By Jacqui BanaszynskiOne of my writing workshop wisdoms is bogarted from former colleague and longtime friend Katherine Lanpher. It first came to me when I was struggling to cobble together a last-minute keynote for some narrative conference, and reached out to some friends for help. (Note to the wise: Always reach out to friends for help.) Katherine’s response to my query — Why do stories matter? — ended with her signature blend of humor and insight:
“The three most beautiful words in the English language are not ‘I love you’ or even ‘You’ve lost weight.’ They are ‘What happens next?’ “
A few years later, I sat mesmerized (and a little jealous because, damn, he’s good) as Pulitzer-winner and and fabulous human Tom French spun an entire keynote around those same three words. He held a crowded auditorium of people in thrall for an hour as we all waited to learn … What happens next.
Now, as I race through unfinished end-of-year to-do lists and crowd my 2024 datebook with obligations, I find those three words both a challenge and comfort. Perhaps they are all I need as reminder to focus on what matters while remaining open to whatever life throws my way — an investment in aspiration without abandoning flexibility. They strike me as a journalist’s best guidepost, and not a bad one for the rest of life.
I’ve never been into resolutions. I applaud people who take the time to zero in on goals for the coming year. I am in awe of those few who actually follow through. Maybe my hesitation about resolutions comes from a lifetime in newsrooms, when the only thing you could plan for was to be ready for things you couldn’t plan for. Maybe my tendency to bounce with what comes along is part of a plodding process of decision-making. Maybe it’s simple emotional laziness.
Whatever underlies this, I have learned not to fight it — too much. I am as prone to self-criticism as anyone, and more than many. But I learned, through my career, to do a type of planning that worked for me. It’s a modified version of reverse engineering — one that kept me on track while allowing me to respond to the unpredictability of the news. Example:
As a reporter, I was determined to have six pieces by the end of each year that I was proud of, and at least one I felt was worthy of a regional or national award. I made a quick note in my datebook each month to check my progress — basically a nag not to use the daily grind as an excuse to drift. That helped me keep my eye open for news stories that could be turned into much more, or to fight for enterprise projects that had found their time. As an editor, I carried that aspiration to work being done by my team but ratcheted up the ambition, trying to support every team member in two-to-three high-end projects a year. In all of this, it wasn’t the contest that mattered. It was the aspirational goal — the strive to push forward and even beyond the necessary work of the day or my own zone of comfort.
I can think of few better ways to challenge myself to stay engaged, as a professional and as a citizen of these times, than to embrace the wonder of What happens next?