Today I finally finished writing a feature article on a new Battle of Gettysburg exhibit here in town. It was one of those incredibly stressful experiences when the story in your head is so good it’s almost impossible to put onto (virtual) paper because you know it won’t be the same. I like writing about things that make me think, but sometimes it’s almost impossible to get out of my own way and just start.
It’s much easier to write about local town government meetings. Don’t get me wrong, that was impossible in the beginning too, but after 8 or so months I kind of get it. I listen to people talk for a couple of hours and transcribe the meetings on my laptop. Then I go home and troll the newspaper’s archives to find out everything I need to know, send out a few emails, let my editor fill my feeble brain with her vast amount of town knowledge, and crank out 600-1,000 words, for 2-4 versions. And then I check the “Corrections” section the following week hoping I didn’t get something horribly wrong.
Feature stories just innately have more pressure because you are allowed to really craft a story around the facts. It’s not straight reporting of what happened in the same way as covering a Board of Health meeting for example. As the writer you can determine how the information will get out. And hopefully your editor doesn’t disagree. Because I sometimes pitch features I also have a vested interest to make them strong. But even if a story idea is given to me I take it as a personal challenge to “wow” the feature editor.
A major problem is my obsession with research and understanding a topic before writing about it, even though 100% of the time I’m interviewing a subject matter expert. Saturday I interviewed the curator of the Gettysburg exhibit, a lovely woman who clearly knows what she’s talking about. She’s also a museum educator and knows how to tell a story about a time period, making it both interesting and factual. What did I do after the interview? Spent the next day reading about the Battle of Gettysburg for 12 to 15 hours. I’m supposed to try to interview a financial person in the next few weeks. I shudder to think of how I’ll handle that one with my pathological fear of calculations.
Features are also considerably longer which sometimes make them challenging. I’m not a concise writer and can easily get up to the 1,300 to 1,800 word articles. The problem with length is time. I can’t write an article until I nail the opening. Seriously. It is not unusual for me to spend half a day trying to figure out how to start. Yesterday I spent three hours creating four lines and still reworked it for another few. Try as I might to skip over it, I can’t write beyond the beginning. The story really does take shape at that point and it is not unusual for my angle to completely change based on what ends up coming out. Unfortunately, these last minute changes often call for more research.
And knowing I still have a long article to get through once I nail the opening makes me freak out. I am afraid I’m going to forget something. I catch myself going off in weird tangents. I indulge in drama and write as though the big reveal should be at the end of the story, assuming readers will make it that far. And then I delete it all and start over, now worrying that I’m going to miss my deadline and write crap just to finish in time.
Here’s how I know I was meant to do this. Two or three sleepless days of doing nothing but researching and writing, exhaustion that makes you tremble, lack of showers, lack of food, sore back and hands, various bits of household debris all over the place and I am still sitting here writing. For fun.