prose begins to emerge. I begin to describe a man is in his 70s, as his memory problems progressed from losing his keys, misplacing his wallet, and forgetting names to the terror of getting lost while walking his dog in what had been his familiar neighborhood. Not great, I tell myself, but it’s a start and it kicks me into gear and over many sessions, I draft and revise “Jacaranda.” I’ve reached the point of submission to literary journals, although of course, I’m procrastinating about that.

But wait. Besides, lowering your standards and freewriting , here are some other valuable techniques, their value bolstered by users’ comments.


1. Know tomorrow’s task today.

This is the technique that made my friend and mentor, Don Murray, one of the most productive writers I ever knew. Perhaps, he mused, the subconscious takes over when you assign yourself a task the night before.

“What surprised me is how much I feel better knowing that I know what I will be doing tomorrow. I’m the type of person who needs to write down everything or I’ll forget it. I find it reassuring and calming. It puts me in control and gives me a sense of order. I’m not as scatter-brained trying to remember everything at once.”
–Jane Kim

2. Follow productivity expert David Allen’s two-minute rule: If you think a task will take you two minutes or less, do it now.

“What surprised me was how much I could get done in tiny chunks–maybe it wasn’t so much the sheer amount of work as finding mental space to tackle it.”
–Ellen Sung

3. Eliminate piles. Instead of letting paper stack up on your desk, either put it in folders or toss it.

“I learned that it is a lot quicker to find things when you don’t have to shuffle through 50 pages of other unrelated issues. I learned that filing is a good thing to combat the urge to pile things up. I had to do something with the papers, and filing was a good physical way of keeping from falling back into the bad habit.”
–Preston Smith

 So let’s not tarry any longer. Don’t put it off. Gulp and go. Right now.

t

Craft Lesson: Time Management for Writers

Craft Lessons

From 1972 to 1994, I was a newspaper reporter. Those two decades established patterns and work habits that often make it immensely difficult to control my writing life. Desperately trying, and often blowing deadlines made me a captive of the ticking clock.

I persist in trying to gain control of my time, my stories, and myself. Of course, I recognize that this is a laughable notion.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t try. That desire to exercise control — over gravity, the weather, people, our lives — is one of the hallmarks of Homo sapiens. Writing, like any creative endeavor, is a desperate attempt to wrest control, to impose order on chaos, to stop time, to play God if you will.

Time management is one of the most important self-improvement techniques, but one least utilized by journalists. Writers too often feel enslaved by the clock, and the calendar, when, in reality, they can seize control of their time.


Complete this sentence:

If I managed my time, my stories, and myself better, I would be ______________________.

What did you write? “Less stressed,” “Getting better evaluations,” “Happier with my stories,” “Covering my beat more effectively”? How about “Winner of the Pulitzer Prize,” “Happier,” or as one participant at a workshop cried out,“Married.”

There’s no right answer, just the articulation of dreams all of us have, dreams that can be achieved if we can use time as an ally. Here are some practical approaches that can help.

Build a “mountain of stairs.”

Think of your next story, whether it’s a daily, project, short story or book, as a “mountain with stairs — a set of smaller steps leading to the top,” advises Eviatar Zerubavel in his inspiring and practical guide, “The Clockwork Muse.”

Break it down into its components: A story consists of reporting and research, focusing, planning, drafting, revising, editing. Assign time estimates to each step. Then keep track of the actual time for those steps.

It will take you time and experience to be able to estimate accurately. Invariably, the tasks that we think take a long time can be accomplished more quickly, while those that we think are a snap take more time than we thought. Develop a more accurate gauge of your time.

Writers on deadline feel under the gun, but they don’t realize the power they have. After all, what can an editor do between the assignment and the delivery of the story except worry and pester? Talk about powerless!

Set your own internal deadlines. As a Washington correspondent working under often insanely tight deadlines, I realized the chances of making a factual error were high, so I set my own deadline. If the editor wanted my story at 5 p.m., I hit the print button at 4:45 and spent the time double-checking names, titles, quotes, facts, and figures. When I hit the send button, I felt confident in the story’s accuracy, saving myself those middle-of-the-night horrors: “His middle initial was C!”

Work in brief daily sessions.

