(Originally published in Tishman Review online 2/9/2016. Read here or link to in “Published Works.”)
My guiding principle in writing has always been that I try to write the very best essay, story, or poem that I can at that moment. I have spent much of my career writing essays and feature articles for newspapers and magazines, and now, of course, for online news sources and journals. Sometimes these print publications are free to the community, or cost the reader one or two dollars. Mostly, I have gotten paid for my work, even if often it is barely enough to buy a new inkjet for my printer.
The key is that I never say to myself, “Well, it’s just The Beach Reporter or it’s only Main Line Life” (two community newspapers I have written extensively for – one in southern California, one in suburban Philadelphia), “I’ll just slop something down.” Whether I’m aiming for The New York Times or the Pioneer Press, my commitment to my most excellent writing is the same.
When I write for publications in my community, I feel a special commitment to do my best work, even though I am not garnering the prestige and pay of a national news outlet. I think of all those readers (they might be my friends and neighbors!) sitting down to breakfast or lunch, skimming the headlines, ruthlessly turning the pages (or clicking their mouse) looking for something that catches their eye. My column, my essay, often buried in the “Lifestyle” section, and sometimes below the fold. She starts to read, this imaginary reader. She is willing to give me a sentence, a paragraph. This is where I have to reel her in. I can feel her as I tap-tap my next essay into my laptop. I don’t just toss something down because I’m only getting fifty or seventy-five dollars and no one outside my zip code will ever read it. I think, I tap, I delete. I race forward at breakneck speed, I eat chocolate, I puzzle. I consult my synonym finder, I go back and put paragraph three where paragraph two is, I sweat blood over the last sentence. The reader is all – I am writing to him or her. I aim to make her laugh or cry or ponder something. I want to entertain, provoke, inform, and move.
It would be easier not to care. But this is my life. This is what I do. I tried to think of other things to do, but I always returned to what I love doing, what I’m actually good at. And, with that in mind, every time I begin to write I always try to make it the best I can at that exact moment.
The carefully selected detail that illuminates the larger picture. The story that a reader will remember ten years down the road. The image that will resonate inside someone, in some secret place that maybe they were not even aware of. Until they read what I wrote.