Lost For Words? Some Writers Can’t Be
The Good Life
“Were you ever at a loss for words? Writer’s block, that sort of thing”?
The question came from people who meet in and around Brookville from time to time to talk about writing. We include geezers like DuBois radio’s Joe Taylor, and myself, who have written day-in and day-out for more than a half-century. Also in the group are folks just now deciding to tackle fiction or non-fiction prose, or to express themselves and connect with others through poetry. More information about the group is available via the Writer’s Block Party page on Facebook.
Some members, including co-founder Jess Weible of Brookville and members Patricia Thrushart and Girard Tournesseau of the Cook Forest area (they employ pen names), are experiencing the new thrills and agonies of having books published.
For last weekend’s meeting, the group asked members to write about instances when they were at a loss for words.
My reaction? “Huh?”
Not writing is unacceptable for newspaper writers.
I have found myself incapable of writing well. I turn out my share of clunkers. Many day-in, day-out writers do that.
But newspaper writers face deadlines. Those who have not turned in their stories when the deadline tolls are “dead” as journalists, and need another line of work. Missing deadlines, even by a few minutes, sets off chain reactions of late deliveries, angry customers, canceled subscriptions, lost money. Before that happens, the powers-that-be must get rid of those of us who succumb to “writer’s block.”
Besides, newspaper writing does not need to be lyrical poetry or soaring phraseology. “Joe Friday,” Jack Webb’s hero character of the 1950s-60s TV show legend “Dragnet,” gave us the cliche: “Just the facts, ma’am.”
“Writers” can try to write in a style that will be admired for its elegance.
Those of us who write for newspapers don’t need to do that. Most newspaper writing is pegged to a stylistic level equivalent to that of students in the eighth grade, because that is what the average American’s reading level is (though about 20 percent of us are even worse, functionally illiterate).
Our main job is not to “write.” Rather, we “report.” We tell people what happened. We tell stories.
That demands, most of all, accuracy, not elegance. Like everyone who goes to work every day, we fall short of our ideal standard from time to time, but it remains our lodestar.
So if I feel “writer’s block” looming as a reporter, or am at a loss for words as a writer of newspaper columns, I fall back on formulas. The most basic is The Associated Press format: Who, what, when, where and sometimes how or why. A companion prompt is to choose a writing type and stick to it: Explain, describe, persuade, or tell a story.
From the first newspaper story I ever wrote — a 300-word sports story about the first water polo game I had ever seen, back in 1963 — I had it drummed into me: Tell the story. Readers need to understand what happened. If they want to admire style, they will buy books or literary magazines.
Mediocrity of style becomes acceptable. It has to. Nobody except Stephen King writes every day like Stephen King — and even King, the author of some 70 novels, says in his “On Writing” that literary excellence is accomplished more often in the editing process rather than in the writing process itself.
I do recall two instances when, for a day or two, I simply could not write. Both involved the deaths of grandchildren. Adam died of Sudden Infant Death syndrome after 77 days. Ian died of cancer at age 6.
After their burials, I sat in front of a computer screen, my fingers listless on a keyboard. I did not write. I cried. That happens.
But in many other tragic situations, even if I was shaking with anger or fighting back tears, I tapped those keys and pounded out words. Back on Sept. 11, 2001, journalists had to write even as the towers of the World Trade Center billowed pre-collapse smoke and people jumped to their deaths. Journalists write during wars, earthquakes, tornadoes, fires, murders, because we report about those things. There are compensations. We write as well about parades, graduations, heroes, sports, victories, many things that make us human, that evoke joy.
About once a month, I write something that strikes me as good. About once a month, I write something that strikes me as a pieceapoop. The other articles will usually be somewhere in between.
Beginning writers can have “writer’s block.” Veteran writers do find themselves at a loss for words.
Those of us in the writing subcategory of journalism do not have that luxury of waiting to write on another day. The deadline must be met. Well or poorly, we write. You get to assess the results.
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Denny Bonavita is a former editor at newspapers in DuBois and Warren. He lives near Brookville. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.