Monday, May 26, 2008

Creativity and Mental Health: Mutually exclusive?

On a thread, a writer who has been feeling depressed asked for input from fellow writers recently.

Most responding posters recommended a visit with a good internist to make sure hormone and thyroid issues and other possible physiological causes weren't to blame.

I concur. A little discontentment is what makes the world go round, but for bigger, ongoing issues a good medical lookover is needed. Sometimes people take the motivational blame for things that are strictly medical in nature.

Other fine recommendations included taking care of yourself, practicing contentment and getting counselling for any long-standing issues. These are all sound ideas, of course, and they have their place.

Deciding when it's a temporary thing or something that can be managed with some heart-to-hearts and when it needs medical assistance is the trick. Either way, sufferers are not alone (by a long ways) and should be commended for assessing their situation and deciding they deserve better.

It's often said that those who gravitate to creative fields tend to be more prone to depression. "It is almost a cliche that writers are moody, depressed alcoholics, so writers are more likely to accept that it's ok for them to be moody and depressed.--On a similar note: do you feel like being moody, anxious, depressed, deep, etc. makes you more creative and/or a better writer?" one poster asked.

However, it's my observation that many addicts aren't creative. In fact, I know one who thinks his addiction MAKES him some kind of creative genius, which is bunk. It makes him unpredictable and sometimes the life of the party, but having a lampshade on your head before sinking to the depths of despair's not the same thing as thinking outside the box.

The film Pollock explored one example of someone who was considered by many to be a genius and who was also obviously bipolar or something (I don't remember his diagnosis.) If there had been good meds back then and he had been able to kick addiction, his ouevre would probably been much greater still.

There's another consideration -- the possible need of those in northern climes for more light/vitamin D in the case of SAD, or seasonal affective disorder. There again, a medical diagnosis for an emotional issue.

I give you that had Van Gogh and Pollock been on meds, the leveling of their highs and lows might have had a negative impact on their creativity. This has happened to a dear friend of mine. Once they got her thyroid issues fixed (taking the hormones out of the equation) they determined that lithium was the old-school answer for her as a relatively young woman. But there went the creativity. However, she herself prefers that flattened creative curve to the anxious ups and downs that had her pronouncing herself the devil's spawn. Which kinda freaked me out, I admit.

Starry Night or no, Van Gogh was never the same without that ear. And Sylvia Plath? Brilliant. But would she rather have stuck around to nurture her kids? I think yes. To choose creativity over mental wellness sounds more like a symptom than anything else, to me.

To check out the thread on creativity and mental wellness, click here:

Here's an interesting link I found about Marya Hornbacher, the bipolar and alcoholic author of 'Wasted' and 'The Center of Winter.' Kudos to her for going public on her illness.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

What makes a paper a 'rag'?

So what makes a paper a rag? My suspicion is that it's the same thing that makes a writer a 'hack.'

I edit a weekly newspaper and I work hard to hit some pretty high quality standards. For me, that means no wire copy, for one thing. Regardless of how well-written it is and how many sources the writer has employed, if it's not local it doesn't fit within my mandate. There are other publications my readers can access (if they choose) that include wire copy and regional news, including the award-winning Dallas Morning News, which I myself have written many articles for.

I consider material cheesy if it doesn't pass the smell test. I try not to cater to a small, elite group, for example. I don't just "round up the usual suspects" when I write. I put my best efforts into photography. I try to put some effort into fact-checking. I don't credit staff with material that came from someone else or a press release. I've seen newspapers take sly cheap shots at their competition and former staff members - and those crass efforts are usually rewarded with all the wrong people noticing them, embarrassing the editors who try to embarrass others.

In addition to these guidelines (which would look perfectly obvious to writers and editors who are well-trained) there are a number of universal rules of journalism, and those must be adhered to.

