Three pieces of advice or words of wisdom that have served me well

The best-known advice to writers may be “write what you know” and “show, don’t tell.” The first one hardly needs to be said; most people gravitate that way anyway, and if not, they’ll find out the sense of that saying soon enough. The second is something I routinely both tell and show my students. It doesn’t always get through to them. The ones it gets through to become much better writers. The ones who don’t get it likely won’t become writers at all.

Other writing wisdom, though not unique, has come to me from specific people at specific times and shaped my writing and career. There’s plenty, of course, but these three in particular stick out. To everyone involved, thank you.

1. You don’t have to begin at the beginning.

That’s a paraphrase, and I can’t even remember who said so. It was very early on. The idea was simple: Jump in wherever you find an opening … the middle, the end, just before or after where you left off, someplace altogether new. If you sit at the typewriter or the keyboard and stare at a blank piece of paper or a blank screen, you’ll stay there. It was so freeing to know I could start with the couple’s dialogue or the medical explanation or even the kicker and not have to wait for just the right words to be able to continue at any one point. That alone has gotten many an article going when nothing else would.

2. “That’s a writing problem.”

Karla said this all the time, but it might have come from her husband, Mike, a longtime reporter. Anytime one of us on the Currents staff would say, “I can’t because there’s not enough this” or “there’s too much that” or “I can’t confirm a fact” or “we did it that way last year,” she’d respond, “That’s a writing problem.” Translation: “That’s your problem. I hired you because you’re clever, so write around it!” Knowing we had the tools to solve this, we did.

3. Press beyond your comfort zone.

Meg taught me this when she was my editor at Baltimore magazine. I’d turned in an okay story about a boy born blind and the doctor who tried something new to allow him sight. Meg said the details were good except at the turning point: where the parents were deciding whether to go ahead with this untested procedure. What had they said? What were their fears? The parents had disagreed about which way to go, I knew, but it felt like an intrusion to push them about it. Meg couldn’t believe my hesitance—my negligence, it seems now—and urged me to go back to them. They were uncomfortable, but they didn’t turn me down. The result was the emotional hinge of the story: the sharp words, the tears, “I don’t need your signature on the papers,” the grandfather’s appeal to give the boy every chance. Meg saw exactly what was missing, and the story was immensely better for it.

Copyright 2013 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

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