Advice for writer’s block
The secret sauce that has allowed me to work (mostly) without it.
Fearless reporting, a behind-the-curtains look at how journalism is made — and an unabashed point of view. Welcome to Chills.
My first class of the semester at NYU’s graduate school of journalism was last week. As I described the students’ first assignment — just 500 words on an underreported (hopefully human rights or social justice) story within an issue they care about — I heard myself reassuring them not to worry. “This will be fun!” I said.
I meant that. But after class, I realized how odd that must have sounded.
Just now I caught the tail end of an NPR interview with a writer. She was talking about the anguish of writing. She may have used the word “torture.”
Believe me, I know that many or most people struggle to write, whether it’s just getting yourself to sit down in the chair, or start filling a blank page, or hating what you’ve written and not seeing how to make it better. So please don’t think I’m bragging when I say this: I’ve never had these problems. I mean not never, because we all struggle sometimes. But when I’ve done my reporting and digested it, I know how to start, and the rest flows from there.
My ledes (j-spelling for “leads”) usually start in whatever scene is most vivid to me and, of course, relevant to the story. Sometimes the lede changes in editing, but it’s my way of getting started and excited to keep going.
For instance, in my fall long-form story for The Guardian, after weeks of reporting in Ukraine, and with so many vivid scenes etched in my memory, I felt that the image of a woman I’d met who had counted 87 Russian armored vehicles as she smoked her cigarette to a nub was one of the more powerful descriptions I could show readers at the outset. It wasn’t a scene I’d witnessed for myself, which is unusual for me as a writer, but I had been to the woman’s house, seen what grows in her front garden and the rust-colored, 6-foot gate around her property she’d been standing at on the day of the invasion. I’d even watched her smoke.
Or, for another long-form story for The Guardian, I knew I wanted the reader to be able to envision the dark and frightening nights on which nearly 50 little girls had been stolen from their houses and gang raped in a small, impoverished village in the Democratic Republic of Congo. (Here’s Part 1 of a 12-part series that tells the backstory of my years of reporting on these rapes.) So I tried to put readers there:
A nearly full moon was the only light over the village of Kavumu, in eastern Congo, on the night of 26 December 2015. Just before midnight, a figure slipped quietly through the shadows along the red-earth tracts between huts and entered one of the wooden shacks. The intruder proceeded to take a 3-year-old girl called Denise from the bed where she was sleeping next to her mother. Also at home that night were two women and three other children. None of them heard anything.
This is a suggestion I make to my students: As journalists, we are communicators and translators of what we observe and learn. Start with what stands out to you — it likely will stand out for your readers too.
There’s another piece of advice I begin my NYU classes with: Carry a notebook with you at all times. Write anything or everything down. Whatever you want. A word, a fragment of a thought, an observation. I started doing this my freshman year of college (having no idea I’d eventually want to be a journalist) and took it to such an extreme I eventually realized I felt as though things hadn’t actually happened unless I’d written them down. (Don’t be like me.)
And another thought within that idea: I told my students that we may be in the fourth year of the Covid pandemic, but, make no mistake. We are living in historic times.
Write it down! Write it all down, I told them. I spent my first year or two living through the pandemic in NYC writing down descriptions of the stickers of footprints on our subway platforms that showed how far apart to stand, for instance. I took photos of closed stores and restaurants and their hopeful signs that we’d all get through this eventually and that they — and we — would survive.
“Write it all down!” I told my students of this (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. “Record it! You never know how you will use it years later.”
I know of what I speak. As a New Yorker, I have my own Sept. 11 story, but I prefer to talk about what I saw when I went downtown on Sept. 13, 2001, interviewing everyone — every first responder, journalist, army member, Greek Orthodox priest, etc. — I met. I took rolls of photographs of crushed police and fire vehicles and the media and whatever observers were staring at the pile, as well as the pile itself. I happened to live in south Brooklyn with what had been a fantastic view of the Trade Center for a couple years; I used to fall asleep staring at it. Then I stared at a sickening plume of noxious smoke for about six months. I charted that in photos too.
I can’t tell you how often I’ve used notes from the day it all happened, or from the 13th.
“You may not realize it,” I told my students on Monday, “but you are living through something utterly unique. Just record, record, record.”
Which brings me to the point of this post. The more you write, the less you feel self-conscious. I promise you, it may take a while, but it eventually drops away. Carry a notebook and pen at all times. Eventually, you will notice your writing loosen up.
This exercise — because it was exercise, albeit mental — wasn’t something I did on purpose, but it lasted for years. I have notebook upon notebook of random observations. And I used my attentiveness as I spent three years at The New York Times working on 9/11 projects with four brilliant reporters, from 2003-2006.
My point is, if you want to be a journalist but feel unsure how to tackle writing, do it only for yourself. My point is, if you want to write, start with what affects you most; most likely it will affect others too. My point is: Write it down. Just get it down. And if you feel adrift after doing this for a few months or years, talk to someone like me. Hopefully, you will find your way forward and know that what you’ve done by recording history and communicating it to the rest of us is of a kind of valuable work that is not quantifiable.
As historian David McCullough put it: “History is who we are and why we are the way we are.”
Being unafraid of writing things down — even if you don’t share your writing with anyone anytime soon — records our human experience, with all its messy, painful complexity. We have a duty to do so for future generations.
Now, go buy your notebook.
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The best advice to remember the details we’d otherwise forget. I wish I had done it more, some memories have faded too much to trust as true.
When I do write, I find longhand, rather than on a computer, cements the ideas somehow. Anybody else still use black and white marbled composition books?
My 93-year-old mother tells me she wants to write her memoires. A friend said he would help her. I told her she had better get started and also offered to help, but she never really feels like it at the time. We do have some very deep discussions and she often tells me things I don't want to hear I should record them. Throughout her adult life, she has kept a journal. Most years she typed it, which is great. Her father did it too. Both of them filled their journals (hers is over 2,000 A4 pages long) with facts, unemotional cold facts. This happened and that happened, in chronological order. I suggested to her (and again offered to help) why don't you go through (she has been reading them all since my father died 18 months ago), and just add how the events made you feel. I think the challenge is that she has spent years burying her feelings and perhaps doesn't want to incriminate memories of my late domineering father. But she is fine telling them to me. I live in hope that I can encourage her, because she lives happily alone, 2 hours drive from me, on a good day, and has plenty of time.
My point is that imho writing needs to evoke some feeling. I am an area manager for Census and even the numbers tell me stories that evoke feelings. It's all about stories. My mother has almost a century of stories, and I would love to know more than just on this day, so and so visited and we had a glass of wine together.