A comment on about a magazine that used some articles with just one source irritated me. Ever seen those cookbooks for meals that have just three ingredients, or just four ingredients? No, it's not Cordon Bleu cooking, but sometimes, it's called for. If it's a good source and it's all you have time for in the bigger scheme of things for a straightforward preview story, then one source is better than none, and better than two poor ones.

And it all gets cancelled out if the writing and editing sucks.

Catch-22: The less you make, the more you crank out?

As a writer and editor, there's one peculiar trend I have noticed over many, many years. It's in keeping with the great tradition of capitalism that the higher you rise, the less you do.

I'm not indicting this trend. I'm just observing that it may exist - and that new writers can expect it.

The less you make, the more you're expected to crank out.

It may follow that the more you're expected to crank out, the less quality you produce. And then the fewer clip book quality pieces you have for your portfolio.

That said, the better you are, the more solid every word you write is - and the less editing it requires. This involves not just practice but talent - and watching carefully to see what can be done (and what IS done by editors) to improve your work. If you don't watch how your copy gets better between your computer and the printed page, you won't learn from it.

So, the better you are, the better stories you're assigned - and the better your clip book will look, too. And the better opportunities, and the better pay you will get (although the difference between what a good writer and a mediocre writer is paid at a smaller publication is not that great, since good writers are underpaid at smaller publications.)

The bottom line for the publication is that its prestige rises with better quality writers and falls with those who don't have the talent or ability or discipline to turn out good copy. More on this later.

Friday, May 16, 2008

One source? Heaven forbid!

I recently got chided for making this statement in a forum for freelance journalists:
To a writer who was doubting her ability to ratchet up her writing to two or three "stories" a day, I said: "Lot of papers that need multiple stories need many of them to be 500 words or so, and just one source is often fine."
Here's what one writer told me: "Journalism 101 is three sources, period. Less than that and it's a brief."
Call it a fat brief or what you want, but I'm saying that at a community newspaper, or in a trade publication, or any number of other spots, a one-source story is a reality.
No, it's not your diet, any more than a drive-through Big Mac is a healthy way to dine on a regular basis.
When I do national cover stories for a very cool trade pub, I have 10 sources minimum. Minimum.
For an inflight magazine, I did a profile of a major sporting celeb that was just him. One source.
I've done profiles for several trade pubs that were looking for just that: one on one.
When I did regional pieces for a major daily (prior to going back to weekly editing) I did two or three at least. Three was better, sometimes two was all that was possible.
When I do preview pieces about upcoming events for a small-mid daily or the weekly I edit, if I can only get one because I'm doing multiple stories and that's what there's time for, that's how I roll. When you're doing an avalanche of stories, sometimes that's how it goes.
Check out the thread where this debate is going on here:
I'd love to hear what you think about one-source stories.

Not for the faint of heart

So you want to be a writer, and you think a small daily or good-size weekly is your best foot in the door?

Be prepared to swing two bats.

If this was baseball, practicing swinging two bats would put power in your swing. Same goes for writing. Disciplining yourself to crank out copy, and lots of it, will get you ready for the Big Leagues.

But it's not for the faint of heart. If you want a 39.5 hour work week, unless you're very efficient, you may be barking up the wrong tree. People don't want to hear this. "I'd do anything to get a shot at writing," I hear writers say. But the concept of giving it 110 percent is too daunting for some.

When I took my first job in print, I begged for it. I told my editor I would write anything, even obits. Without being asked, I wrote my heart out. I put myself on a rigorous training program of swinging two bats, frequently turning in two or even three stories a day while many around me slacked off because they could.

I learned how to crank out good copy, copious amounts of it, fast. Those three things you can never find together - quality, speed, quantity (or price) - I learned how to deliver. I'm not saying all my stuff was perfect.

The other thing people complain about when cranking out copy is not having time to network and develop sources.

I admit to using my own personal time to do a lot of things in the community, thus developing those sources. For some people, that's unacceptable infringement of work into personal life. For those people, I don't recommend community newspapering in a setting where resources are limited.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Travel to write or stay in one place?