This is the key to productivity, says psychologist Robert Boice, who found that productive writers don’t chain themselves to their keyboards all day long. Instead, many follow the pattern of Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon: “Keep a regular schedule, and write at the same time every day for the same amount of time.” Regularity, not overwork, is the key to productivity.

What most writers, especially journalists, do is binge. They procrastinate for hours, building up a steam of guilt, anger, and rage that ultimately leads to indifference: “I don’t care how bad it is, I’ve only got 30 minutes left.”

Then, once they’re writing, they are afraid to stop. They write in a fury until deadline or just after, irritating their editors and ensuring that their copy will be hastily edited. They think that they’re preserving their flawless prose. Unfortunately, they’ve robbed their readers of a fresh eye that might notice a confusing sentence or important information buried deep in the story. And when it’s all done, they’re exhausted, stressed out, and ready for a drink.

“Time is in the air you breathe,” said Peter Davison, the late poetry editor of The Atlantic Monthly. “The writer who fills many shelves does not breathe more eagerly than the crabbed sufferer from writer’s block, but the two differ in the ways they use their oxygen.”

Don’t leave all the writing until the end of the day. Write an early draft to find out what you already know and need to know. Take time to focus and plan. Try writing through the entire story, hit the print button, and mark up the printout. Input the changes. On daily stories, work in 15- to 30-minute drafting sessions, then edit and revise. For projects, write before all the reporting is done. Write in sections. The key is to avoid bingeing.

Make friends with a clock.

A timepiece is a way to control the procedure even if you can’t control the material. For a long time, my preferred technology was a now vintage, I believe, Radio Shack Talking Timer, which counted down, up, and signaled time’s up with a series of beeps ranging from a car horn to a teakettle. These days I just set my alarms with my Amazon Alexa when blocked because, while I can’t control how well I write, one thing I can do is write quickly. Invariably, within the first two minutes I leap whatever hurdle my psyche has erected. I think that’s because fear and doubt build a mountain that we think we have to climb over when, in reality, it’s just a threshold. Free writing creates a threshold between the state of paralysis and the state of grace.

People confuse time management with an anal-retentive obsession with the ticking clock. In reality, time management demands infinite patience.

“Writing is a craft that takes many years to develop,” Sue Grafton, the best-selling mystery author, said in The Writer. “The publishing world is full of talented, hardworking writers who’ve struggled for years to learn the necessary skills. I counsel any writer to focus on the job at hand — learning to write well — trusting that when the time comes, the Universe will step in and make the rest possible. Writing isn’t about the destination — writing is the journey that transforms the soul and gives meaning to all else.”

None of us can guarantee that our stories will be brilliant. But we can control our time and when we do that we greatly improve our chances of achieving our dreams of success.

Feel like a fraud? Join the club.

Craft Lessons
Photo by Niklas Kickl on Unsplash

The other day, a writer friend, brilliant, creative and multiple award-winning, complained about the impossible. She said she often felt like an imposter.

I didn’t have to ask how that could be. You’re not alone, I told her. I’m uncomfortably aware of the syndrome, having suffered from it basically every time I start a new piece of writing–“This is the day,” a voice in my head declares with conviction, “they found out you’re a fake.”–and encountering it more times than I can count in five decades as a writer, and more than a quarter-century teaching and coaching writers.

Even so, I was taken aback when I decided to research the topic and was shocked, and strangely, comforted, when I learned that feeling like a fraud was common among high-performing and highly successful people. It was time, I decided to revisit and flesh out the topic, which I initially posted when this newsletter was in its infancy. If you’ve ever felt like an imposter, I hope it helps. 

“I have a crisis around every single story I write  — that I’ve lost an ability, that I’m just flailing this time.”

That’s Taffy Brodesser-Akner talking.

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.”

The paradox of imposter syndrome is that it often targets high achieving success stories. Writers like Brodesser-Akner and Neil Gaiman, astronauts (Neil Armstrong), actors (Tom Hanks), and First Ladies (Michelle Obama).

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.

“There comes a point when you think, ‘How did I get here? When are they going to discover that I am, in fact, a fraud and take everything away from me.'”

TOM HANKS

Sound familiar?

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.

If Neil Armstrong felt like an imposter, maybe everyone did.

NEIL GAIMAN

“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.

“I have written 11 books but each time I think, “Uh-oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.'”

