Vivek on why writing is hard. Because it’s fucking hard.
Last week India Ink finally published my longish story on GM crops. That was on October 16. The story was due on October 6. I submitted it five days late, on October 10. It was a painful week of stress, vanishing ambition, incomplete Word documents, editorial silence and existential doubt. The editor and I spoke about potentially getting the story in print, but I couldn’t even broach the topic after missing the deadline. In other words, I felt like shit for blowing a good opportunity.
But then again, I did learn a thing or two.
1. Conduct long interviews. But never, ever transcribe them.
Long interviews are great, because they help you to really understand the subject material and also to get to know your source. But complete transcriptions will destroy you. You will type endless pages of information for a single two to three line quote. You will lose yourself in the minutia of human speech and in vast tracts of irrelevant conversation. Take notes like a real writer, and only refer to your recordings when there’s some doubt about what the person said.
2. If you’re already past your deadline, and other things are happening around you, move on to the next story.
Um, this was hard for me to accept. But the world moves on. I guess you need to as well. Or you will get passed over.
3. If you tell people you are reporting for the New York Times, they will make a point of repeating “New York Times” to you at random intervals. Then they will ask when your story was published.
Eventually, they will ask you for your card or your email address. It will be awkward when you give them something like, “firstname.lastname@example.org” or a card that reads, “Vivekananda Nemana, freelance journalist.” You might fight yourself explaining further:
I am actually writing a book and freelancing for the Times on the side.
No, not for the paper. Mostly for one of their blogs actually.
Um, yessir the story is still in the editorial process. I’ll let you know when it goes up.
You may then an ephemeral flicker of bitter disappointment, or even anger, in their eyes. I think this is to be expected. Nobody likes you when you’re 23.
4. If your story is complex, start writing it soon. Like, as soon as you have an idea of what your story looks like.
This is probably the biggest reason why I missed my deadline. Stories feel more straightforward in the beginning. You can easily visualize them. But then, as you keep reporting and learn ever more about the ugly nuances of your subject, you will find your knowledge is paralyzing. I found myself staring at a blank screen for hours, wondering where my story should go. There is a Calvin and Hobbes strip that addresses this issue. But it is much, much better to have something written when your story feels simple — you’re unlikely to go into much more detail than that anyway, and you can always go back and edit your initial thoughts.
5. You will get angry emails. Unless they’re from your editor, this is a good thing.
But do respond to your haters. At least I did. There’s a certain catharsis in it.
6. If you need to write, try to resist the temptation to instead go out with that cute girl you just met.
Actually I take this one back. #yolo
7. Never miss a deadline.
I am so terrible at this, which is why, at 4 am some three days after the deadline, I stared at a tangle of words on my screen, and wondered whether I should rethink my whole career. For me, the longer I am past a deadline, the harder it becomes for me to write the next word. I don’t know why that is, but it’s fucked. You might be writing the greatest story ever, But it won’t matter if you miss your deadline, because you won’t be taken seriously. You won’t get to edit your writing style, and you won’t have the position to argue for a better placement of your story. I mean you probably know this already. But I need to not forget.
[EDIT] One more thing I should add: Just write the damn thing!
I have a bad ass sister who once wrote on my Facebook wall, “Man up and write the fucking article. you’re not doing anyone (including yourself) any favors by not doing your best.” When writing gets hard I like to pretend that I am still contributing to the creative process by doing non-writing things, like browsing /r/funny or taking a shit. There are probably geniuses out there who can form beautiful sentences while taking dumps, but I am not a genius, and neither are you, and nothing will ever get written unless we are actually writing.
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