East of Dixie

A blog about creativity

Month: February 2017

How to be a prolific writer

Malcolm Gladwell spent years as a newspaper reporter before graduating to The New Yorker and publishing a series of best-selling books that made him a modern publishing icon.

If newspaper experience teaches you anything, Gladwell told podcaster Tim Ferriss last year, it’s that you can’t have writer’s block.

“I mean, you quite literally can’t,” said Gladwell on an episode of the Tim Ferriss Show that deconstructed his success as a writer

He might start on a story at 10:30 a.m. and it would be due by the end of the business day, held at the mercy of a hard deadline.

“If you went to your bosses and you said, ‘I’m blocked on this story,’ they would look at you like you were insane,” he said.

“I did used to have these issues and then I went to the Washington Post, and you get cured in a hurry of any pretensions you have about your writing.

“You just keep typing. There’s no kind of alternative.”

Journalists are prolific by nature. Their editors demand it, and so do their readers.

We can learn a great deal from journalists about how to produce quality writing at an impressive clip. Here are a few ideas to keep in mind

  1. Deadlines matter

A former editor of mine relayed a story about a colleague trying to explain journalism to a young reporter.

“We call them deadlines,” the colleague apparently said, “because if you miss them, you’re dead.”

That’s an extreme thing to say, but it hints at the truth. Deadlines matter, because without them the paper doesn’t make it to press on time or the newscast doesn’t make it to air.

Deadlines exist to ensure a publisher or broadcaster keeps its implied contract with readers and viewers, ensuring a high-quality on product on time, every time, with no exceptions.

It’s the same with many other businesses, and it should be the same for every blogger and self-published author.

Set deadlines and stick to them. You’ll be surprised how inspired you will become when you’ve only got a few minutes to deliver.

Write as well as you can in the time you’ve got, while being extra-careful not to make factual mistakes or grammar errors.

This is key to building a reputation as a writer who can be trusted, and it’s an essential step to becoming prolific.

  1. Keep a list of story ideas.

Most journalists have a list of story ideas they’re constantly updating. I keep one on my phone and add to it as ideas come to me.

When I was a newspaper reporter, I emailed my editor a story list every Sunday evening, and it became my blueprint for the week ahead.

We added to and subtracted from the list for any number of reasons – sometimes a big story broke mid-week, and there was no time to write a piece about the local man with the giant rutabaga – but most of my story ideas made it to print.

Keep a list and add to it constantly, providing a few notes about how you would structure the piece. When you sit down to write, those notes will serve as inspiration for publishable work.

  1. Be wary of your influence

Most journalists are extremely careful about the words they put into the world.

They know their writing has incredible power, so they triple-check facts, verify claims and ensure a story serves the public interest.

The need to be prolific doesn’t absolve anyone from the profound responsibility that comes with every type of publishing.

A former classmate of mine put it this way, channeling dialogue from a Spider-Man movie: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

All writers have power, so be careful.

  1. Use an outline

It’s hard to write more than 1,000 coherent words without one.

Whether it’s a feature story for a magazine, a lengthy blog post, or a book, you’ll likely need a map to stay on track and guide your reader from your starting point to the desired destination.

Gladwell says writing a book is maybe 20 per cent writing and 80 per cent organization and logistics.

“For every hour I spend writing, I spend three hours thinking about writing,” he told Ferriss. “I’m just putting down on the page what has already been kind of figured out in my head.”

  1. Always deliver a story

When a reporter heads out into the field, they often discover the story they planned to write isn’t there.

Once, an editor sent me to cover a billiards championship with this question in mind: Does anyone care about billiards in the age of video games?

I showed up and asked that question, but no one seemed interested in it.

Knowing I still needed to file a story that day, I wrote the one that emerged from my interviews – a short, interesting piece about women in what was then a male-dominated sport.

If you start out with one story in mind and end up with a different one, it’s no problem. Just be sure to deliver something worth reading before the deadline passes.