MAYA ANGELOU

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

Craft Lesson: Getting it Right: A Passion for Accuracy

Craft Lessons

Have you ever been on the receiving end of journalism: the subject of, or even just a mention in, a news story? Perhaps it was about a friend or relative. Or an obituary of a family member. Did they get it right? Ask readers, reporters, and editors this question and you’ll hear a catalog of misspelled names, mangled quotes, factual errors. My father’s obit misspelled my sister’s name.

Surveys have shown that the public expects the news media to be accurate, even though people are less confident than they used to be that news organizations get the facts right. That’s why accuracy must be a mindset, a passion for accuracy.

Everyone makes mistakes. No one is perfect, but journalists and other writers must take great care to get it right. Otherwise, they lose their greatest asset: credibility.
 
Accuracy is the goal; fact-checking is the process.

After tracking errors in The Oregonian of Portland, editors concluded that the three most frequent sources of error are:

  • Working from memory.
  • Making assumptions.
  • Dealing with second-hand sources.

    The way to achieve accuracy is to develop a system and adhere to it religiously, former Oregonian editor Michele McLellan found in her research. One of my favorite resources remains “44 Tips for Greater Accuracy,” created by Frank E. Fee. Jr., the former Knight Professor of Editing at Ohio University. Aimed at copy editors, Fee’s tips are an invaluable checklist for writers as well. For me, the most important one is “Never assume anything,” followed by “Don’t be too busy or too proud to check a fact.”

    If you’re having an accuracy problem, pay attention to three fault lines as you go about your job: 


    DURING THE REPORTING, take the extra seconds to read back the spelling of the source’s name. Ask for the person’s age. If you ask for birthdate and year, you’ll always have the information needed to update it. Some writers ask sources to write down their names in their reporter’s notebook.

    DURING THE WRITING, consult your documentary sources — notebook, printed materials, audio recording and transcripts. If you don’t want to interrupt the writing flow, make sure to put a mark reminding you to double-check it later. “CK” for “check” is the standard proofreader’s mark. “CQ” is shorthand for “this has been checked for accuracy;” it is often used with unusual spellings, facts and figures. It alerts copy editors that you’ve done your job. Of course, they should double-check nonetheless.

    AFTER THE WRITING, assemble all your source materials — notebooks, interview transcripts, tapes, books, studies, photographs — everything you’ve used to report and write your story. Then go over every single word in the story and compare it to the original source. (That’s the approach that Pulitzer Prize-winning narrative writer Tom French took. At the St. Petersburg Times, where we worked together, I watched in awe how, despite the length of his serial narratives, he put a check mark over every word to show that he’d linked it to a source. Sure it’s time-consuming, but you can sleep a little easier and increase your chances of dodging a libel suit. Even on daily stories with very tight deadIines, you can manage your time—setting a deadline fifteen minutes before the story is due—to make one printout just for names and titles, another for quotes, a third for other factual details. An eminently helpful aid, as I wrote in an earlier post, is your computer’s text-to-speech ability to read your story aloud. Reading while listening usually flags flaws that eluded you.

    Don’t be afraid to call your sources back and double-check. If you’re describing a financial transaction, a medical procedure or how a sewer bond works, there’s nothing wrong with calling an expert and asking her to listen to what you’ve written. Your obligation is to be clear and accurate.

    Listen to the voice in your head. Whenever I made a mistake in a story, I could always go back to a moment where it happened. It was almost as if a tiny bell was ringing a faint warning that I ignored. Usually, it was an assumption I made or a question I failed to address. There is a moment of truth in writing where you can take either the accurate path or the inaccurate one.

    I was obsessive about it, but in 22 years as a reporter, I wrote stories that had corrections appended only about a half-dozen times. That doesn’t mean all my other stories were error-free; they just went unnoticed, I imagine.

    Errors are the bane of journalists. As a rookie reporter, I used to keep my corrections in my top desk drawer; I wanted their presence to haunt me. Reporters who start their careers working for small-town papers, as I did, learn an unforgettable lesson about accuracy when they make a mistake in an obituary and hear from the deceased’s survivors.

