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Wed, 31 Mar 2010
"It is the end of the end!" said Ned Land.
Well, it turns out that this little adventure was a lot more difficult than I had ever realized it would be, mostly because I did not know then the limits of just how far one could go relying on last-minute inspiration and innate talent to reach such a demanding goal -- and not just once, but month after month, for five solid years. I had to teach myself the discipline needed to turn out these articles on time, every month, and I had to develop a technique for writing to a deadline that would work for me for the long haul. Although I always paid attention to words and content (I am the only person I know who would write drafts of letters to friends in those bygone days before email, Facebook, and Twitter made every unpolished passing thought a potential nugget to be cast out into the ether for all and sundry) I never payed much attention to the mechanics of writing. I would soon learn better.
My first couple of articles were quick and easy, dashed off the top of my head. E.T., Bring A Gun was merely the outward expression of ideas that had been rattling around in my head for a long time. The second month, Reflections of A New York Commuter was my first opportunity to follow the rule to "write about what you know", and having spent a significant part of my life riding the commuter trains, the writing the essay was reasonably effortless. Heck, I thought, if this is what it's going to be like, this challenge is going to be easy.
Now cocky and overconfident, I began to get somewhat slothful. The rules of the competition were quite strict -- despite my efforts, there were no "timeouts" allowed for anyone, so it was truly a case each month of "publish or perish". And starting with that third month, my arrogance nearly caught up with me, coming close to tripping me up when we were just out of the starting gate.
Out of habit, I would deliberately not think too much about the coming month's assignment for the first week or two of the month. Having just come off one completed assignment, I did not relish the thought of immediately rushing headlong into the next. I always assumed that something would come to me and I could crank out another article with plenty of time to spare. But starting with that third month of competition, I began to run into a funny kind of writer's block -- not so much being unable to write about my chosen subject, but an awful kind of paralysis over being able to pick a subject in the first place. I was just drawing a blank; each time I would think of something, I would tell myself there was no way I could write 3,000 words about that. I felt a lot of self-inflicted pressure to not just do this, but to do this well: I had a reputation as a wordsmith to live up to, and I did not want to degenerate into hackneyed, half-assed efforts. Dan, Shiloh, and Borah, the other Ironwriters competitors, had all submitted well-done pieces, and I felt I had to keep up with the standards they were setting.
So for most of the third month, I continued to worry and wallow in self-paralysis. Finally (I no longer recall how) I fell back on the "write about what you know" maxim and came up with A Life In Medicine about my grandfather's life and career, and got it submitted, on time but uncomfortably close to the deadline. I knew I had to do something, or else I would be in for 57 months of hell.
After this first crisis, I spent the next week analyzing why I had encountered such problems, and what I would do about them. My first problem was something akin to traditional writer's block: the intimidating feeling of having to face down the blank sheet of paper. In my particular case, the problem was not being able to track my progress as I was writing. Yes, the word processor program did have a word count function, but it was simply discouraging to write and write and not have a concrete sense of exactly how much further I had to go. Finally, I decided that a large part of my problem was coming from using a proportionally-spaced font. I took my first three articles and converted the files to a fixed-space 10-point Courier font, noting that each 3,000+ word article filled about 5 pages. That gave me a convenient rule of thumb that greatly relieved my anxiety during the actual writing -- each page brought me roughly 20% of the way to completing that month's objective. I stuck with 10-point Courier for the remainder of the Ironwriters competition.
My second and more important problem was the "what to write about" problem. Usually during my drives back and forth to work each day, I would think about potential subjects, and when any seemed interesting or promising, when I got home I would take out a pad from my desk drawer and jot down notes. Sometimes the notes were just a few words or a single sentence. Sometimes it would be a longer description of the subject in question. Occasionally it would be a challenge to myself ("A sonnet a day?" I noted once.) This was the start of "the desk drawer" of topics I would use as a reservoir of ideas for those months when I had a hard time getting started. Fortunately, once I began to accumulate a set of topics in reserve, they turned out not to be needed very much (although I did fall back on it for Emptying The Desk Drawer, one of my less than noteworthy efforts). I did think once about what might happen if I were to get sick or be incapacitated or otherwise unable to submit an entry in a given month, so I went ahead and wrote an article and saved it on a thumb drive, along with written instructions about how to upload it to the Ironwriters site. It's not especially noteworthy in itself, but once I had this safely put away, I had much less dread of the monthly deadline. (You would have thought I would have gone ahead and been even more proactive about preparing work in advance, but no, having prepared one spare tire, I didn't feel like taking the time to prepare two -- or more -- of them.)