  1. Don’t be condescending

It’s easy to think derisively about journalists, especially if you are a literary type who wants to win a Nobel Prize.

Some people think of journalists as failed writers, or hacks who couldn’t get a real job. Most people who think this way don’t know much about the depth, breadth and quality of writers who rely on journalism jobs to pay the bills.

In any case, reporters can teach us a great deal about how to be prolific, and the habits they acquire are worth holding onto.

“Those habits that I learned over that 10 years at the Washington Post have stayed with me,” said Gladwell.

I don’t know about you, but what works for him is good enough for me.

How to keep your creative life from spinning out of control

We drove Bud’s cramped sedan to a gravel parking lot in what seemed like the middle of nowhere, and with his blessing I gunned the engine.

The car lurched forward and we built speed until Bud hit the extra set of brakes on the passenger side. We swerved wildly and I spun the steering wheel, trying to straighten our path.

As we swerved, I fixed my eyes on a single tree on the horizon, steering toward it, blocking out every distraction. This was what Bud had counselled me to do, believing it would help keep us from spinning out of control.

Our path straightened as the car slowed. We did not spin out of control. We did not die. We would live to drive another day.

“That was cool,” I said when it was over, high on adrenaline. I hoped Bud would match or at least validate my enthusiasm, but he seemed a little bored.

“Yeah, most people like it,” he said.

He added something about how I had done well, and how I had passed this portion of my driver’s education.

We put the car in gear, drove out of the gravel parking lot and moved on to the next driving exercise, not saying much and not showing much emotion.

This was just another day at the office for Peter “Bud” McGuffin*, driver’s education teacher extraordinaire. I tried to act as if it were nothing special to me either, but of course it was.

If you took driver’s ed in southwestern Ontario in the late 1990s, you likely had an experience similar to this.

You know hitting the brakes in loose gravel was meant to simulate the effect of hitting the brakes on a patch of icy road in the dead of winter.

It was a controlled environment that provided the chance to prepare for a potential disaster, to save lives and save property.

You picked a point on the horizon and steered toward it. You stayed calm and brought the car to a stop. You were careful and conscientious, and if you were lucky, no one would get hurt.

I often think of that day in the parking lot when I am unsure about what to do with my life. So many times, I have felt unfocused and spinning out of control.

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a writer until I discovered writers don’t make any money. I floated around, directionless, until I discovered journalism and began working toward a career in that.

As a teenager I discovered journalism was harder than it seemed, and I was no longer sure I wanted it to be my life’s work.

A crisis ensued and I did not refocus until university, when I decided journalism was the only thing I was likely to be good at.

I became hyper-focused on getting the grades I needed to get into journalism school, then getting through journalism school, then getting a job.

When I got a job, I realized what I really wanted to do was write books, so I spent two years doing that. Then I published, and my book sold a single copy in its opening weekend.

So much of my life went into that project, so much emotional and physical energy. The sentences were carefully pruned, the thoughts vigorously refined.

This had been my dream for so long, and it had come to nothing.

So now what?

What would I do with myself?

I decided to do what I have done ever since that day in the parking lot: Pick a point on the horizon, and steer toward it.

Writing is still the thing I want to do more than anything else in the world. It is hard work, but it gives me joy. It’s the thing I believe I’m meant to do with my life.

I know it likely won’t make me any money, and I know it will be demoralizing at times. But I’m going to stay at it, trusting that I will get better as I go, and hoping the words that matter to me will connect to an audience willing to receive them.

When we pick a point on the horizon and steer toward it, we find peace in what would otherwise be a world spinning out of control.

We simplify our lives and focus on what really matters. We’re able to shut out distractions and move forward, possibly panicked and worn out and demoralized, but also hopeful and full of purpose.

A life spinning out of control is scary and dangerous and full of potential for disaster.

But most lives can straighten out, even if it seems like they’re messed up beyond repair. We simply need something to aim for, something that brings clarity to our mess.

