Posts Tagged ‘tips’

Writer’s block? Climb cabinets. Lie on the floor

A feral child. 

A storm chaser. 

A mowing mailman. 

I’ve always been an admirer of Lane DeGregory’s work – especially her knack of finding fascinating subjects. A features reporter at the St. Petersburg Times, she prefers writing about people in the shadows. 

So, when a narrative fiction class I took at Georgetown demanded that we analyze a piece which “gives voice to the voiceless,” the choice was a no-brainer. I zeroed in on Lane’s The Girl in the Window, a beautifully woven narrative describing the journey of an abandoned, feral child from a cockroach-infested room to a family who loved her unconditionally. The piece went on to win the 2009 Pulitzer for Feature Writing

I was awestruck by Lane’s compelling descriptions, her choice of words and attention to detail – all seamlessly woven into the narrative.

She paints vivid scenes with detailed descriptions of the characters and the settings she witnessed.  (Tattered curtains, yellow with cigarette smoke, dangling from bent metal rods. Trash blanketing the stained couch, the sticky counters.)

She uses sensory details and dramatic visualization to offer snapshots into the life of Danielle, of those whose hearts were broken by the condition of this girl – and of those who were inspired to try to help her.

Her sentences – short, simple and powerful – take the reader through a series of emotions, which range from initial disgust at the conditions that Danielle was forced to live in for years to the unbelievable, unconditional love that her adoptive parents bestowed on her.

She listens for dialogues and not quotes, which is what makes Lane a powerful and compelling storyteller.

Inspired by her writing, I wondered if she would respond if I wrote to her. I took a chance. I looked up her e-mail id and wrote to her on a whim – never really expecting to hear from her. 

Less than 24 hours later, I had an e-mail from her waiting for me in my inbox. Not only did she respond to my e-mail with advice, she was extremely encouraging and also shared some tips on finding interesting stories.

I’ve saved the exchange of e-mails, starred and tucked them away into little, yellow folders titled, Inspiration. She probably doesn’t know the influence she has had on my writing but if you’re reading this, Lane: Thank you for taking the time to write back to an unknown journalism student, aspiring to be half the writer you are.

Every time I need a little inspiration, a story idea or a fresh approach, I revisit her e-mails – and it never fails to inspire. Sifting through my inbox the other day, I chanced upon Lane’s treasure trove of ideas. 

I thought I’d share some of my favorite ones on my blog:
 

Talk to strangers
Be a nosey neighbor, sit by the old woman on the swing, everyone has a story.

Read the walls
Check bulletin boards at libraries and laundromats, buy bad papers, scour the classifieds.

Sit the bench
Be a fly on the wall, eavesdrop at beauty parlors, eat lunch alone.

Ignore important people
See who’s in their shadows, who’s holding their coattails, write around celebrities.

Celebrate losers
Dreams don’t always come true, ask people about their failures, lessons learned.

Take stories no one else wants
Make people care, write for other sections, find a way it hasn’t been done.

Lie on the floor, climb on the cabinets
See stories from a new angle, write from a different perspective, seek other stakeholders.  

Lane has a very unique approach to reporting. She is “always on duty” in search of the unique, the bizarre, or sometimes the sad experiences of everyday folks. She always checks the bathroom cabinet and the inside of someone’s fridge (Love this tip!). You just never know what you’ll find. 

Lane writes about 100 feature stories per year. Yet, she estimates that editors reject 30 to 40 percent of her story ideas. The 43-year-old journalist says editors tell her she has two flaws: She sees stories everywhere, and she likes “really strange, freaky people.” 

The result can be extraordinary copy. Or have an editor rolling his eyes. 

Her solution? 

Write those stories anyway. And always look inside the fridge.

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