My final problem was related to the mechanics of writing itself. It was easy to think about topics which might make for a good essay, but not always so easy to translate a subject or topic sentence into an essay of 3,000 reasonably coherent words. I soon discovered that the techniques taught by Sister Stella Maris in the seventh grade actually had something to them -- in my case, it was the importance of making a thorough outline for whatever I wanted to write about. Again, not very far into the competition, I hit the wall once and ended up submitting two shorter pieces instead of one article of 3,000 words. Although that was clearly allowed under the competition rules, it made me uncomfortable, almost like I was cheating somehow. It certainly seemed contrary to the spirit of the competition, which to me was more about thoughtful reflection or crafted stories, not quickie short takes which were more the purview of pundits and daily bloggers (no offense intended to our Chairman, who does an exceptional job with his daily political blog, a rare gleaning of wheat among all the chaff that passes for insight in the blogger's fields). I vowed to myself I would never let that happen to me again. From that day to today, each month I began my writing efforts not by actually writing anything, but first by patiently outlining exactly what I intended to write about. The outline would break down the subject into between ten and twenty major subtopics, so that each subtopic would require only about 150 to 300 words each -- not much more than a few paragraphs for each one. Immediately this became my standard operating procedure for each month: now the question was not so much deciding on a topic, but being able to outline it effectively. Once that was done, the actual writing came fairly easily, and has to this day.
The remaining steps in completing the article where then largely mechanical, mostly involving checking the word count, fluffing in words or paragraphs when needed to ensure that the Open Office word count would jive with the word count on the IW web site. By following my five page rule I would be able to reach the quota with room to spare, but I quickly got into the habit of going 5%-10% over quota just to be sure. Then I would fire up a printout and reread it to correct typos (didn't get them all, sorry!) and tighten up the sentences and paragraphs where needed. I find it easier to proofread on paper than on the screen, probably because I could, like editors of old, use a colored pencil to make notes and markup, rather than trying to edit as I go -- the problem with editing on the screen is that you lose what you had before, and it's sometimes not very easy to go back if you flit around and make changes hither and yon the way I tend to do. I mark up the corrections, read them over, type them in, and give the document a final read-through. After that, all that's left is to fire up the FTP software and transfer the file to the IW web site to ensure that my article would be posted before the monthly deadline. Check the HTML tags, verify the word count, and make any last-minute corrections. And another one bites the dust; take a week or two off before starting to assemble the next month's assignment.
What have I learned from this exercise? First and foremost, I learned how to write to a deadline -- at least what works for me in that regard: the sequence of actions described above that got me to the deadline on time and on quota each month. I would not presume to call myself "disciplined" in this regard -- that appellation I reserve for the journalists and columnists who have to make a deadline not once a month, but something like two or three times a week. Dan has made the point to me more than once that our Chairman's daily blog has probably made him the true Ironwriter of the bunch, and in all seriousness I tip my hat to him to salute the work he does.
Second, I have discovered that (in my non-fiction writing, anyway) I have what seems to be to be a fairly personal writing style. I have come to realize that my tone is more conversational than anything else. I tend to write much as I speak, with lots of interjected phrases, set off by parentheses, colons, semicolons, and dashes. I know it's not strictly formal or academic, but it works for me. Besides, these punctuation marks are the poor relations of English these days, and they need all the encouragement they can get, lest they fall into disuse and wind up on the grammatical ash-heap.
Third, I have found that while writing itself is fairly easy, good writing is hard! My own efforts throughout the Ironwriters competition are evidence of this. The vast majority of what I have written is clearly in the "write about what you know" genre, mostly the everyday aspects of suburban life. Cat Confessions, Felling Trees, Pools For Dummies, or Skywatching are representative examples of this type of writing, although far from memorable. In a lot of ways I modeled this type of essay after Garrison Keillor's "News From Lake Wobegon" segment on A Prairie Home Companion -- simple stories from my everyday life. Driving The Big Rig, my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to drive the crawler-transporter used to haul the Space Shuttle to the pad, was probably the best of this altogether unremarkable lot.