    Some magazines employ fact-checkers. They verify facts names, titles, ages, addresses and quotations in the story. Other writers I know rely on friends and family to keep them out of trouble. (Thanks, Casey and Jeff!) Despite our best efforts, some mistakes have slipped through the cracks. I don’t think a story or a book without some mistakes exists. A case in point: “In This Issue” of Chip’s Writing Lessons #49 had two formatting errors: the wrong headline for the tip of the week and a headline for a “Writing to Savor” that didn’t appear later in the newsletter. I regret any confusion this caused. I try to remember that Appalachian quilt makers put mistakes in their work because, they say, the devil loves perfection. But the careful, responsible writer always tries hard to get it right, even if they don’t always succeed.

BEST WRITiNG ADVICE: A ROUNDUP FROM 50 ISSUES

Craft Lessons

Chip’s Writing Lessons celebrates its 50th issue today. To mark it, I’ve rounded up answers to a question I posed to writers and editors in their ‘Four Questions With” interviews: “What’s the single best piece of advice anyone ever gave you?” Here’s what ten of them had to share.

“At first, everybody a reporter talks to is likely to put up a front — some people suck up, others are mean and try to run you off, still others are fearful about the whole process. It’s hard for your first interactions to be authentic. But not many people can put up a front forever. If you stick around long enough, you’ll see the real person.”
Tommy Tomlinson

“Boil your story down to a sentence. If you can’t do that, your story is likely to ramble and lose its theme. If possible, boil the story down to a word. Write the sentence or word on a Post-It note and keep it visible until you’re done with the story. That always helps me stay on point.”
Rosalind Bentley

“Often in long narratives I think of two rules for the opening:

  1. The reader should have an almost immediate sense of why this is important (somewhere between the second graph and the sixth).
  2. The reader should care about your characters before things happen to them and before they do things.” – Mark Johnson


“Resist the urge to start correcting the small stuff on your first pass through a manuscript. Instead, you should read the entire piece through thoughtfully, thinking hard about structure, theme, tone, and the other large questions that are far more important to reader impact than the easy copy-editing and polish corrections that can distract you on a first pass through a piece.”  
Jack Hart

“Lary Bloom, who I worked for at Northeast Magazine at the Hartford Courant, once said to me: “Don’t be the editor of the greatest unpublished work.” What that meant was take a risk to like something, to champion it and polish it and then publish it. You’ll never face criticism for the manuscripts you turn down; no one will see them. As an editor, you have to open yourself to scrutiny for what you choose to publish, and then stand behind it. That’s your job!”
Jan Winburn

“Report, report, report, to earn the right to take charge, to make choices, to run a rope from post to post, stretched taut, taking and using what serves the story and moves it forward, from beginning to middle to end, while unsentimentally leaving behind what does not.”
Michael Kruse

“When I was covering the Iraq war and felt overwhelmed, my editor, the great Jan Winburn, told me: “Just write what you see in front of you.” It was her version of E.B. White’s advice: “Don’t write about man. Write about a man.”
Moni Basu

“The advice that has stayed with me the most wasn’t specifically about editing— in terms of handling copy — but about managing people and it came from Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Maria Carrillo

“I think the best advice I ever got about writing was from Gene Roberts, who used to say that every good story should be brimming with “color, quotes and anecdotes.” As I recall, one of Gene’s first editors at the Goldsboro (NC) News-Argus was blind, and he demanded that Gene’s stories make him see.
Bill Marimow

“Many years ago, I took a writing workshop at my local YMCA with Sonia Pilcer. Sonia assigned weekly prompts and, on the first day, wrote on the blackboard: WRITE. WRITE STUPID. WRITE UGLY. WRITE. Along with Sonia’s advice, the number of stories required in week-long intensives led by terrific teachers like Nancy Zafris and Pam Painter (who sometimes demanded two stories a night), dispelled the notion that you must produce something good every time. I still find it nerve-wracking to be among a new group of writers, especially writing to prompts. What will they think? But I cling to that initial advice. Writing is a craft you get better at by doing, even doing badly.”
Nancy Ludmerer

Craft Lesson: Writing with Your Nose

Craft Lessons

A nose for news. In journalism, the phrase means the ability to sniff out the newsworthy from the trivial. Good reporters have one. Give them a whiff of corruption and they’ll root it out like a pig diving for truffles. Narrative writers can ferret out the conflict in an event or situation that makes for compelling prose.

Write with the senses, editors and writing teachers demand. And most of us do that, providing our readers with vivid images and resonant sounds.  

