December 21, 2014
"Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead." -- Gene Fowler
I was reading The Most Of Nora Ephron today when I came to her essay near the end on revision and how she writes. It made me want to come clean about my own writing habits.
I have never had Writers’ Block. Not once in 62 years of life, 52 of them as a writer. I have written approximately 10 million words for pay and countless millions more for my own amusement. I have written a novel (a terrible one called Vernon Jones, Super Scientific Detective, inspired by the Tom Swift books I loved as a kid; I was 12 when I wrote its 120 single-spaced pages. It has mercifully been lost to the ages), dozens of radio scripts, the book for a musical, hundred of wire service stories (“that’s not writing, that’s typing”), hundreds of local radio newscasts, hundreds of newspaper articles, numerous press releases, a published non-fiction book (Aspirin Therapy: Reducing Your Risk of Heart Disease, Walker and Co., New York, 1979) hundreds of scripts for television software reviews, thousands of articles about computer technology, and dozens of proto-podcasts. I wrote my last word as a professional in October, 2001. Since then I have written hundreds of thousands of words in my blog.
And in all that time, faced with all those blank sheets of paper (or, since 1975, blank computer screens), I have never once been “blocked.” I have never known the feeling Gene Fowler describes above, which is apparently quite common among professional writers, especially screenwriters and novelists. As I said, I’ve only written one novel and never written a screenplay, so maybe I’m just in the wrong line of work to have that experience. To tell you the truth, very few journalists I know suffer from Writers’ Block. You can’t. The tyranny of the deadline is relentless (I have included a quotation on that subject at the end of this essay). The kind of delicate flower who suffers from Writers’ Block does not usually last long in journalism.
In fact, my favorite quotation about my writing abilities comes from A.J. Liebling, a New Yorker writer, who said of himself, “I write better than anyone who writes faster and faster than anyone who writes better.” That’s me; the single most productive staff member of The Tech, Computer Systems News, Information Systems News and InformationWEEK. In fact, in August of 1985, I wrote one-third of IW.
I’ve always suspected I avoided block because my writing has always been “reality-based.” I don’t have to dream things up; I just report them. It doesn’t hurt that I type quickly, and think almost as quickly as I type.
Which brings me to the other point Ephron makes, about how revision improves writing. She came to this realization in her 20s. I have never come to it. I am working on a memoir with a coach, and that writing undergoes revisions. But otherwise, no, what you see is pretty much the first draft, and 90% of the time I am proud of it and happy with it. I did do a lot of revision in my early days as a journalist, but, like Ephron, it was mostly on the first paragraph, or the “lede” as journalists call it. Break the back of the lede and the rest of the story will fall into place. When I think of all the reams of paper I ran through before word processing… Now that there is no editor looking over my shoulder, now that I practicing a more discursive form of writing, I’m not sure I can do better than the stream of consciousness I type at about 40 word per minute. I enjoy writing it. I hope you enjoy reading it.
Now, as promised, the most vivid description of the nature of deadlines I have ever read:
I can tell you what its like to work for a newspaper. Imagine a combine, one of those huge threshing machines that eat up a row of wheat like nothing, bearing right down on you. You're running in front of it, all day long, day in and day out, just inches in front of the maw, where steel blades are whirring and clacking and waiting for you to get tired or make one slip. The only way to keep the combine off you is to throw it something else to rip apart and digest. What you feed it is stories. Words and photos. Ten inches on this, fifteen inches on that, a vertical shot here and a horizontal there, scraps of news and film that go into the maw where they are processed and dumped onto some page to fill the spaces around the ads. Each story buys you a little time, barely enough to slap together the next story, and the next and the next. You never get far ahead, you never take a breather, all you do is live on the hustle. Always in a rush, always on deadline, you keep scrambling to feed the combine. That's what it's like. The only way to break free is with a big story, one you can ride for a while and tear off in pieces so big, the combine has to strain to choke them down. That buys you a little time. But sooner or later the combine will come chomping after you again, and you better be ready to feed it all over again.
from the novel Arizona Kiss