Another common genre I tended to use was to write about incidents from my past. Of these, the Hail and Farewell series epitomizes this. And no, despite the occasional complaint from Dan, I am not going to apologize for writing so much about my ex-girlfriends. In there were a lot of feelings that I had been keeping bottled up and mostly to myself and my close friends for far too long. Catharsis is always a good thing, even if it is occasionally painful. And besides, all I wrote on the subject were five articles, only about eight percent of the total number required, so I don't think I was beating that horse to death.
My book review, A Riddle Wrapped In A Mystery Inside An Enigma was enjoyable to write, not only because I got a chance to nit-pick some obvious editing errors in the text, but because one of the comments posted on it appeared to be from the author himself, calling my efforts one of the best reviews of his book, and promising to correct the nits I pointed out in the next edition -- and they were corrected, so even though on the Internet nobody knows you're a dog, in this case I have to believe that the comment was genuine.I didn't want to do too many reviews, so I only really mined that vein once more, in The War Profiteer In The Titanium-Gold-Alloy Mask, a review of the Iron Man movie that probably read a little more into the film than it really deserved. I also didn't get the hang of incorporating images into my IW posts, which is what that "Iron Man Riff" at the end is supposed to be, and which I incorporate now, better late than never.
There were a few forays into political punditry, sometimes prima facie efforts like Tickets, Please but more often as commentary disguised in a parable or fable like Economic News, June 2018, and occasionally devolving into pure satire like Un Hommage à B.F. Sur Son 300ième Anniversaire (one I have to admit I had a lot of fun writing). Probably the most coherent and best-reasoned of these was A Travesty On The English Language?, a jab at the folly of those who rely on the "precise meaning" of words to support the political points they want to make. But clearly there's enough of all this political stuff available to those who want to see it, and I did not want to add my cupfuls of water to the tsunamis of commentary being posted on the Net every day.
Finally, I did not venture often into the realm of pure fiction, even though when I did, I found the relative freedom offered by a made-up story to be very liberating to me as a writer -- it was easy to make the story change this way and that as needed, as long as I didn't do anything outrageous or completely unreasonable. While easy (for me) to write, I don't think my fiction efforts were anything special or terribly noteworthy. (Although I did find it fascinating that Dan and I did both write tidbits of snuff fiction for Halloween 2007 -- a fun if somewhat morbid coincidence.)
If I had to give myself an overall grade, I would have to rate my overall efforts somewhere between a B and a B-. The biggest thing I found frustrating about the monthly grind was that there really wasn't enough time (for me) to go back and seriously edit -- not just in the sense of cutting out some of the linguistic emboli that inevitably crept in to help ensure the monthly word production quota was met, but real retuning, restructuring, rehashing -- editing. Me, who would go through multiple drafts of letters to friends back in my pen and ink days, now found myself merely content to post what was often not much more than a glorified and spell-checked first draft. With different terms for the contest, I probably could have done much better -- but then, that's true of just about everything.
I have nothing but the highest admiration for Dan's sticking with this contest all the way to the end. As I have told him more than once, I have always had a high regard for his writing. In many ways I wish my own writing were more like his: for example, in his topical essays, Dan has an unerring knack of honing in on the essential points he wants to make, and then drives them relentlessly home to a logically unassailable conclusion, usually with a soupçon of mildly barbed humor thrown in for good measure. Too often my own essays (especially on political, moral, or philosophical topics) tend to wander quite a bit, a game of bank shots and working the corners, playing a multitude of angles, approaching the main points only tangentially. I envy Dan his clarity and conciseness, and my appreciation for it has only grown over the past five years.
Shiloh and Borah, the other Ironwriters, dropped out far too soon. Shiloh's stories covered a variety of topics, and I admit that his bible-reference titles stumped me each time he posted one (until I had a chance to look them up). I would have looked forward to seeing in how many different directions Shiloh's vivid imagination would have taken him and us. Borah's writings were fascinating, giving me and the rest of us a glimpse into a kind of set of parallel universes that coinhabit the space I occupy as an average middle-class working stiff -- separate dimensions of religious zeal, drug use, and casual sex, overlapping and intersecting in a karmic kaleidoscope that appeared to be centered in a single extraordinary life.
I don't know exactly how much of Borah's missives were fact and how much were fiction, and in a way, that was probably the point, not only of his writing, but this Ironwriters contest in general: our lives, whatever they are, are more complex than we generally realize, and would probably sound fantastically fictional in a detailed and focused retelling. I hope all of us have been able to show some of that to all of you.