By George I think…

Myfairlady…I’m getting it.  Over the last 36 hours or so I’ve had a sea change in my understanding of narrative writing and simultaneously in my attitude towards the special-interest magazine writing I’ve been doing.  This semester I was nervous about having time to work and also study – although of course I was also getting nervous about paying my bills, so when I got this new assignment I had mixed feelings.  (Well, to keep it real, I never really saw myself turning down work.  I continuously apply for part-time jobs and consistently get rejected.  Writing magazine and newspaper articles is the only area in which I’ve had success.  But I was nervous about having time for work and school.)

I made a comment on my last post about having a mental/creative breakthrough about making the missionary’s story compelling and genuine. I just knew it wasn’t interesting the way it was written.  I suspected that the chronological structure was the problem but didn’t know how to really figure out a better way.  In the original draft I started the piece at the beginning of the story’s chronological timeline, the moment when he realized he wanted to go on a mission (using a sentence I despised for its corniness):

Caden Jensen’s epiphany came while daydreaming in class.

Finally it came to me that the real story doesn’t start then.  After listening to my most recent taped interviews with missionaries I realized their story starts on the first day of their mission.  They talked about being nervous and unsure what to do.  Most of the young men I’ve spoken to are from small towns in Utah, Idaho, Colorado, and once they were on the ground serving as missionaries it became real.  So I decided to make that the top:

Evening had fallen in Houston’s Chinatown when Caden Jensen bicycled down unfamiliar streets hoping to start conversations with strangers.

Well, that’s the current version of the opening sentence, which will get better, but you get the idea.  Even though he hadn’t been especially motivated about going on a mission, he kind of knew he would. Everything that led up to the mission – working and saving money, praying for the holy ghost to guide him, buying the white shirts and dark pants, even leaving home and going to the MTC, – was all in the context of the life he had known till the day he left.  He flew from Utah to Houston and the very next day was on the streets with his companion in an environment he’d never imagined and trying to talk to people who didn’t even speak English.  That’s the start of the story.

So I got very excited after having this creative epiphany (ha) and started the slow process of picking the current draft apart and putting it back together as a real, true story.

And then I had a paradigm shift about my writing career.  I have been making a strict mental separation between “literary journalism” and “traditional journalism.” I have been imagining that at some point in the near future I will become such a great narrative journalist that suddenly I will be a regular contributor to the New Yorker or the NY Times Sunday magazine and when that happens I will no longer write for Toastmaster or Islamic Horizons or etc.

But that’s crap, isn’t it?  Everything I write is worthy of whatever talent or skills I have and am learning.  Magazine writing, essay writing for literary publications, blogging for the Houston Chronicle – it’s all worthwhile.  It’s all writing, just different kinds, and it all has a purpose.

That should be obvious, right?  But as with many things I’m learning since starting at Goucher, I’m like a kindergartener.  Today I came home with an A.

Replace the quotes – with what?

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From U Chicago Press web site

I’m reading Storycraft by Jack Hart, at the suggestion of my Goucher mentor, and it’s kind of blowing my mind as I try to free myself of standard journalistic writing and start writing more like a narrative journalist.  One of the things I must re-think once, twice or perhaps three times is the use of direct quotes.  Hart notes that the “pro forma” of standard journalism is to use direct quotes, but that is different from dialogue.  When I reviewed the writing I’ve done to date on Mormons I realize it is written like a magazine article.

Yesterday I took my first step to change that, and it was with shaking hands that I deleted the quote that made up the third paragraph.  Just took it out altogether.  The piece did not fade into smoke and float away.  It didn’t feel quite natural, but after a minute I adjusted and realized it was actually better, and the piece would work just fine without the magazine formula of alternating prose and direct quote.

Having freed myself by deleting the quote, the challenge was to replace it with something to personalize the story, to make it that missionary’s story.  And that is not as easy as using the words the subject himself used.  My first pass – and where I am now – was a corny statement (basically replacing his quote about doing what God wanted with a paragraph saying he was waiting to hear the voice of the holy ghost; trust me, it’s corny).  I need to always imagine that I’m the reader, that I’m coming to the story with no knowledge of Elder Jensen but hearing about him for the first time.  (That link is to the Houston Chronicle story I wrote with my initial reporting on the missionaries.)

