Writing Therapy

As the title lets on, I can already tell that Intermediate Writing is going to be a mixture of catharsis and anxiety, and it was only day three. This week, we started off with a story salon, where the class read a piece and discussed its merits or critiques as they related to components of narrative storytelling and descriptive writing.

I chose an Oxford American story written by a former reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, called “New South Journalism: The Sometimes-Picayune.” I chose the story because of it’s telling detail and the way the author, Chris Rose, uses himself as his own best source. I really enjoyed the discussion our class had about the plot, the descriptive way the author wrote and the way he portrayed the newspaper and the city of New Orleans as characters. The way Rose writes reminded me of another piece I read in Esquire Magazine about a memorial after the shooting in Newtown, Conn.

Both these pieces included detail that really put you in the moment. They used more than just common words or phrases to describe what was going on, they made you see, hear, feel and taste every part. Unlike Rose’s piece, the Esquire story took place in a series of small moments, rather than the history of a newspaper and its relationship with a city. But still, you got the same kind of description, the kind that really let you picture every detail in the setting. Many in our class agreed that this kind of writing is what set Rose’s piece apart from other kinds of journalism, even with his own personal story included.

This is an exercise our class will repeat every week, with a different student leading the discussion each time.

The writing therapy part set once we began talking about the steps of the writing process. Jacqui had us draw out in pictures, symbols or words what our personal writing processes looked like, from the first instant we got a story idea to the time we hit send and sent a copy to our editor.

I was a little thrown at first. Usually a writing class doesn’t include arts and crafts time, but this class, as I’ve come to realize, isn’t really like any other I’ve taken before. Once we rolled out pieces of butcher paper and found different colored markers we wanted to use, we began to draw. Stick figures, arrows and exclamation points littered the papers, everyone caught up in their own pictures.

So far, this is been one of the most helpful writing activities I’ve ever done. Just looking around the room at my classmates’ work made me realize that we all go through some of the same types of panics and preparations. In fact, that was the subject of the rest of our class: everybody panics at first, even long-time, award-winning writers. The trick is how to manage that panic and turn it into something useful.

Jacqui boiled down the writing process into six discrete steps:

  1. Conceive (brainstorming story ideas)
  2. Collect (reporting, researching)
  3. Focus (what is it you’re really writing about?)
  4. Organize (outlines, notes)
  5. Draft (just get it all down)
  6. Revise (self-edit, copy edit, rework, polish)

Then, we went through and talked about where we felt confident and where we felt weak. I’m a pretty good focuser and organizer — I’m an outline convert and now use them to keep my thoughts straight and plan my drafts after I’ve reported. But it was even helpful to recognize where I am weak. I’ve never felt like I can easily or successfully come up with story ideas. I’m not confident about it, and it’s incredibly hard for me, even with the brainstorming strategies I’ve learned, to develop in my time reporting.

But here’s the best part: Jacqui reminded us that we might always be weak in some areas, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t good writers and journalists, it just means we need to learn when to step back and ask for help. We don’t have to do it alone.

Now, we’re embarking on phase 2 of pitching story ideas; working on vetting those ideas further, drafting mission statements and questions, and finding sources who we can gain access to. I’m most nervous about the last part, as I usually am when asking a source for a lot of their time or a peek into their lives and routines. Getting this access would make or break my story, and like one of our readings from this week said, is a risk that a reporter usually takes on alone at first.

I want to be able to do the kind of immersion journalism that Kristina Rizga does in this Mother Jones story about misconceptions about failing schools. But to do that, I need time; my own and my source’s. Part of me feels like I shouldn’t be asking so much of a person, access to their job and such. But part of me is tired of apologizing for trying to do my job to the best of my ability.

Nine times out of 10, I care immensely about the subjects I am writing about. I’ve done so much education reporting mainly because I feel so passionately about it’s role in people’s lives, and I want to offer them comprehensive, clear and helpful coverage about their schools. To do that, I need my sources to let me in and trust that I will portray them honestly. The first step is on me to be someone worth trusting and to make sure they know what I’m about and that I’ll follow through.

So, this is me gearing myself up for a day of phone calls, emails and outlines, trying to make others care as much as I do and keep my momentum going. When I remind myself how much I want to write about education, or anything I care about, It’s less scary to pick up the phone and start the story idea vetting process. It’s just mind over matter, right?