Working out a good story

I plan to submit an essay to Creative Nonfiction‘s “Southern Sin” issue.  The guidelines are pretty broad – most importantly, the topic must somehow involve the south and sin – so I’ve been struggling for a while to find a good topic.  I’ve especially been trying to avoid the mistake of trying to align a story with a concept, along the lines of the proverbial square peg/round hole. I have found that the best way for a freelancer to find a story is to poke your nose in people’s business and let the story come to you, rather than starting with a concept and trying to find something or someone to fill in the details.

I thought for a while that a story about modern-day witches (as in neopagan/Wiccan practice) might be interesting, but the idea is a good example of trying to force a topic to fit an assignment. For the story to link “the craft” with sin, I would have to go out looking for people who think Wicca is sinful, and then I’d be doing a research paper, and furthermore I might never find a way to reflect the southern aspect of the assignment.

Houston witches might have interesting stories, but to find them I’d start with a little enterprise reporting by going to the Magick Cauldron bookstore in Montrose and asking what’s up with witches these days.  In other words, poke my nose in witches’ business and wait for the story to come to me.  And I may well do that, just not for this project.

Back to the Creative Nonfiction essay.  I started a Google search a few nights ago and came up with a couple super-interesting guys who I think will end up being the subject of my essay.  Their story is timely, it’s compelling, it’s about sin and it’s in a southern city that is in the bible belt but also has an openly gay mayor (whose election prompted predictions that Houston faced doom).  This conflict is at the heart of the story.  I hope to talk with them soon.



I turned 51 yesterday.  At the documented time of my birth (3:45 p.m.) I was in the air en route from Newark to Houston, enjoying the view from the window seat. I had bought the aisle seat, but ended up hitting the coach jackpot: an empty row.  With glee, I took my backpack out from its under-the-seat restriction and put it on the seat next to me.  I spent $8.50 on a box of snacks and put the remains on the aisle seat. I chilled.

Airplane seating puts me on the verge of panicky.  I can only sit in the aisle seat; the middle makes me claustrophobic and the window restricts my freedom.  The aisle seat allows me free access to the restroom, the aisle, the garbage can in the flight attendants’ area, and basically anywhere other than my seat.  In the window seat I am dependent on the other passengers in my row.  In the middle seat I am at their mercy.  If I need to flee I can’t get away.  The last time I sat in the middle seat I felt mercilessly penned in by diners on either side with their tray tables down.

I didn’t know I was claustrophobic until my doctor prescribed a head MRI.  I never even got inside the machine.  I panicked just looking at it.  After two failed attempts with an oral sedative and one failed attempt with IV Ativan, I ultimately had to have the procedure done under general anesthesia.  Pitiful, isn’t it?

My claustrophobia was about being unable to get away, just like airplane seating.  How the hell would I get out of that MRI machine on my back?  I was totally dependent on the MRI tech, and I couldn’t trust that he wouldn’t get on his cell phone, fight with his girlfriend and run outside for a smoke.  In the meantime I might be in that tunnel hitting the panic button over and over, listening to the terrible thuds and pings, my head strapped down, no way to exit.

I wondered if I had the procedure while lying on my stomach it might have been tolerable.  I could wriggle out using my elbows for mobility.  On my back I was helpless.

This idea was reinforced when I had my first-ever facial, in celebration of my 51st birthday.  First, they insisted I take all my clothes off even though it was just a facial.  I had to wear a white terrycloth halter top, which of course was reminiscent of the fake concealment of a hospital gown.  The esthetician made small talk, asked me why it had taken me so long to have a facial (what?), and proceeded to cover my eyes so she could begin her treatment.

And my panic began.  Under the sheet my hands balled into fists.  I was ready to fight.  I was on my back, blind, and virtually naked.  Then the esthetician rubbed lotion on my hands (for a facial?) and put them in some kind of mittens.  I struggled to fight the idea that she was further incapacitating me.  After all, she seemed like a lovely young lady and even though we were alone in a darkened room surely someone would hear me scream if I needed to.  It was a 45-minute treatment and I relaxed for maybe only 15 minutes of it.

So is the root of claustrophobia really loss of control?  I felt at the mercy of the MRI tech, just as I felt at the mercy of the spa worker, just as I am at the mercy of my fellow air passengers.  I have found that as I get older my fears have grown greater; 20 years ago the MRI might not have been as big a deal. Do our negative experiences aggregate throughout our lives?  Is estrogen essential to give courage to child-bearing women, bringing fear to post-menopausal women in its absence?  Or am I just falling to pieces?

Are promises made promises kept?

When I first started freelancing I knew that good time management would be mandatory. I started out strong.  It was easier in the beginning.  There were fewer projects and I was spending a fair amount of time conceptualizing.

If you’re not careful, though, conceptualizing can become a substitute for working.

Recognizing that, I’ve been thinking that instead of making a schedule of each workday, which is what the time management gurus recommend, perhaps I should actually promise myself to write xyz today.  I’m going to work on ___ article.  I’m going to write a Houston Chronicle post.  I’m going to write a MuslimMatters post.  I’m going to write five pitches.  Whatever.  Just promise.

The productivity gurus also say that goal setting should include accountability.  I think accountability is why I’m afraid to start the day with a promise.  If I don’t follow through, who cares except me?  That’s the crux of freelancing.  It’s up to you.  If you make a promise to yourself, you’d better keep it.

Sometimes it’s good to be bad

I read this article this morning about the “bad” habits of productive people, and was so glad to discover that it can actually be good to be a little distracted, a little flaky, a little thin-skinned.  In other words, being a vulnerable and imperfect human sometimes garners success as much as having “good” habits (a la 7, a la effective).

A couple days ago I was helping a not-so-computer-savvy friend download software updates.  He had been ignoring the notices to update for so long that it literally took at least 20 minutes to get his system up to par.  When it became clear that the process was going to be a little lengthy, he immediately said, “all right, now what can I do?” and picked up the phone and started making calls.  I know that he works a lot, but it struck me that I would have spent at least 10 of those free minutes just to sit and let my brain ramble.  Those seemingly idle moments are when my creative juices flow and also when I look at the big picture a little and figure out what I want to do next – not in terms of tasks, but in terms of projects, goals, sometimes even my life.

So who is more productive, him or me?  Obviously it depends on how you define productivity.  He is a project manager and his work depends on completing tasks.  I am a writer and my work depends on ideas rolling around in my brain.

Am I “insanely productive”?  Well no, but my habits aren’t always bad, and the next time you see me staring at the wall, rest assured that I am probably working hard on my next article.

Putting it out there

Phew!  It took me quite some time, but it looks like I have at least gotten a good start on my personal website. I’m looking forward to adding more to it – I have a couple articles that will be published in the next few months as well as new blog posts on The Straight Path.  The biggest challenge since I entered the freelance world is just structuring my time well enough to manage a website…a blog…and wherever else my writing leads me.