8 Essential Writing Lessons Journalism Taught Me: About Drafting

I would enter the doors of the newsroom greeted by the jangle or bleat of telephones, the click of typewriter (eventually computer) keys, the voices of reporters talking to sources on the phones or gossiping with one another or trading insults, the shouts of editors checking on the status of stories in progress. Through the noise, I would make my way to my desk, turn on my typewriter or log into my computer, place my notes in front of me, and begin drafting my story.

That moment invariably excited and terrified me the most because it involved the most mystery, even more than the unknown of gathering information. By the time I began to draft, I knew I had something. I also knew, though, that I would only discover its true outlines in these moments. A story I thought was great might crumble in the writing of it; a mediocre story might suddenly take on new life; I might find that I’d done too much reporting, or far too little. All of this the words and sentences would tell me as they emerged from the blank surface of the page or screen, when the draft takes it first physical form, moving from the conceptual to the concrete.

It may sound obvious that you can’t write well without actually, well, writing, but like many of my students, I have at times worked hard to avoid drafting. Sometimes I’ve outlined and planned ad nauseum; sometimes I’ve obsessively gathered information; sometimes for days, weeks, even months, I’ve gone over in my head what I thought a piece should look like and sound like and say; other times I’ve just daydreamed about who I’d like to cast for the film version of my novel, or I’d concoct imaginary interview responses for my imaginary book tour. Anything to keep from simply putting my rear in a chair and letting the words and sentences out.

Like so many students and would-be writers, I’ve sometimes thought of drafting as a chore to get through. But my writing works best when I treat drafting as its own event in the process of creating a text. It’s not the recording of ideas or the tedious playing out of a predetermined plan. Without sounding too mystical—oh what the hell, I’ll sound mystical—during drafting, language steps forward and asserts itself. Echoes and allusions and rhythms fall onto the page; some of them work and some don’t, but in what appears I get my first sense of what might be possible.

In the ruthlessness of its deadlines, newspaper writing forced me into that realization on a daily basis. I couldn’t avoid it; I couldn’t hide. And the exercise of turning language loose on subject after subject made me a more trusting, more confident, and better writer. Who needs a daily word count target when you have a city editor breathing down your neck at 5 o’clock every weekday evening?

In a telling scene in the film All the President’s Men, the late, great Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (played by the late, great actor Jason Robards) reads through an early Watergate story as Woodward and Bernstein anxiously look on. To their dismay, he takes out a red pen and begins crossing out large chunks of their story’s main assertions. He responds to their objections by saying simply, “You haven’t got it. You haven’t got the story.” And though they are disappointed, they recognize that he is right. They aren’t yet ready to write the story they would like to write, to say what they think they want to say.

For me, that scene represents the hard truth of drafting and of what the draft tells me. The words and sentences on the page—not the concepts in my head—determine whether a piece of writing works, whether it creates the experience for the reader that I want it to create. The drafting is where I find the text.

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Vehicle

“I’m your vehicle, baby, I’ll take you anywhere you want to go…”
“Vehicle”
The Ides of March

Chaos surrounds me these days.

Within my head, this is a more or less constant state of affairs. My thoughts and emotions regularly pursue one another in no clear pattern. But during the past month, they have found a counterpart in the material world: I have moved from a city in one state to another city in a neighboring state. Weeks of packing, arrangements with moving companies and loading companies and storage companies, financial arrangements, home purchasing arrangements, school arrangements. Each step depends on the ones preceding it, but we haven’t the time to wait for the outcome of the previous steps before we plot the next ones. Events fly forward. I not only face the unknown; I feel propelled headlong into it.

About a week ago–though it feels both more distant and more recent in time–boxes sat on the counters, on the floor, cardboard mouths gaping open, partially packed, crumpled newspaper and bubble wrap trailing from them like slobber from a slack-jawed fool. I felt myself from time to time on the verge of panic. Would I ever be finished before the movers arrived? What if I wasn’t? What would happen? I knew intellectually that in a month or two at most, the move would be over, and we would be settled in our new place, in a different home, in a new daily routine. But between the present and that imagined future, an impossible indeterminate fog–blank and all-enveloping–drew closer and closer to me.

Naturally, it reminded me of writing, specifically of the writing process.

Because I had packed the same way I write. I avoided it, thinking hopefully that everything would come together. And in the packing, as with my writing, a fear of chaos drove my avoidance. I looked at the boxes and the articles to be packed and knew that I should have pulled everything from the cabinets, made everything visible, much earlier. That would have told me how many boxes I needed, how much packing material, what needed to go where. But it would have meant plunging myself into the chaos whole hog. Instead, I had tried to nickle and dime my way into it hoping that I could keep from being overwhelmed. Sooner or later, though, everything has to come out, even if it’s going to go to Goodwill or into the trash. Sooner or later, all the drawers and cabinets and closets have to be laid bare.

The only way I’ve found to face that chaos is a robust writing process. Because chaos is the energy that powers my writing. However much its power frightens me, nothing happens without it. That chaos might manifest itself as an urge or impulse, as a vague idea about a character or a line of dialogue or an object or a moment in a story; it might appear as a persistent question or a seemingly irrelevant but nagging detail. But however it reveals itself, I have to allow this chaos in.

I also know, though, the power of that energy to consume me, to draw me into the morass of obsessive thinking, or rumination about my life, my identity, my mistakes. My process is the vehicle that directs that energy and transforms it into creative motion. It gives me courage to face what my chaos might tell me about myself, what truths it might reveal. And it gives me the means to find the transcendent writing and reading experience in that truth.

