Watershed Moments In Writing

My biggest fear as a writer is that I will be boring. This is why I haven’t written much here lately. With so much being written these days, it sometimes seems like almost anything I try to write is merely echoing what someone else has already said somewhere else. Being a voice in an echo-chamber is not something I am particularly interested in. It’s why I write very little about politics, for instance. It’s why I’ve mostly stopped writing about writing, or productivity, or paperless. Those topics have carved deep canyons in the mountains of writing that have formed around the foundations of the Internet.

My desire to write, however, is surprisingly undiminished. I sometimes think it is what I was built to do. But how to do it without being boring? How to do it without putting readers to sleep, or merely echoing a thousand or ten thousand other voices? That is the problem I’m struggling with as 2018 opens.

There were three books I read in 2017 that have made me think quite a bit. The first was Assignment to Hell: The War Against Nazi Germany with Correspondents Walter Cronkite, Andy Rooney, A.J. Liebling, Homer Bigart, and Hal Boyle by Timothy M. Gay. The second was Red: The Life and Times of a Great American Writer by Ira Berkow. And the third was A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures by Ben Bradlee. Notice a pattern? Something about the subject of these books attracted me immensely, and it took almost the entire year for me to figure out what it was. Call it my watershed moment.

The earliest writing I can recall doing for fun was in third grade–the same grade that my son is in today. Within the warmth of my New England classroom, on an otherwise cold and blustery winter day, we read about Moscow in our social studies books. For some reason, the descriptions in the book fascinated me, and I began to write a story about two friends who visit the Russian city. It is the first piece of fiction I can recall composing. This was no watershed moment, but it demonstrate, to my satisfaction at least, that I can legitimately state that my desire to write goes about as far back as I can remember.

The watershed moment came much later, sometime in 1993 I think. By this time, I was a junior in college, majoring in political science and minoring in journalism. I had powerful day dreams about being a published writer. I wrote and submitted stories to magazines as often as I could manage. I send lots and lots of terrible stories to Analog Science Fiction, the granddaddy s.f. magazine of them all. Because I was submitting stories, I thought of myself as a “real” writer.

One day, perhaps encouraged by one of my journalism professors, I joined the college newspaper and got an assignment to report on some small thing that I can no longer remember, but for which I’d need to interview someone in the administration building. I was 21 years old, busy writing papers, working in the dorm cafeteria, and of course, writing my stories. I walked to the administration building, decided that I really didn’t have time to work on the school paper, and dropped the matter.

I’ve thought about that moment a lot lately, especially having read three great books on writers and journalists. What would have happened if I have done the interview, written the article, and had it published in the school paper? Possibly nothing. Then again, it might have changed the entire course of my career. I may have become a journalist instead of going into IT. I’ve been very fortunate to work at the same great company for over 23 years, but today, looking back, a career in journalism seems so much more exciting. And the entire decision was made almost on a whim. In part, I think I made the decision because while I enjoyed day-dreaming about selling stories, I don’t think I actually believed I could do it. When I did start selling stories, I was more surprised than anyone.

I recently filled out a form to write for a site (professionally) that I have written for once before. One of the questions on the form was, “What makes your voice important?” The question gave me pause. In a way, it is the same question I have been asking myself for a long time, and it is why I haven’t been writing much here on the blog. Why is my voice so important compared to all the others out there? What I am I saying that they are not?

Then it occurred to me that there was an assumption built into the question. With that realization, I tried to answer honestly. I said, “I can’t say if my voice is important to others. That is something that readers have to judge. What I can say is that editors have told me that my writing has a good voice, both in fiction and nonfiction.” Perhaps not a unique voice, but a clear one that seems to put people at ease.

Having considered my answer for a day, I’d add that my voice is important to me. And this place is where I use that voice most frequently. I hope to use it more frequently than I have been lately. Perhaps in some alternate universes, I am a journalist, but for this universe, the voice that I have cultivated will have to do. And like a journalist, I’ll do my best to make what I write interesting, and to avoid being boring.


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