Janet Sheridan: About writing
January 26, 2012
When readers talk to me about my columns, they don't question my balance of accuracy and exaggeration or take issue with my overabundance of colons and dashes.
Instead, they ask about my writing process.
Recently, a friend wanted to know where I get ideas for 52 columns a year.
I could have answered him, admitted that ideas swarm into my mind like mosquitoes and persistently pierce my thoughts until I notice them.
But I didn't.
Instead, I asked how he originates ideas for the compelling pottery he creates: does he labor for them or do they arrive spontaneously?
His eyes lit with recognition, and he admitted that he usually has more ideas than time to complete them.
I believe the act of creating fulfills you and frees your mind to explore new possibilities for anything you're passionate about: painting, gardens, music, carpentry, photographs, recipes — or columns.
Often I hear, "What's it like to have a deadline every Thursday all year with no break?"
Usually the questioner then confesses: "That kind of pressure would drive me crazy."
I agree: if I were awake at midnight every Wednesday, sitting at my computer with the word count hovering around 400, unable to think of nouns — never mind metaphors — I'd be bonkers.
But I'm the student who studied slowly and methodically for tests several days in advance rather than pulling all-nighters, and the teacher who decided before going to bed what I'd wear to work the next day.
I've always renewed my prescriptions as soon as possible and noted important dates on my calendar: "mail valentines" or "begin badgering Joel about spraying for aphids."
So, in accordance with my compulsions, I write a month in advance and usually have four columns ready for publication. While others are thinking about Halloween costumes, I'm polishing a piece about cooking Thanksgiving dinner.
I like knowing I could go to bed with inflamed tonsils, take a trip to Antarctica, or slip into sloth for a month without my column fading into oblivion.
I admire the reporters at the Craig Daily Press because I know I could never be one.
Once a week, I have to produce around 650 readable words based on my thinking and opinions. I don't have to interview busy people who won't return my calls, attend marathon meetings, give both sides of the debate, or double-check names and facts.
Our local reporters do all those things and write more than one story or column for each of four weekly issues.
And when I run into them, they look happy and reasonably sane.
In response to another common question, I once told a memoir group that my favorite part of the writing process is revision. After their spontaneous expressions of amazement and disbelief faded, a member asked how much time I typically spend revising a column.
As much as I can.
It takes time to decide between "an" and "the."
The only painful part of revision for me is deleting precious words I spent time and effort creating: an adjective I thought perfect that later strikes me as contrived, or a paragraph I included for emphasis that now seems repetitive.
As a teacher, I tried to help my students understand the necessity of deleting words, sentences, or paragraphs that divert a reader's attention from the author's message, like a fly buzzing around a bride's head during the exchange of wedding vows.
Face-to face with an uninhibited second-grader after a detailed discussion of the strengths we'd found in her story, I gently wondered if two sentences about her birthday cake, in the middle of a story about learning to ski, might confuse her readers.
Could those sentences be taken out of this story and saved for another about skiing?
"Oh no, Mrs. Bohart, I WROTE them in THIS story."
I sympathize with Stephanie every time I force my finger to the delete button.
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