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Monday, October 10, 2005

Fresh start

Contrary to appearances, I am still here, writing and somewhat lucid. I’ve been on a whirlwind of writing that is both invigorating and exhausting. I’m up, briefly, for a bit of air today but will be hunkering down again for the remainder of this week.

How much do you write in any one day? Do you have limits to the amount of time spent writing? Do you have hard and fast rules about when and where you write? I’m curious because I sometimes feel as if there is no rhyme or reason to my creative process. It feels … scattered.

For example, while writing a piece about transitional housing and addiction recovery for chronically homeless men, I was inspired by listening to their gospel CD. I rarely listen anything while I write (except occasionally for classical music played very low and no rousing Mozart or Beethoven). But the inspiration worked in this case.

I’m usually an early morning writer, but I’ve had so much to do lately that I’ve been writing at all hours. And in the course of researching and interviewing for my various assignments I’ve been inspired to many other great stories. So I’ll stop what I’m writing midstream to fire off a query. I usually never stop for something — not the phone, e-mail, food, bathroom.

A recent phenomenon is that I’ve quit agonizing over queries so much and I’ve just started firing them out right and left. Seems to be working because I’ve gotten some good bites on some very fun work.

But when work comes in such fits and starts it can fry my brain to the point of absolute mental exhaustion. The writer’s brain needs time to recharge or it becomes a pile of mush. This was another weekend of work, but I did finally take time to read a book my pals, the two Lisas recommended. It’s called “My Sister’s Keeper,” by Jodi Picoult and it’s a truly haunting story about one girl’s quest for medical emancipation from her parents.

It was a good and necessary break because I worry that I become so entrenched in what I'm writing at the moment that other writing falls through the cracks. It’s happened before.

Here’s a little tidbit to file under lesson’s learned. I spend a lot of time preaching to other writers about the importance of follow through and professionalism. I do so not as an expert, but fully acknowledging that I have a lot to learn on both fronts.

I tend to overextend myself both personally and professionally and when it’s all too much and I’m unable to reign in, I lose track of things. And that’s never good, particularly for people who rely on me.

Two things have happened in the past few days to cause me to re-evaluate how I work as a writer.

Sometimes there are stories that plague your brain when they are really not financially worth the time. For a variety of reasons, I decided not to pursue a series of stories in a local magazine and I find myself breathing much easier as a result. There’s a chance the editor may never want to work with me again, but that’s a chance I felt compelled to take. I also left very kind words for her and spelled out my reasons in a manner I think she appreciated. So hopefully the bridge is not burned, just a little frayed at the moment.

On another front, I wrote a piece last March for the newspaper that I turned in feeling incredibly confident in my prose. That should have been my first clue to re-read. Most of the time I turn in stories with incredible anxiety and fear that if I don’t hear something back immediately I’ll be washed up forever.

A few calls back and forth with the editor eventually ended with her telling me that she had to do a lot of work on the story and that I needed to look at the published piece and compare it with what I originally sent.

My stomach immediately contracted upon this news and I became light-headed and ready to swoon. My self-confidence as a writer is a precarious thing and this was enough to cause me great distress.

I did read the article when it came out and felt better that it essentially read as I remembered, despite the onerous addition of a wrong fact by some copy editor. So I never did follow up to call her back. And I didn’t feel it was worth pointing out the copy editor’s addition because I’m sure someone else caught the error.

Flash forward six months and I’ve been pitching story ideas right and left to no avail. Always a kind e-mail, but until recently not an assignment. And then today she let me know that she values my work and my journalistic instincts but that she was disappointed in my failure to respond to her charge to review the March piece. She admitted her reluctance to give me an assignment because of my negligence.

Now I’m sure there were a million other things going on after that story ran, but the point is I had an editor whose opinion I valued and whose writing I admired telling me I needed to be more careful and I wasn’t.

So I emailed her back today and apologized, offering no excuses for my negligence. I thanked her for her very valuable feedback and then did as she said and printed off my original version and read alongside the published version.

She was right. I made one of the sloppiest errors of all by writing in the wrong tense! Newspapers write in past tense; magazines in present. Although I write for more magazines than newspapers, this was egregious and amateur. I cringed all over again.

And though the substance of the story was intact, my writing was clearly too flowery and loquacious for the daily newspaper. In my enthusiasm to write about the subject, I completely forgot about the market I was writing for and the audience. And that, too, is an egregious and amateur mistake.

So I sit here today, humbled as I so often am by the process of writing. And grateful for people who understand my humanity and mistakes and are willing to give me a second chance.

I called her to thank her for her patience and we agreed to start fresh with the 2006 assignment.

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