Friday, August 06, 2004

'The Writing Process is Never Done'

Okay, I'm back. My self-imposed (if unnanounced) summer break from Working With Words has become something of an annual tradition, since this makes it two consecutive years in which it's happened. And at nearly three weeks this time, it's also my longest period of silence ever. Which only means I have that much more to share with you in coming days, weeks and months, since the mental faucet wasn't turned off during that time, nor did I stop watching and listening to the culture. I even accomplished a fair amount of other writing (click here for the latest dad's column and here for a new piece in the current issue of Northern Ohio Live. ). I'm also into the deepest part of the work on my latest book-ghostwriting project, which will be the fifth, and thus far it looks to be perhaps the most interesting subject yet. Since this one is shaping up as the least-secretive of the lot, almost more of a co-written thing, I'll perhaps share some details about it in coming weeks.

One thing that new writers don't always immediately grasp is how much gathering--reading, watching, listening and thinking--must happen before one can get down to any serious writing. Without all that input, there's no real output, at least not anything really worth reading. And that's why we should sometime just turn off the output spigot and step back for a time. I'm afraid that a hungry mind--and if you don't have that, find some other kind of work--will preclude you from similarly shutting down the input mechanism, for even a day.

Anyway, I've been saving this little gem that I first read in late June. It's by a woman who is in the process of making over her life, switching from a profession in finance to one as a writer (I don't know about you, but I find that I'm encountering that type with increasing frequency, the person who in mid life is moving toward writing, often going from a highly left-brained to a right-brained activity). "I came to writing after 20 years in accounting and finance. In my previous experience, things got finished...But things are not so simple with writing." She finds there's never really any clear end point to writing, that it's a never-ending process. And mostly, she takes inspiration in that. Anyway, it's well worth your time to read, and full of food for thought.

A Detour Into Medicine. In a recent interview on NPR affiliate WCPN, my fellow Cleveland writer Kristin Ohlson made a smart observation: she said that amid her larger writing projects, she always tries to make sure to reserve some time for the occasional freelance magazine assignment, because for her the researching and interviewing functions not unlike taking a course in some new and interesting subject. Any serious writer will immediately nod their head in agreement on that point. Sometimes we choose these topics, and other times editors help choose them for us. I was pleasantly surprised to be drawn into some intensive writing about medical topics in the last few months, which is not at all a usual subject for me. In fact, I probably hadn't written about medicine since back in the mid-'90s, when the late editor of CWRU's magazine, Roberta Hubbard, asked me to get my arms around some of the exciting developments taking place in the area of genetics at the medical school, and to then put it into English for a general audience. I remember reading for a solid week before even thinking about scheduling my first interview with a researcher.

Reading by Lantern's Light. My intensive summer hammock reading, whose end point has been pushed back an hour or more by the family's thoughtful father's day gift of a lantern, has allowed me to delve into a number of publications that I don't ordinarly get to in the course of my Darwinian squeeze between the limited time and the limitless supply of things I'd like to read. Business Week, for instance, has always been worthwhile, in my experience, and yet it doesn't really shout out as a must-read anymore in the expanding menu of possibilities. But this piece, which gives a brilliant layman's overview of the changes affecting media and marketing as "the country has atomized into countless market segments," makes me wonder how many other such gems I've missed in recent years. The same goes for a piece on the subject of leadership in the June edition of Harvard Business Review. Management guru Peter Drucker shows that his gray matter is still vital despite his 90-something years on the planet. It's a tightly written, no-bullshit treatise on what good leaders have in common, based on his 65-year track record in consulting. Treat yourself to it sometime you're at the library (sorry, it's not online). Anyway, I'll be sure to pass along more Hammock Reading Tips (HRT's) in coming days. Just think of it as pleasure reading rather than assigned homework.

Killer War Stories. I imagine you've had this experience before: you get together with a friend, and the conversation turns to some subject that prompts them to recall a long-ago experience. And sometimes the anecdote is so vivid that you find yourself wondering how such a great story has never come up before, in the many dozens or even hundreds of hours of conversations you've enjoyed with them in the past. Lately, I seem to be having that experience approximately on a weekly basis. Today, I was set to meet my friend John Polk for lunch in Little Italy, at the sublime east-side mecca of moderately priced but authentic southern Italian cooking, Mama Santa's. Only, I forgot one thing: every year, the place closes down in early August, in anticipation of the annual Feast of the Assumption (when the owners take their annual pause for refreshment). So I meet John out front, and as we discuss our plan B, he recounts a Murray Hill moment from a generation ago. Seems he was the night clerk at the old Bond Court Hotel in the late '70s, when the cast and crew of The Deer Hunter came to town to use the onion-domed Tremont area as a backdrop for the movie. Robert DeNiro, at the time far less famous than he is today (this was pre-Taxi Driver, remember) was staying at the Bond Court, and one night he came down to the lobby, anxious for recommendations on where the off-the-set action was. John related how he told him about the Little Italy feast, and the two were set to hit the town for some joint carousing. "But he dumped me," John recalled, no doubt for some female companion he happened upon. I figure that it's better to have been unceremoniously dumped by DeNiro than to never have met him at all...


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