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This essay was originally written for the New Hampshire Writers' Project. I was asked to discuss my writing process. Which involves a lot more avoidance than actual writing. 


"Writing is easy. All you have to do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead."   --Gene Fowler

 

We've come a long way since Gene Fowler's time: instead of staring at a simple piece of paper, we can now stare at a high-tech display screen. Blood's still blood, though, and the best computer, netbook, iPad, or surgically-implanted smart chip can't change the fundamental nature of writing. It's hard. 

And, to be brutally honest, I spend most of my time avoiding it. The home office provides plenty of distractions, some productive (housecleaning, yard work, paying the bills) and some not so (snacking!). 

Then there's the ultimate boon and bane of my work: the Internet. It's incredibly useful for journalists and nonfiction writers like me. There is information on any subject you can think of, just a mouse click away. (Yes, there's a lot of nonsense online. Yes, you do have to doublecheck and confirm anything you find there.) And I've found a lot of good story ideas and profile subjects by meandering around on Google. 

I've also spent countless hours farting around online. Computer solitaire, video games, endless websites and blogs on any subject under the sun -- some informative but irrelevant to my work, some the mental equivalent of cotton candy. Fun, fun, fun. When I'm not feeling inspired, I'll check my favorite websites several times a day. And play far too much Pac-Man. 

(For extreme bouts of procrastination, I use a cheap piece of software called Freedom which blocks your computer's access to the Internet for a set period of time. Simple but effective.)  

So, when you add it all up, I spend a lot more time not writing than I do actually working. For this transgression against productivity, I constantly upbraid myself. This creates lowered self-esteem, which isn't helpful at all.  

Okay, enough with the auto-flagellation, as curiously satisfying as it can be. Let's turn to how I write, when I actually manage to do it. 

I'm a nonfiction writer, primarily for magazines. Most of my stories are profiles of interesting people. It's an outgrowth of my earlier career as host of The Front Porch on New Hampshire Public Radio, an interview show about interesting people. Notice the common theme?

1. Once I have an assignment, I start by doing some background research and information-gathering. For this, the Internet is the single most useful tool on God's green earth. With the caveat mentioned earlier.  

2. I interview the subject, always in person, and hopefully in a location pertinent to him/her. If possible, I spend some time watching them do whatever they do. I always record the interview, which frees me to take notes about the person and the surroundings rather than what s/he is saying. Secondary interviews, designed to elicit some quotes or information, can be done by phone with notes taken by hand. 

3. Then, the most time-consuming part: I transcribe the recorded material. It's a lengthy process, but it cements my familiarity with the subject. Then I print the notes. It kills a few trees, but it really helps me to have notes in hand. 

4. I build an outline, lettered A through whatever. It's subject to change, but if it's well-built, it usually survives more or less intact. An outline really helps me think through the story. 

5. I put the outline next to the notes, and mark both of them up. Next to each point on the outline, I write the pertinent page numbers from the notes. On the note pages, I write the pertinent letters from the outline. (If the second paragraph of notes on page 3 pertains to section E of my story, I write an "E" in the margin next to the paragraph, and I write a "3" next to outline point "E.") 

6. If I do a good job in these last three steps, the writing is relatively straightforward. I know which material goes where. Not to say it's easy; it's still a monster, but it's a well-defined monster. 

7. Once I've written through a rough draft, I set it aside for at least a day. Fresh eyes. Thanks to the outlining, I don't usually have to make big structural changes, but there's always a lot of tightening to do. And usually cutting to the assigned word count. 

 

One more note: in spite of this seemingly well-organized process, there is always  -- always -- an episode of despair, of feeling lost and overwhelmed by the story. Over time, I've come to realize that this is just part of the process. I don't actually embrace my despair, but I recognize it. And I know that, sooner or later, it will pass. 

In the meantime, though, I'm gonna play a little Pac-Man. And maybe grab a snack... 

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