But hunt high and low in stories for a sense of smell and some days you feel like a bloodhound who’s lost the scent. Tastes abound, but smells, the scents that get the salivary juices running, are often absent. But look hard enough, and they seem to be found in the best writing.

“Smell,” wrote the blind and deaf writer Helen Keller, “is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived. The odors of fruits waft me to my southern home, to my childhood frolics in the peach orchard. Other odors, instantaneous and fleeting, cause my heart to dilate joyously or contract with remembered grief.”

Pick a smell and it will take you back to times past, remembered places. I need only catch a whiff of patchouli oil and it’s the ’60s again. Another scent catapults me back to my father’s wake when I was 10 years old. Bouquets of lilies and roses and sprays of mums and daisies surrounded his coffin, but the cloying, overripe scent of carnations summons that memory with its churning blend of grief, fear, and shock.

“Smells detonate softly in our memory like poignant land mines, hidden under the weedy mass of many years and experiences,” Diane Ackerman writes in “A Natural History of the Senses,” a sensory-rich journey. “Hit a tripwire of smell, and memories explode all at once. A complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth.”

“Mention a smell,” says novelist fantasy and horror story writer,” Rayne Hall, “and the scene comes to life. Mention two or three, and the reader is pulled into the scene as if it were real.”

Bob Kerr, former Providence Journal columnist and a Vietnam veteran, said that jungle war is captured for him in the confluence of two smells generated by the malodorous duty that required soldiers to dispose of latrine contents with fire: “diesel fuel and burning shitters.”

No one has written more powerfully about the senses than Ackerman, whose book catalogs the potency of sensory data. “Nothing is more memorable than a smell,” she says. Or as evocative. 

All of us have a lengthy catalog of smells that make us remember and feel. So why are we so reluctant to employ them in our writing? 

Ackerman makes the case that the problem is in our head, in the connections that link our sense of smell with the parts of the brain where language forms. She calls smell “the mute sense, the one without words.”

Try describing a smell to someone who’s never smelled it, she says, and you’ll see how our olfactory precision quickly diffuses. 

“The physiological links between the smell and language centers of the brain are pitifully weak,” compared with those “between the smell and the memory centers, a route that carries us nimbly across time and distance.”

“When we see something we can describe it in gushing detail, in a cascade of images … But who can map the features of a smell?”

Emily Grosvenor is a journalist and essayist who has written extensively about scents in fiction (the nostrils of novelists and short story writers seem more sensitive than most journalists). She has an inspiring online collection of examples that she calls the “Best Smelly Writing.” In fact, she won the the Perfumed Plume Awards for Fragrance Journalism. (There really is one.)

She also produced an olfactory exegisis of Paula Hawkins’ “The Girl on the Train,” that is a guide for writers in search of acutely described smells that will inspire writers who want to employ that sense.

There is another novelist I’ve studied who writes powerfully with his nose: Richard Price, the novelist (“Clockers” and “Freedomland“) and screenwriter (“The Color of Money” and “Sea of Love.”)

The novels of Price reek, in the very best sense of the word. 

A close look at the way he uses the sense of smell in his novel, “Samaritan,” reveals a taxonomy of olfactory usage that any writer, of whatever genre or form, can profit from. (The italicized passages are from the novel.)

THE MADELEINE EFFECT 

“Straightening up, he was struck with a humid waft of boiled hot dogs and some kind of furry bean-based soup that threw him right back into tenth grade.” 

For French novelist Marcel Proust, taste was the bridge between present and past, captured in the legendary scene in “Remembrance of Things Past” when the act of dipping a madeleine, a small shell-shaped pastry, into a cup of lime-flower tea, enables the narrator to relive a moment from his past. In the gritty world of Price’s urban New Jersey wasteland, the smell of cafeteria food is an equally powerful time transporter.

SENSE OF SMELL AS PLACE  

Price repeatedly uses smells to evoke a sense of place:

“Outdoors again, she inhaled a low-tied stench, funky but evocative, coming off the conjunction of river and bay.”

“The lobby of his old building, as he’d expected, seemed smaller to him but the smell caught him off guard: a claustrophic stankiness — urine, old bacon grease.”