If you’re a writer, the point on the horizon might be your next book project, your next blog post, your next poem.

You must know, as I do, that it’s possible only a handful of people will read it. You must know there is inherent value in the work. You must know it’s possible to beat the odds and sell a million copies.

Be honest with yourself about what you want, and move toward it. You’ll find clarity and purpose. It will help keep you from spinning out of control.

It might just save your life.

*Not his real name

Lessons from a pro

I covered a concert once in a small town on the lake. The Sadies played first and then Ronnie Hawkins did, his beard white as a ghost in winter.

There were only a handful of people in the audience, but Ronnie put on a show. He brought out Garth Hudson, the legendary keyboardist from The Band, and they jammed for what seemed like a very long time.

Hawkins, of course, is a legend too. He’s rockabilly royalty, with a career that left him rubbing shoulders with John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Bill Clinton is apparently a fan.

So no one, apart from the promoters and the dozens of people watching, would have blamed Hawkins for ditching that concert near the lake. He had a reputation to protect, better things to do.

But he treated that show as if there were thousands in front of him. He was a pro honouring a commitment. He was a performer who seemed delighted to play.

During a break, one of the concert staff stopped by my table and we chatted about our careers in music journalism. Neither career was impressive.

I had toiled mainly for small websites, interviewing low-level rock stars and reviewing their albums, always working for free.

We swapped stories about how badly we wanted those kinds of bylines and how desire was the key to making it anywhere worth going.

We had worked hard to get to the bottom of the middle and we were still trying to climb.

I knew nothing about music when I began writing for websites, and I was horrible at deconstructing it. My first review was a thin appraisal that didn’t know what it wanted to be.

I quoted the singer, invented an adjective and called the band a bunch of “Georgia peaches” because they were from Georgia and there was a photo of a peach on the album cover.

The review had to be revised and rewritten. I’m not sure it was ever published and if it was, the site has since taken it down.

But I stuck with music writing, quitting the site few times over harsh edits but always returning.

My writing improved to the point major publications let me contribute. I told them I didn’t care about getting paid. All I wanted was the experience and the byline.

It worked. I built a portfolio and eventually went pro.

Writing about music brought me to the point I could write about nearly anything. I learned how to ask the right questions, how to act as if I belonged in the room.

When I finally got a job and started covering municipal politics and ratepayer meetings, I got along fine.

I was willing to learn. I was willing to work hard, willing to pay my dues.

All of that led to better things, including an internship at a national newspaper and a master’s degree in journalism, neither of which I ever thought I would have.

I wrote hundreds of articles for free before I went pro, and hardly anybody read them. But working for free, with a low profile, helped me get better.

It made me versatile, well-rounded and valuable. It taught me I was not above any assignment, that I would always need to work hard.

It took my ego and crushed it, then built it up with a quiet confidence.

A while ago I came across an interview on GQ.com with Adrian Wojnarowski, a revered basketball columnist for Yahoo!

Wojnarowski cut his teeth in small markets, working for newspapers in Fresno, Waterbury, Conn., and Bergen County, N.J.

He never had a big-time internship at the Washington Post, the New York Times or Newsday.

“I’m so much better for having [not],” he said, “because I covered the high school football games in the mud and the rain and filed my stories from the 7/11 phone booth and tried to get in the athletic director’s office to plug my computer into his fax machine. I came up that way. That was way harder than any of this is.

“That was way harder to sit there and keep your stats on the sideline and it’s raining, like trying to get your numbers to add up on the running plays, and the passing plays, and write a story that’s readable for 15 inches for the paper for the deadline. That’s harder than anything I do now.”

All of this to say, a writer must sometimes work in obscurity.

Success does not always come overnight. A blog does not always find a huge audience right away and a book does not always sell a million copies.

We must use our time here in obscurity to improve. We must put the craft first and write our guts out.

We must give as much effort for a small audience as we would for a large one, just as Ronnie Hawkins did that day near the lake.

