Budding Writer, 1979: Catching up

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A salmon sunset settles over Lake Champlain on October 20, 2023. By Howard Fielding. Offered under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

About this series: I revisited my journals from my first year as a freelance writer and found they told a story of their own. In this series I get the rare opportunity to give myself and other writers career advice with nearly 50 years of hindsight. Enjoy!

One of the unique features of the writing business is that there is no such thing as down time. Even when I wasn’t working at the newspaper, I was browsing bookstores, reading, filing, querying, and even evaluating my social life (or lack of it) for material.

Beautiful, Indian Summer days! Too bad I wasted them at work all day and at the Dartmouth Bookstore the following day.

All seems well; I am throwing myself into my freelance work [one regret: a mention of ‘old school ties’ in a letter to Yankee] — I figure if I can’t get a feature in Yankee, I can get in another regional mag. Read 2 stories by Noel Perrin in the process.

… Pushed on hard in magazine excerpting today. Hope to finish tomorrow so I can start in filing and with notes. A few ideas and an urge to plan, but not to push the pen. Toying with the idea of house-sitting Dad’s farm next year to work.

Journal, Volume III
22 October – 23 October 1979

Today’s writers know that not all their work is done at the keyboard. We need to fact-check, get ideas, keep up with the news and latest developments, get new points of view.

Technology helps, of course. Today’s writers go online to do a quick fact check. We use email instead of snail mail to contact editors and sources. We can bookmark and link to sources, and save copies of documents as PDFs.

None of those tools existed when I was breaking into writing and journalism. I did my research in libraries (with card catalogs!). I subscribed to several magazines, including Time for current events and Psychology Today for character insights, new theories, etc.

Still, juggling the newspaper and the personal projects was cutting into creative time. That’s why I contemplated visiting my father’s new Maryland farm, with a peach orchard, the following summer.

The next day was more productive:

A rainy day, good for indoor work — which I did. I finally finished skimming, sorting, and filing my magazine articles — now there are no more backlogs, and all my writing files — individual projects, as well as Sources, Fascinating, and Odd files — are complete and ready to be turned into an idea factory.

While I was at it, I skimmed some of my short stories ready for rewrite. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that, although they need rework, I liked them!

Journal, Volume III
24 October 1979

It wasn’t until years later — as a father, as a homeowner, as a retiree — that I learned that being “caught up” is an illusion. As soon as you drop that last letter or email or clipping or bookmark into the file, there’s another one coming in. Information is growing much faster than anyone can control it.

Even so, when reading your own work brings you happiness, maybe it’s all worth it.

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