Thursday, January 13, 2011

Dear Reader

One of the first times I ever got really excited about writing was during high school. The assignment was a research paper for English class; my topic, the relationship between beauty and mortality in John Keats’ work. I still think I’m clever. I had uncovered an interest in collecting research and synthesizing it into a composition. Research papers would continue to be fun for me throughout college, and later I found the same concept in my work as a newspaper reporter. Now, in my second tour of duty through graduate school, writing papers has been the best part, making me wish it could somehow be a career. If you change the terms a little, it is a career to many — academic researcher, freelance writer, essayist.

Oh wait, essayist is a little different. It was in the newspaper business that I discovered writing columns, a form akin to the essay. Writing about personal experiences is the most untethered of styles; research and interviews are totally optional. Of course, the tricky part is writing about something anyone else in the world would care to read. There are themes that will always hit readers — emotional struggles, health, life phases, personal epiphanies. Even with an interesting topic, the writer must find a tone that readers can relate to: connect with the subject matter, relate with the tone. I see this formula at work in popular blogs, the modern essay.

Knowing what types of writing I enjoy does not lead directly to accomplishing anything. Ego, bad habits, insecurity, and scheduling get in the way every day. For me, a road map from wishing to doing would include a lot of structure. I read about the writing habits of professional writers, and I recognize everyone has their individual method for working. Paper or digital, morning or evening, daily or intermittently — the methods vary. The common thing for all writers is they do have a method.

In my imagination, I would wake up early, do yoga or run, make coffee, and settle down in my office for a productive few hours. I would return in the afternoon for a few more productive hours. As loose as this description sounds, I would likely incorporate time goals, word goals, stretching routines, practice exercises, and many more barnacles to encrust the actual writing. After a few months of this practice, the days would begin to magically produce opportunities for Getting Paid to Write. Getting Paid to Write Is the ultimate career goal.

I have actually been Paid to Write in my career, something that has lent me very little confidence as I pursue the ambition again. Insecurity is a shadow I have to repeatedly banish by remembering I wrote professionally for several years and got lots of tiny little paychecks for it. As a newspaper reporter, I could create, on average, 1,000 words of publishable copy per day. That has stuck in my mind as an attainable goal.

What has worked for me so far is an organized approach. I pour all of my ideas or research onto the page and then outline and sort them like a puzzle. In the past this meant creating one long document of fragments, color-coding each bit, outlining, and moving text around on the page. Now I’m testing out Scrivener, a writing software which refines that process and has uninhibited the flow of my work. Using this structure to organize my document is far more efficient than scratching on printed copies with a handful of rainbow Sharpies.

The most rewarding thing about writing is getting feedback from readers. Positive feedback, that is. I can’t say I’m so evolved or mature that I relish criticism. But when a reader says, “you wrote what I felt but didn’t know how to say” or “I am going through the same struggle,” I feel a community of openness being born. I believe if I can come right out and admit the things I most want to hide, I create the opportunity for someone else to relate and decide it’s OK for us to be.

Brene Brown spoke about this very subject in a TED Talk last year. She said her research indicates vulnerability, a product of self-acceptance, supports connections among people:


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