There are many definitions of a pro, but that’s mine.

Writing is rock and roll

In an essay for The New Yorker about the origins of rock and roll, Louis Menand uses an anecdote Patti Smith told about going to see The Doors in the late 1960s. Smith claims she was not transfixed by Jim Morrison in that concert, like everyone else at the concert.

She saw what Morrison was doing and decided she could do it herself.

“For many people, that response is the essence of rock and roll,” Menand writes. By rock and roll, he means music associated with pioneers like

Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Buddy Holly, as well as the Beatles’ early creations.

“To this way of thinking, rock and roll … is music that anyone can play (or can imagine playing) and everyone can dance to,” he writes. “The learning curve for performing the stuff is short; the learning curve for appreciating it is nonexistent. The instrumentation and the arrangements are usually simple: three or four instruments and, frequently, about the same number of chords.”

It’s possible to add a whole lot more than that, but what matters – or so the argument goes – is the feeling.

“Rock and roll feels uninhibited, spontaneous, and fun,” Menand writes. “There’s no show-biz fakery coming between you and the music. As with any musical genre, it boils down to a certain sound. Coming up with that sound, the sound of unrehearsed exuberance, took a lot of work, a lot of rehearsing.”

Here is where I argue that writing is rock and roll.

It’s true that writing is sometimes like Chopin or Rachmaninov or Bach. This is the kind you did in high school or college, trying to master someone else’s idea of what made for a good essay, lab report or short story.

Maybe you went to journalism school like I did and mastered all kinds of story forms so you could plop names and dates and quotations into them and churn out five stories a day.

That’s not the kind of writing I’m talking about. I’m talking about the kind of writing you want to do, the kind you need to do in order to stay sane.

This is the stuff that flows out of you easily onto a computer screen, unpretentious and unadorned, without worrying what an anal-retentive professor might think.

The kind of writing I am talking about is as much about feeling as it is about form. It’s about saying what you want to say, or need to say, in the way you want to say it.

It’s about saying things simply – three or four instruments and about as many chords. It’s about swallowing at least some of your inhibitions and doing the work you are meant to do, if not professionally then at least in your spare time.

Menand argues no one contributed more to creating the sound of early rock and roll than Sam Phillips, who founded Sun Records and discovered Elvis.

Phillips opened a recording studio on Union Avenue in Memphis in 1950 with the slogan, “We Record Anything – Anytime.”

He recorded church services, weddings and funerals. But his dream – the reason he set up the studio, according to Menand – was to create a space where aspiring musicians could come and play. When they did, he listened to them and encouraged them.

“He hated formulas,” Menand writes. “He thought that music was about self-expression, and he liked songs that were different … Phillips preferred imperfection. It made the music sound alive and authentic.”

Castoffs and misfits started turning up in his studio, musicians no one else would record. He was the first to record B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison.

He produced and released some of the genre’s biggest hits, including “Blue Suede Shoes,” “I Walk the Line” and “Great Balls of Fire.”

Above all, Menand writes, he was supportive. He got musicians to believe in him by getting them to believe in themselves.

Here is where I try being your Sam Phillips.

I do not need you to believe in me, but I want you to believe in yourself. I want you to believe your stories matter, and so do your insights. If you are compelled to share them, you should.

Be careful not to hurt anybody in the process, but write what is in your heart. Tell us what you have learned so far, so that we can avoid some of your mistakes.

Formulas are fine, if you want to use them. But it’s better to say what you need to say in the way you want to say it. Your imperfections will make your writing seem alive and authentic and beautiful.

Chances are you have read a book or two that transfixed everyone and you thought, I could do that.

So do it.

Start telling your stories.

Rock on, man.

Your nature is good

A fast-talking man in a white cowboy hat, a scruffy beard and a southern accent looks into a camera and starts sounding off about the value of human life

He speaks directly to the viewer, as if they are sitting across from him and he is looking into their eyes.

