A poet once told me he suspected reporters learned things about writing that poets and fiction writers never got a chance to learn.
Too right. I was attempting to write poetry and short stories long before I ever stumbled into journalism. And the first thing I learned after going over to The Other Side was to stop taking myself so seriously.
When you begin with poetry or fiction, the production of every word is a kind of torture. I blame this in part on creative writing instructors who make one feel that no matter how well your story is written, it could have been better. These same creative writing types are prone to agonize over every comma in their own writing.
None of us are Shakespeare. None of us are Tolstoy. But defeatist comparison is largely what writer's block is all about. Every writer has something to contribute. No writer born is perfect. Each one of us is unique.
There will always be exceptions to the rule, but for most writers, fast writing really is the way to go. At the least, it ensures you will produce more than a couple of half-written poems before you die.
Working under daily newspaper deadline made me a better writer. There's no time for existential torment when you're reporting. The grunt reporter was laden each morning with two to three back page stories, another for the front page if he or she was lucky (readers actually saw your byline then), and any number of briefs ranging from notable deaths to translating cop speak so you could produce an accident report.
Thrashing through all that for a morning deadline while stopping to answer the phone every ten minutes kept one busy. You had no time to spend worrying overmuch as to whether you should use "to" or "at" in your copy.
As a picky writer (and born procrastinator), this necessity for writing at top speed sometimes annoyed me. I do think editors tended to shout at me more than the others because I refused to let go of a story unless it was done to my satisfaction. But any reporter in that newsroom would probably say the same since the editors shouted at everyone.
All that editorial yelling taught us that a good enough story that was finished was a far superior beast to a perfectly polished story that was unfinished.
There was a time when telling the truth took precedence in newsrooms and it was satisfying to be a reporter then. A lot of writers who were more naturally inclined to fiction did well as reporters. But while our hearts were in reporting, it was not the kind of writing that would ever touch our souls: even then we knew that only poetry and fiction tell the real and literal truth.
Charles Dickens' exaggerated portrayals of poverty in London had more to do with truth than the sober newspaper depictions of Victorian life which concealed social ills with robust factory figures and toasts to the Queen. The Grapes of Wrath. Dr. Zhivago. Franny and Zooey. You get the idea. If the words have no heart, there is no heart.
But those of us who left the newspaper business when things began to unravel took a few good things away with us.
So if you want to make it as a writer, don't take yourself too seriously. My advice is to write your first draft fast and to not stop to polish it. This forces you to focus on the story, not the language, and the story is what sells books.
You can do the pretty stuff later.
Copyright © 2014 Marilyn Storie