Wrenches in a toolshed

I spent the early years of my journalism career struggling with pretty much everything about the job, but especially with the writing. The reporting was often uncomfortable as I pushed past my mother’s three cardinal rules, all variations on a basic theme: “Don’t be nosy.” But my want-to-know-everything curiosity had always outplayed my attempts at obedience, and in reporting, I found a role where that was welcomed — as long as I learned to park the sass factor in the newsroom.

Writing was another matter. Not easy when I started this life more than 40 years ago; not easy now. I can’t tell you how many tortured nights I sat frozen at the keyboard as a young reporter, praying for the Muse to rescue me. It took a long time to realize that she always showed up — but too often it was after deadline. That led to a new awareness: I found I could summon her pretty reliably, but only if I first did my own hard work. She wasn’t there to help me dance past struggle. Rather, it was when I put in the effort — used the tools I had available — that she appeared with some bit of insight or even, on rare occasions, writerly magic.

I came to think of writing as a partnership between the Mechanic and the Muse. Sometimes one led; sometimes the other. But I needed to respect both. I carried that belief into teaching and editing. I think people come to conferences or workshops or editors seeking a combination of tools and inspiration. The former without the latter is serviceable but dull; the latter without the former is flighty and self-indulgent.

My own journey probably has me leaning more heavily toward the toolset of the Mechanic. I’ve seen lots of journalists — pros and students alike — light up with aspiration when they read a standout piece of work or sit in the audience of one of the stars. But the people I hear from years after the fact, with notes of gratitude or links to a special piece of work they did, are almost always those who mention a sourcing or reporting or writing tool they had learned to use. Even the most talented writers I know are those who, even if they don’t talk about it the same way, have mastered the craft that creates the art.

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