So how do you feel about traveling for freelance stories you're writing?

One writer who loves to travel is delighted that a national magazine is sending him all over. He picks assignments in places he has fun connections to or wants to see.

Another writer said traveling for work is like pancakes -- funnest when done infrequently. Besides, she said, that with lots of work to do at the destination point, what you see most of is the taxi, the lobby, the plane, the airport -- that sort of thing.

A writer who boils all his assignments down to what he ends up making per hour sees travel as a way to spend time in line or in a cramped airline seat while diluting your hourly rate.

Bottom line for this blogger? There's all sorts of things that are amusing until you have a family -- I cite business travel among them. Flying is nowhere near as fun as it used to be, between time spent hopping around in bare feet and the joys of multiple security checks.

I had a preliminary interview with a trade mag looking for a writer to do profiles and he mentioned, with genuine shock, that other writers he'd talked to had told him the pieces could be done from a distance. The editor asked me what I thought, and although I probably should have milked him for a free trip across the country, I had to agree with the other writer, that, for that magazine's purposes, that was the case.

Now Rolling Stone Writer's got to interview Mick Jagger in person, and I wouldn't miss that for the world. Given the chance ;)

If it's not purely fun travel (and many writing flights seem to be either fly-in-fly-out or tread the conference floor) it really eats into what you make per hour.

That said, give me a crisis to fly into and report on, and I'm there. I wanted to go to New Orleans to cover it for several magazines I was doing related pieces for in the aftermath, and none could justify the expense. I would have driven it (just 8 hours away) for the experience, but between public health/safety issues and not finding a hotel within an hour's drive at the time plus having a book to finish, I decided not to.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Given a quick turn on a revision? Take heart!

When a writer recently complained of having to do a quick turn on revisions for a freelance magazine piece that was written as queried, here was my response:

Article due: Feb. 15

Article publishes: May 1

Editor gets back to you and demands rewrite/fix/whatever in a matter of days: April 15

This happens fairly often. You just have to build it in. Also, even if the editor likes your query, he may assume that when it fleshes out in an article it falls within a fairly narrow set of article guidelines of what their articles of that nature read and feel like.

The key is -- learn to suit your editor. That's the bottom line of who you have to please. If the editor ain't happy, ain't nobody happy. If you don't think you can, move on. But be warned: they're all different, they all have their things, and there's no getting away from that.

I had an editor liked my query, took the story, over-reacted with strong, irritated language, I tweaked two small things that WERE NOT EARTH-SHAKING, she's happy as a lamb. Which made me think her problem may just have been her manic/depressive meds got out of whack. Whatever. I catered, I kowtowed, I got the check, got the byline -- and got the next assignment.

One of the things that I think I've noticed on one occasion: I've seen an editor overreact and realized that she herself shrinks from fixing copy because she doesn't like to write and doesn't have time to figure out what the story is so that she could fix it.

Whereas when she explained it to me, who did the research, the fix was simple. So if you have a panicky edit, instead of panicking yourself, just work calmly to fix it to spec. Could be easier than you think, especially if you're experienced.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Competition vs. Ugliness

It astounds me to see the pettiness observable in small media markets. I've heard stories from others in the past, and in the last few years, I've observed this phenomenon within neighboring markets and heard from close friends.

I know the race for advertising is tight, but it's hard to fathom why people in editorial in particular think it would profit them to be ugly to fellow journalists.

For one thing, when you're ugly to other people -- petty, snide, pick your adjective -- it shows. People notice it -- and anyone fair-minded observing it knows it makes you look small. It's particularly observable when it's done in front of others -- or even more fascinating, in print or online.

Those who have worked at a major publication -- or even a mid-sized one -- were trained better not to let personal feelings get in the way of professionalism. They can be identified by their refusal to get ugly; instead, they keep a civil tone, and they make every effort to at least appear courteous.

I've decided to document every instance of this I observe for a tell-all novel. The names will be changed to protect the innocent, of course!