“There’s a lot of you out there today who are dealing with issues of self-worth,” he says. “You don’t feel very good about yourself, simply because of the things you’ve been through, things that you’ve done and the things that have been done to you.”

He holds up a $20 bill and asks if the viewer would take it if he offered it.

“Chances are, you would,” he says. “But before I give it to you, I gotta offer a warning, because while this $20 bill could be used for a lot of good, chances are it’s seen a lot of bad,”

If this $20 bill could think and had a mind, it might have a bad conscience, the fast-talking man says. He shares a list of bad things the bill could have been used for.

Maybe it’s been used to do drugs or buy drugs. Maybe a drug deal went bad and somebody died over this. In fact, maybe it was used to fund a terrorist organization or to buy a prostitute.

“Any number of things could have been done with this $20 bill,” he says, pushing it toward the camera again.

“Do you still want it? Of course you do, because no matter what’s been done to it or with it, it’s still worth 20 bucks.”

Then the fast-talking man tears the bill in a couple of places.

“Maybe I can take it today and rip it and scar it and put marks on it that are just simply unfair and unsightly,” he says.

“Still want it? Of course you do, because an authority higher than us gave it its value and nothing can take it away.

“Same with you. No matter what you’ve been through, no matter what you’ve done, you still have worth. It’s built into you and you need to remember that.”

The fast-talking man says there are things he wishes he could go back in time and “redo, undo and just never do at all.

“But I can’t. And even though I’m reminded every day by many folks and even by my own conscience and heart that I did them, I still have to remind myself that something with greater authority than me and even bigger than my own actions, gave me a self-worth.”

The implication here is that human lives have worth because God has decided they do. That’s a beautiful idea. I believe it most of the time and I hope it’s true.

But whether you believe in God or not, there is truth in what the fast-talking man says.

We have all used our lives for good and for bad. We have all been beaten down and ripped up and scarred.

We have all done things we wish we could redo, undo and never do at all. But we have inherent value.

We are worth something, and no matter what we have done, there is the possibility of redemption—hopefully from God, but certainly in the way we conduct ourselves now and as we move forward.
Every life that was bad in the past can be good in the future. We can still make something out of what’s left of it. And as we go, we might as well share our stories.

Lessons spring from every good decision and from every bad one. This is how we learn what is true about the world, about ourselves, about other people.

We ought to share those lessons so others don’t repeat our mistakes, so their lives can be enriched by the wisdom we accrue.

“It is only by sharing our stories, by being strong enough to take a risk—both in the telling and in the asking—that we make it possible to know, recognize and understand each other,” Richard Wagamese wrote in One Story, One Song.

Later in the book, he quotes Thoreau: “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and they go to the grave with the song still in them.”

So sing, or write, or speak. Your life has value. It is worth something, and so are the stories, thoughts, insights and jokes you feel compelled to share.

Share them with us, teach us, enrich us. Help us get through the wonderful, miserable journey that lies ahead.

We won’t be able to make it on our own.

My new book is out, and it’s fantastic!

We use stories to make sense of the world and to find meaning in the weird, wonderful and painful things that happen to us before we die.

We use stories to carve our names in history, like graffiti cut into wood. We use stories to prove we were here, and we mattered.

Our stories often produce wisdom — lessons we ought to share with others who are fumbling with questions we have answered.

This is why anyone who wants to write should give it a try. It doesn’t matter if we’re good or not, especially in the beginning. What matters is that we do our best each time we sit down to type, and that we keep typing.

Writing is a way of sharing our stories and conveying our wisdom. It is a way of saying we were here, we mattered, and we did what we could to help those who come after us.

My new book is a small, powerful volume  meant to encourage shy, gifted loners who struggle to believe what they have to say is worth sharing.

It’s also for brash, confident extroverts who want to make a lasting record of their insights.

This book is for anyone who has ever wanted to write anything but lacked the courage to try.

Click here to order.

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