“A greasy aroma drifted down from the third-floor food court — spare ribs and Cinnabons…”

SMELL AS CHARACTER TRAIT 

Writers regularly use visual cues to distinguish one character from another. Price uses scents the same way, marking his characters with distinctive smells, like the tracks of a woman’s perfume and the effect it has on the hero. 

“Danielle then embraced Ray. She was sporting some kind of vanilla-musk body spray, the scent so dense that it made him dizzy.”

“Wearing dry-cleaned jeans and a white T-shirt under a red bolero jacket, she gingerly wandered about, lightly touching things, her perfume, that vanilla musk, laying down a heavy sweetish track wherever she went.”

SMELL AS MOOD

Make cookies, real estate agents advise home sellers who know the smell evokes a homey atmosphere. (Or just sprinkle a few drops of vanilla on a hot lightbulb to get the same effect.) Price evokes mood with descriptions of odors.

“It was cold, the city-borne breeze damp and acrid, still damp with dread after all this time.”

“This time around, the hospital smelled like terror; a pervasively astringent reek that set up house between Ray’s eyes and made the two-month-old ‘Entertainment Weekly’ spread-eagled between his fists flutter as if caught in a gentle breeze.”

“Each day,” Ackerman writes, “we breathe about 23,040 times and move around 438 cubic feet of air. It takes us about five seconds to breathe — two seconds to inhale and three seconds to exhale — and, in that time, molecules of odor flood through our systems.”

“Unlike the other senses,” Ackerman explains, “smell needs no interpreter.”

But the twinned reflex of breathing described by scientists and the work of Richard Price suggests ways writers can use smell to convey information, memory, and emotion in their stories.

1. Breathe In. 

“Over time, smell has become the least necessary of our senses,” Ackerman says, quoting Helen Keller’s name for it: “the fallen angel.”

Our antiseptic age seems designed to rob us of smells or confuse our nose with synthetic concoctions that mask noxious chemicals with the aromas of the orchard. 

Cultivate your sense of smell by using it as much as you can. 

2. Name that smell.

Diane Ackerman says, “We can detect over 10,000 different odors, so many, in fact, that our memories would fail us if we tried to jot down everything they represent.”

During workshops I’ve asked writers and editors to help me develop a catalog of smells. Here’s a sampling: 

  • New wood
  • Lilacs
  • Horse manure
  • Dried seaweed
  • Stogies
  • After summer rain
  • Coffee with cream
  • Sea air

3. Describe the smell.

Modifiers can heighten a smell’s impact. Price regularly uses them in his olfactory details.

“The air smelled of sea funk and overturned earth; the only thing Ray loved about living in Little Venice, the raw and heady scent made him think of new beginnings, of second and third chances to get things right.”

Price also describes the nature of odors, a technique that adds to the muscularity of his prose.

“Then, reentering the apartment from the terrace, she gave the living room a fresh look. Minus the caustic reek of mothballs … the place had the same vaguely geriatric un-lived-in feel as Mrs. Kuben’s digs next door…”

Nerese found herself walking into a living room adrift in malt liquor fumes, her son and three of his high school buddies playing at being players, sprawled on the couch, throwing back forties and clutching their nuts, a porno video playing on the TV.

Simile and metaphor, the workhorses of poetry, can help convey a smell’s power to a reader. 

3. Find the Source.



Don’t just inhale the world. Identify and describe the smell and the memory or feeling it evokes.

Reading Richard Price and then noticing how few writers, myself included, take as full advantage of their sense of smell as he does, has made me more alert to the power of this sense. 

It also reminded me that a scent can provide a story’s most haunting moment. Decades ago, I wrote a story called “The Death of a Smoker” as part of a series on early efforts to sue tobacco companies for smoking-related illnesses and deaths. The smoker’s widow was showing me around the home she had shared with her husband before lung cancer killed him. In her bedroom, she paused and told me something that I used to end the piece.

“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.”

Craft Lesson: Under My Feet: Why Writers Should Walk

Craft Lessons

I rise before dawn and dress in the dark, so as not to wake my dog. This is my time. I dress for the weather, step outside and begin my morning walk. A while ago, I slipped on a rain-slicked sidewalk and banged my big toe. It wasn’t broken, but seven days went by before I could walk without pain. I felt like an addict in search of a fix.