Then I went ahead and deleted the next direct quotation, a few paragraphs down.  It now reads like endless narration from “third person limited point of view,” as I learned from Hart’s book.  I don’t hear Jensen’s voice at all, just me saying what he thought and did.  So do I ever inject dialogue or quotes?  More confusion.  Fortunately, yesterday I had another interview with Jensen and now have more reporting to work with.

This process of learning narrative writing is far more painful than I ever imagined, and I’m getting nervous that three more semesters won’t be enough.  I feel like I’m in kindergarten, actually.

No better story than a timely story!

16975437_mI was given a magazine assignment today to write a feature about the work of Muslims around the issue of gun control.  It is sad and unfortunate that it’s a timely issue, but it is going to be such a great experience writing about it.

Here is a compelling documentary about gun violence in the cities and how one group is working to prevent it.

Encouragement for this old broad

13847052_mI was delighted to read this post from the “Write With Warnimont” blog.  In the post he addresses the question of whether artists – let’s call them creative people – are born or made.  I visit this question often, both in the context of general worrying over whether I can succeed on a creative or commercial level, and in the context of the potential success of someone starting a writing career at 51.  (52 is closing in fast; my birthday is in April.)

I have tried hard to find artistic successes who didn’t start young, but among writers, actors and musicians I haven’t yet found anyone whose career or education in their chosen field didn’t start at a young age.  I thought John Cheever was one but then I got the dates on his bibliography right and realized he was in his 20s when he began publishing.  Warnimont mentions three latecomers to success: Winston Churchill, Morgan Freeman and James Carville.  Clearly Churchill and Carville had, or have had, impressive careers.  But of the three, Freeman is the artist.  I did a quick online search and discovered that depending on whether you go by his very first acting endeavors or his first recognized movie roles, he was in his 30s when he got serious about acting.  His 30s.  I am 51.  Who started as late as I?  Tell me who?

The issue begs two questions: what is success and does age matter?  I often tell my husband laughingly that I will know I’m successful when I win the Pulitzer prize.  That’s lighthearted, but many of my writing heroes have done so.

In a perfect world I would write long-form narrative nonfiction in national magazines and/or newspapers – and I would do it tomorrow, because time is short.  How do I get there when I’m a decade or so from retirement age?

Nuts, bolts, bridges and paths

7404526<sigh> As I continue working on my first formal assignment in my MFA program at Goucher I am having all kinds of revelations about story, which is great but also creating challenges I never expected.  I have been writing like a journalist long enough that I can’t break the habit: Intro, quote, paragraph, quote, paragraph, paragraph, quote, paragraph, ending.  Like that. I take the reporting that I have right now and as I try to write it as narrative I realize how many holes there are.  I guess that’s good because it’s a lesson in how to get detailed interviews.  When I become aware of the images and details I didn’t ask about in an interview I can make a mental note to make sure I go there next time I interview.

At this point I’m not sure I have time to fill in the holes with the subjects I’ve already interviewed for the “Mormon section” of my manuscript (i.e., the portion that covers Mormons).  I think I’m going to have to write up what I have and move on to the next portion (Pentecostals) incorporating the lessons I’ve learned so far.

So there’s that.  Then I’ve been having thoughts about immersion and wondering where and at what point I’m going to move beyond individual interviews.  When I did my journalism thesis I was at drug court every Wednesday.  Everybody knew who I was and what I was doing, and I had easy access to drug offenders and drug court staff.  With the coverage I’ve done to date on Mormons I was kind of thinking I’d do the same thing with them but the last time I was at the local Mormon church, to witness a confirmation, I ran out as soon as the confirmation was done and didn’t stay for the whole service.  I just felt weird, partly because I felt like I stood out being in hijab – another challenge I will always face – and because I just felt generally uneasy.  Maybe it was also because I got connected with subjects through a public affairs rep, which didn’t necessarily limit me but it made everything feel more formal – emphasis on feel.  (Me to Mormons: It’s not you, it’s me.)  My reporting was also impacted by the fact that I was writing an article for the Chronicle.

I am going to go into reporting on Pentecostals with a different viewpoint.  I do want to sit in the back row and observe – although obviously I am going to introduce myself.  I am definitely, definitely not going to hide what I’m doing like this reporter did.

Bottom line is that this first section of what is intended to probably perhaps I think be my final manuscript taught me some lessons that I will carry forward.  It’s time to wrap it up and move forward.