Had my first non-blog pitch accepted by the Chronicle today.  When I first moved here in 2004 they were advertising to hire feature writers and turned me down when I applied.  Now their religion section is completely freelanced.  Okay.

The story will be from the same reporting that I’m using for my first Goucher piece.  This is going to be a little tricky, and unless I continue to double up on reporting I may have to start turning down professional assignments.  Okay.


Pssstt…hey buddy, what’s a narrative arc?

Okay, I confess.  I have been hearing about and reading about the “narrative arc” for a while now and I still don’t know quite what it means.  I think it’s like, you know, how a story starts, builds to a climax and then is resolved.  I don’t know why it’s called an arc.  I would think calling something a good story implies that it has an arc; actually, saying “plot” implies an arc.  If it didn’t have an arc people would say it has no plot.

I guess I will find out eventually if there is something specific about the term that’s required to meaningfully discuss creative nonfiction.

I was thinking about that today because I started reporting for a story I’ve wanted to do for a while, and which will probably become my first school project (my mentor and I having decided that I can start with short pieces and see where I go from there).

On my way home from the first interview related to the story I had a mental and creative breakthrough.

I realized that if I write this as a feature article it’s a different entity from a piece with a “narrative arc.”

I may well pitch a newspaper-appropriate version of the story as a feature article, but whatever the fate of that query, I have moved into a new field where it’s not enough to introduce the reader to awesome, interesting stuff, including sharp details and great quotes, organized so it’s understandable and evocative of what we normally read in magazines and newspapers.

That’s journalism.  I am now learning to write creative nonfiction.

And that means I need a story, not a “story” like a reporter would write, but a story like a writer would write.  By George I think I’ve got it.

Now that I’ve figured that out, I looked at my notes and started trying to find the story, with a beginning, middle and end, that lies among the facts I’m collecting.  Discovery one: I am going to need to do a whole lot more reporting, particularly interviewing the subjects.  Discovery two: I think I am going to need to do a timeline like Suzannah used to scrawl across the board in our workshop at the residency.

Well, at least now I know what the heck I’m supposed to be doing.  [By the way, isn’t that an awesome graphic?]

I am a journalist and I have lots of work

A month or so after I finished my masters degree in journalism and moved to Houston, Azizah magazine’s editor accepted a pitch for my second professional article ever.  I was thrilled.  After that I wrote one or two more, and then things dried up.  I got a job as an at-home medical transcriptionist (a skill that I’m glad I acquired 20 years ago, as it pays pretty well and is usually available), which paid my bills and my daughter’s rent, and then proceeded to apply for job after job with no success.

In 2008 I opened an educational center/bookstore and for three years did something I never imagined I would, the demise of which I won’t analyze here.  As soon as I closed the bookstore I pitched an article to Azizah and it was accepted.  I made a pitch to Toastmaster magazine.  It was accepted.  I made a pitch to Islamic Horizons magazine and it was accepted.  In less than a year I’ve been assigned four articles by Toastmaster, three by Islamic Horizons and two for Azizah (with possibly a third in the wings).  These are feature articles, most of them 1800-2000 words, and one was a cover story.

My point: I am a success.  I’m not writing for nationally prestigious magazines, but editors have consistently shown confidence in me and my skills, and that counts for more than anything.  One day God willing my byline will appear above 5000-word articles, in the pages of large-circulation magazines or newspapers.  That’s my goal.

I believe that God has shown me clearly that writing will be my area of success.  During my first four years here I applied for jobs in public relations, medical communication, administrative assistant, secretary – everything I had a skill set in.  I got nothing.  The bookstore had moments of greatness but didn’t last.

As soon as all the tentative, the unfulfilling, the impossible was done I had success after success with magazine writing.  And I was accepted to Goucher.

When I first finished my masters I didn’t feel I had the right to call myself a journalist.  It wasn’t what I was spending most of my time doing.  It wasn’t my primary source of income.  When I got a new assignment today it struck me that I do have that right.  I sat down with my planner to map out the next couple of weeks and realized that what I do is journalism, and right now between professional work and school I have a lot to do.

I am a journalist and I have lots of work.  Praise God.

The dark caves of Houston

My first post-residency entry will be about my first assignment.  There’s so much to say about my time at Goucher – what I did there (and didn’t do), whom I met, how the faculty was, and more.  It will all come eventually, once I get my thoughts and work organized.  But the first entry will be about my first assignment.

I didn’t realize we would be expected by the first semester to have already formed a strong idea of what our final manuscript will be about.  I thought we’d spend the first semester focused on improving creative writing skills, group discussions, and so forth, and by the end of that semester we’d be ready to start working on the manuscript.

I didn’t have a firm idea of what I wanted to do, although I had some ideas and I knew it would be a reported piece.  (By the way, that is language I learned at Goucher: memoir versus reported.  I could – and may – devote a whole post to the vocabulary of creative nonfiction).  We tried in my workshop session to get more specific, but in the end my original, half-formed ideas didn’t translate into an outline for a 150-page opus.

So my mentor, Suzannah Lessard, suggested I pretend I’m working for The New Yorker and write some Talk of the Town type pieces.  She told me to go forth and examine Houston, looking for things that might not present themselves as stories but on further investigation might in fact be worthy of writing about.  In a follow-up email she asked if I had had a chance to go “spelunking” for stories.  Hopefully I won’t have to actually climb into any caves – but if I have to, I will.  By September 6.  That’s the deadline for my first assignment, which is to write one or more Talk of the Town style pieces.  Each assignment after that will develop based on the previous one, until it becomes clearer what my manuscript will be about.

I already know what I want my manuscript to be.  Not one long narrative, but rather essays and long-form reported pieces, around a theme, which I already am 85% sure will be religion in some way.  Unless I am persuaded otherwise, I am going to be stubborn about this.  I also need to find out if there’s any policy against my selling pieces that I write for my Goucher manuscript, because career development is a major part of my goal with the MFA.

I know what I’m good at, and I know what I can excel in, and that’s what I’m going to do.  Starting in the caves.