Healed now, I power walk for an hour through my tree-shrouded neighborhood, swinging my arms high, as the sidewalks under my feet pass in a blur. Some mornings I listen to podcasts or audiobooks, but the best times are when I shut off everything but my mind. As the house, gardens and yards on either side disappear in a blur, I think about stories, those I’m working on, dream about writing or are stuck on. As the sun begins to rise, sentences sometimes take new shape. Puzzling leads tease their way to fluency. 

During the day, more leisurely walks also furnish opportunities for inspiration as my dog Leo leads me along the alleys that crisscross our neighborhood. Only when I feel a sharp tug on his leash do I realize I’ve been lost in thought; ruminating about pedestrian seeds that someday may germinate a story or help with a bedeviling rewrite. 

Walks, many writers have found through the centuries, are fertile drivers of the imagination, summoning forth the stories they want to finish, ones they want to start or to reconnoiter through all of their senses, collecting plots, details and characters as they move through the world.

“Walking, like reading and writing,” says columnist Danny Heitman, “is an unending source of surprise.”

James Joyce was an inveterate walker, roaming the streets of Dublin to map out where Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom went about their lives in “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” and “Ulysses.”

Virginia Woolf, the English novelist, loved tramping through the Cornish countryside and the Bloomsbury section of London where her literary circle gathered.

Charles Dickens’ legendary long walks—fact-finding missions to soak up the sights, sounds and smells of the streets of gritty 19th century London—usually measured 12 miles a day in two-and-a-half hours, his biographer Peter Ackroyd reports.

“Since at least the time of peripatetic Greek philosophers, many other writers have discovered a deep, intuitive connection between walking, thinking, and writing,” science writer Ferris Jabr says in “Why Walking Helps Us Think,” in The New Yorker

He quotes from Henry David Thoreau’s journal: “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live! Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.”

Methinks he was right. 

Science reveals, Jabr says, that changes in our body chemistry explain why walking triggers our imagination. Our heart pumps faster when we walk, sending blood and oxygen not only to our muscles, but all our organs, including the brain. 

Among the many health benefits, walking improves our memory and attention, studies show, protecting the hippocampus, a seahorse-shaped brain organ critical to remembering. 

Regular walks elevate “levels of molecules that both stimulate the growth of new neurons and transmit messages between them,” Jabr says. Even mild exertion, like my walks with Leo, studies show, helps with memory and attention.

Since walking doesn’t require much conscious attention, our mind “is free to wander—to overlay the world before us with a parade of images from the mind’s theatre,” Jabr says. “This is precisely the kind of mental state that studies have linked to innovative ideas and strokes of insight.” 

That was true for Virginia Woolf. In “Moments of Being,” a collection of posthumously published autobiographical essays, Woolf recalled a special journey: One day, “walking round Tavistock Square I made up, as I sometimes make up my books, “To the Lighthouse,” in a great, apparently involuntary rush,” an epiphany cited by Rebecca Solnit in “Wanderlust: A History of Walking.”

In “Beneath My Feet: Writers on Walking,”  Duncan Mishnull has collected 36 testimonies to the literary inspiration that walking provokes. 


“In a 1975 reminiscence about New York,” Michael LaPointe wrote in an Atlantic review of the book, “the novelist and essayist Edward Hoagland recalls how he stalked the streets of his hometown, first “to smell the yeasty redolence of the Nabisco factory” and then “to West Twelfth Street to sniff the police stables.”

The author was inhaling the raw stuff that would fuel creativity: “I knew that every mile I walked, the better writer I’d be.”

LaPointe also gives a satisfying summary of the salutary benefits of perambulation from “Walking: One Step at a Time,” by Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge, the first person to have completed the Three Poles Challenge (North, South, and Mount Everest) on foot, as well as underground journeys through the New York City sewer system. 

Kagge, who cultivates “inner silence” along the way, says he appreciates “a healthy stretch of [the] legs, a kick of endorphins,” his thoughts “bubbling between my ears, new solutions to questions that have been plaguing me.”

For writers who spend hours sunk into their chairs staring at a screen with an imagination deficit, a good walk, whether fast or slow, may be the best exercise to kick those endorphins into action and get your creative juices flowing. 

In a society dependent on cars for transportation and treadmills for exercise, a walk—long or short — gives writers the chance to stretch their imagination. The next time you’re wrestling with a story, or even a single paragraph, pull on your sneakers and go for one.