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Thursday, April 21, 2005

Writing is a personal and fragile act

One of the questions on the survey at the ASJA conference was about keynote speakers, as in whether or not they add to a conference. I was thinking about that this afternoon and I’ve concluded that what they do is provide inspiration, and in the middle of panels and workshops and seminars, that little bit of inspiration is what can propel you through more panels and workshops and seminars.

The keynote speaker at the ASJA conference last weekend was Buzz Bissinger, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Friday Night Lights.” He told the audience that he is always self-conscious about talking to other writers, but his descriptions about writing and the process of writing are worth sharing.

“Writing is such an incredibly personal act and an incredibly fragile act. What works, simply works and I hesitate to get involved in anyone else’s process,” he says. He spoke openly of his insecurity and says he takes to editing much as he does to all self-improvement, by shutting off the lights, hiding under the covers, curling up in the fetal position and sucking his thumb.

“Writing is hard. I feel your pain and frustration, but also the exhilaration that is still found in the joy of the writing process. There’s no better feeling then when you get on a story that’s going to take you to the Promised Land.”

Bissinger edited the 2003 Best American Sports Writing anthology and says it was a testament to the innovative, creative nonfiction still being done today, despite our age of “dripping, drenching celebrity.” And he was particularly pleased to read the work of many community papers without the stable of prize editors whose sole work is to enter contests on behalf of the usual suspects.

But he cautions writers against taking the easy road. “I worry about reporting. It’s what informs all of nonfiction. Can I get inside that subculture enough?” he asks. The gold is in taking readers into a world they think they know, such as high school football, and revealing so much more.

“I like to write with power and passion instead of that pseudo-intellectual processed cheese that reads as if you’re on autopilot,” he says. Many editors and critics like to play it safe. And that can make success as a writer a somewhat elusive lady.

“I’m uneven as a writer and even more uneven as a human,” adding that he was twice divorced and married for a third time a few weeks ago in Las Vegas. “I fear the curse of dullness. I have sentences I’m embarrassed about, but I also tend to swing for the fences when I write, to engage with the reader in a blood pact so they are seeing and tasting what I’m writing about.”

It’s all about access. It can be a day or a season, but access allows you to grab the detail and to soak up the stuff of life.

“Reporters and editors ask way too many questions. The key is to observe and listen,” he says, adding that was a skill he learned the hard way. When he was a young cops reporter in Minnesota a police chief looked at him and said: “Jesus, you talk a lot.”

“Every piece must be leavened with the shoe leather of good reporting. Be creative, go for the interview no on thinks you can get, pore through those court documents for the one detail you need. And then structure your story by focusing on the narrative engine that keeps the reader going.”

His suggestions for developing better narrative techniques: read mysteries for the way in which they drive narrative through plot, drama and character. Read columns for the ability of a columnist to draw readers in a short space. “They are called stories for a reason and you need to remember that.”

“What makes a story sing is passion, the willingness to bury ourselves and sweat over every detail. I do stay up at night thinking about structure and how I can tell the story and how I can keep the reader with me.

“The way you can lift the reader out of the monotony of life and dump them into a world so fresh and vivid and exciting, that’s exquisite and heady. That’s why what we do, no matter how hard, will always, eternally be worth doing.”

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