I STILL REMEMBER the first paragraph I ever wrote for pay. It was about the amount of money raised by a local charity through its annual flag day. A new teenage cub reporter for the local newspaper, I sweated over that one sentence for more than an hour.
That was 45 years ago last month, and I have banged out a whole lot more words since then. Weddings, obituaries, traffic accidents, murders, court cases, local authority meetings, personal-interest stories, you name it. Even one about a garden gnome. I’ve written in trains, planes, and automobiles. And one time, an emergency room (fortunately, I wasn’t the patient).
Most of it was hard news to begin with, inverted pyramids of information with a maximum word count of 500 or 600 words. You learned to be clear and concise. Get in and grab the reader, tell the story, and get out. Nothing fancy. Look at that, not look at me.
For me, the lede (to use the misspelling familiar to journalists) was always the key. Somehow that opening sentence corralled all that had to come after it. Once I had that, everything else usually followed in a bit of a rush. It was like the front door; find your way in there and you’re safely home.
That didn’t always work when it came to longer-form pieces, where the entry point wasn’t always that obvious. If that first sentence wouldn’t come, I’d scribble down the main points and themes I wanted to address, then tackle them almost as if they were separate pieces of a quilt. Once I had them, I’d then work on stitching them together sequentially so they presented a coherent picture.
Writing books with, for, and about people has involved another shift in approach, this time blending the forensic and the artistic. Someone skilled with a high-def camera or a brush can produce a telling portrait. One picture is very granular while the other is more impressionistic; each captures something different of the person. For me, the best writing about people somehow manages to combine the two, the factual and the evocative, the essentials and the essence.
For all the words, there are still days when I sit down at the keyboard and feel like a complete amateur. Indeed, it’s only in recent years that I have started to call myself a writer. For the longest time that sounded too lofty for me, too pretentious. I’d say instead I was a reporter or a journalist.
Part of finally embracing the W word was, after a lifetime of self-doubt, a growing inner confidence that, Hey, I do have thoughts and opinion that may be worth sharing from time to time. I didn’t just have to observe and reflect the world; I could participate. Another part was that if I’d paid my way through almost half a century by putting words down on paper, however ordinarily, I could probably call myself a writer.
Most importantly, I think I have recognized what drives my desire to write. That, like many who pursue the craft in some form, I want in a small way to be a “righter”—someone who brings a little light to a dark world, whether through providing information or inspiration. Robert Frost captured this beautifully in his poem, “A Lesson for Today,” when he wrote of wishing his epitaph to be: “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.”
And so I write to right.
Photo by Ian Livesey on Foter.com/CC BY-NC