Oh hey, I wrote my 100th blog post yesterday!
To my 125+ (!!!!!) followers, thank you, thank you, thank you. Now, can you please tell your friends about me?
“A word after a word after a word is power.” –Margaret Atwood
I’ve been trying to be better about writing in the blog more consistently because the more you write, the more you write. I want to write more and more. Does that make sense?
The other half of my writing life is the one that goes out for publication in magazines, the one that pays my bills. A lot of the assignments could be tossed away as mere “fluff” pieces. But the more serious I get about the profession, the more I find myself investing my heart.
The past few months, my magazine work has sharpened so that even I notice it. I don’t know that others do, my readers, if I even have any loyal readers. I can barely get Jon to read my work and remember it. It used to not bother me, when I was less confident, but now I’m more confident, I know I’m good, and I want him to know it, too. Sometimes I think that he thinks I’m the most frivolous person in his life, which is maddening. I am anything but frivolous. I don’t want to be a lacy adornment. I want for people to know that what I have to say matters.
That doesn’t mean that reflections on my own life are what’s most important. The blog is a great outlet, but it’s not exactly art. I get that. That’s okay. That’s totally the purpose of the form. There are moments of illumination and that’s cool, too, but largely unintentional. It’s another way to sharpen the pen for something more better later. It’s great practice.
I try to write to the heart of most of my blog posts, but sometimes I miss the mark. Still, take aim.
If you write, go to the heart of a story. For this deadline cycle, I had three stories where the opportunity to do this arose. One was about a dog groomer who works out of a trailer that she drags all over the area to clients’ houses. She’s my editor’s dog groomer. How on earth do you make a story with heart out of that? How do you find the center of it? Where is its pulse? It’d be so easy to dismiss, to write fluff with lots of cutesy adverbs and exclamation points and reductive language that, while adorable, has no dignity. I considered it. When I met her in person, she didn’t particularly seem like someone who wanted to be taken seriously. She sort of seemed like someone who didn’t really give a fuck. She’d completely forgotten that we’d scheduled an interview and photoshoot. I wasn’t offended. That’s actually pretty common around here, which can be enormously useful as a writer. She had a shih tzu on the table and went write on clipping and shaving while I stood there in the corner with my laptop balanced on a space heater. We talked and talked and I started to see a story take shape. She was wiling to do anything. That happened to be dog grooming, but she would’ve done anything to grasp at a better life. Like taking her business mobile, for example. She had a disabled husband and a disabled son at home. Nobody knew that about her, and she didn’t need them to. That was the beauty. Grit. Determination. That was the heart of the story.
I had another assignment about three teenage boys who played instruments. Big whoop, right? As I gathered details before the interview, I started to get the sinking feeling that I was being pushed to write a “gusher” piece because the teens were related to one of the magazines biggest advertisers–particularly when an irate family member left a voicemail demanding to know why their children were excluded. I went into the interview with no idea how to pull something out of the hat. Where was the white rabbit? I sat with them and listened to them play. I watched them. After, we sat in their kitchen and they ran over each others’ sentences in the way that teenagers do. It blew my head off. Oh! That was the beauty. That was the story. Their youth.
And then I had another piece about this guy who plays a professional Santa Clause. This was for our upcoming December issue. Lordy, it’d be easy to turn that into fluff. I thought about doing a simple tongue-in-cheek, “Interview with Santa Clause!” I didn’t even really want to meet him in person because it was a long drive away and I was tired and I wanted to go home and sit around in my sweatpants for the rest of the day. But he asked me to meet him at a Mexican restaurant, so I did. We sat and talked for 45 minutes. I knew immediately that we were dancing around some hidden center. I kept coming back to, But why did you decide to become Santa Clause? And then the heart came out. Or rather, the hurt that he was trying to fix. Good lord, the story took a life of its own. The story could be a novel. The story he told me was one he’d rarely told anyone. He cried as he spoke. He’s probably in his sixties. All the pain he suffered as a child he channels into Santa Clause, into being a man who makes dreams come true for other little kids, the realization of dreams that were taken from him in his childhood.
When you’re talking to an interviewee and they suddenly have an Oprah moment, you’re finding the heart of the story.
When you’re sitting alone at the dining table at midnight in your underwear writing blindly about some innocuous event in your past that you can’t quite forget and you suddenly find yourself sobbing, you’re finding the heart of the story.
Go there, always, if you can. Find the heart.
Sometimes, stories don’t have a heart. Don’t make one up. You’ll feel it in the writing, you’ll feel the inauthenticity, and it feels like shit. Don’t go there. Just let it be shitty and make the deadline. At least make the sentences well-written. Sometimes that’s the most you can do. Cover your ass, at the very least.
Last night, my magazine work took me to an Agricultural Appreciation Benefit. The guests of honor wore denim coveralls with denim shirts underneath. I shook the hands of a senator and a State representative. There was no heart here, but it was fun. You never know where the work will take you.
Story makes a difference. I believe this so much that if asked to defend it, I would cry because I believe it so deeply. I believe it because of all the books that changed my life for the better, and all the people I know whose lives have been changed by books; I believe it because I remember stories myself. I believe in all forms of story-telling, though I prefer radio and books. But I love newspapers and magazines and short stories. I love campfire stories. I love the way men tell stories where they think women aren’t listening. Story matters. It’s ancient for a reason.
Also, if you want to write, write. Just write. But read, too. Read a lot.
That’s my advice.I make a living as a freelance writer and photographer. I don’t know everything, but I know a lot more than I did ten years ago, when freelancing felt like a pipe dream. The harder you work, the more work you get. That’s all. That’s everything. I am 26.