Where I’m writing to

I have no idea. No, that isn’t quite right: I have no consistent idea. Sometimes I think I’m writing to my wife or to my children, either now or in the future. Or to my parents or siblings or ancestors in the past. Sometimes I entertain myself with thinking of writing to a massive audience of readers, either now or in the future—preferably while I’m still alive. Sometimes I think I’m writing to one of the many versions of myself, but they disagree so that no matter which version I make happy I leave at least a half dozen others frustrated or angry or heartbroken.

Mostly, though, when it works, I think I write to a sensation. It feels like my legs at the end of a speedwork session on a track or a treadmill, when I’ve run hard, then rested a bit, then run hard, then rested a bit, on and on like that for four or six or eight repetitions. And each time the rest part ends and the hard bit is about to begin again, a twinge of fear grips me about whether I’ll be able to stand the hard bit, but I start running hard anyway. Each time the twinge and then the pushing through it. And when I finish the last one, my legs weak and my lungs struggling for breath again and my skin looking like I’ve stepped from a shower and the lenses of my glasses flecked with sweat and dried sweat, and I want to leap in fatigued satisfaction.

When the writing works, the words hit the page or I tweak them this way or that, and seeing them in the daylight I almost gasp in a fear that says, “Shit, did you really just do that?” and then I know that I had to put it exactly that way and that it never would have occurred to me before I put it that way that that was exactly how it should be said.

I’m writing to the payoff of uncertainty. Writing for a payoff isn’t hard; I spend most of my time trying to get the payoff (or possible payoff) out of my head. Writing to uncertainty is hard, but most of the time I don’t have any choice because certainty isn’t really what I’m after; most of the time, I reside in uncertainty uncomfortably but by choice. And most of the time, uncertainty doesn’t pay off, or it does but I don’t recognize it because it doesn’t look like what I wanted.

Every once in a while, though, uncertainty does pay off in a way so visceral and explosive and absolutely true that even I can’t miss it. And a good bit of the payoff comes from the surprise, the discovery of something that I didn’t realize I possessed—and that perhaps I don’t possess but that language, or the circuit between language and me, does. You see? That’s what I mean: the payoff of uncertainty. I never knew that phrase until now, but it’s been waiting for me in that place. The place I’m writing to.

Where I’m writing from

This is my (until this point) secret: Almost every time I contemplate writing, I feel afraid. Thoughts of sitting down to write pass through my brain, and on what I can only describe as the muscular level, I find myself avoiding pen, paper, notebook, word processing program, typewriter, pencil, notecard, tape recorder (I once bought a voice-activated one in case I was driving and any ideas came to me), and any other implement or device for putting words next to one another. I don’t know how many other writers, or would-be writers, experience fear when they contemplate putting down words; mine took up residence with me and shows no signs of leaving.

Sometimes my fear takes the form of boredom; at other times it arrives in the guise of restlessness and jerky energy. My fear has presented itself as depression, lust, fatigue, indecision, a need to exercise, a need to clean or cook or read or look up long lost friends or watch episodes of Law & Order: Criminal Intent that I have seen so many times I know the plot as soon as I see who’s going to discover the body. My fear has demanded that I do more research, that I review the research I’ve done, that I give up because no research exists, that I organize the research I might do. It has asked that I prepare myself spiritually, meditate, pray, stretch, or read a portion of sacred text from a smorgasbord of religious traditions (and some secular ones). It has driven me to plan, to abandon all planning and wait for inspiration, and to give up the very idea that I might ever become a writer of any kind and embark on a career in customer service.

Now, here’s the part where I’m supposed to launch into the requisite attack on fear. Here’s where I tell you how I’ve overcome and triumphed in spite of fear’s tenaciousness, how I’ve learned to find a way out of the dark cloud or fog or some other metaphorical representation of obscurity and into the bright light of hope and courage and fearlessness so that I can now spin words endlessly from my lion’s heart. But that’s not my story.

Neither will I tell you how grateful I am for the presence of fear in my life. I’m not going to say (though I considered the idea) that fear has helped make me the writer that I am—though that may be true—and that since its part in my journey has been essential, I cannot celebrate my identity without celebrating the fear too. I won’t say that not because it isn’t true but because it isn’t what I really feel.

Here’s the truth: More often than not, fear has beaten me. More often than not, I’ve walked away from the page because my head was crowded with the possibilities of my failure—again—as a writer, because I could picture readers (partner, children, family, friends, former professors, former colleagues, other writers, agents, publishers, critics, scholars, intellectuals, bookstore and library patrons, people who speak languages besides English reading my work in translation) rejecting my weak, regurgitated ideas, my trite phrasing, my convoluted syntax (see above), my incoherent structure. More often than not, I’ve considered the possibility that my failing was inevitable and that furthermore when I failed, no one out there would even really care.

But here’s the good part: I’ve figured out that none of that really matters. The odds of my success or failure in writing making a substantial difference to anyone but me are quite low. Which means that I have nothing to prove, no one to win over, no one to disappoint. I have only myself and this discipline of writing that I have taken on for reasons which remain unclear to me. I have only this space to step into and explore, this universe of possibility to absolutely bugger up or absolutely knock out of the ballpark or—more likely—wander about in and clarify in some miniscule way meaningful only to myself. But that’s reason enough to try.

So rather than a foolproof method for understanding writing and guaranteeing success in whatever situation at whatever time, the romance with language that I discuss here should probably be read more like the diary of a would-be lover trying his damnedest to figure out what his relationship is actually about, how to maintain it, and why it’s worth the trouble. It’s my way of trying to accept the fear (and other neuroses), stay sane, and actually keep writing. Wish me luck.