Mandan News

Brian L. Gray: Writing a news story (an insider’s view)

It’s 7:30 p.m. Monday night, and I’m getting home after a two-hour school board meeting. I walk into my room and begin the story writing process. I’ve come home with about 30 press releases to edit and two feature stories to write, which I must finish tonight. I get the paper’s layout tomorrow afternoon, and am attending a city commission meeting tomorrow evening, which could go on for several hours. Then I follow that up with a three-hour music gig, so I must have everything for this week’s paper completed tonight.

I turn on my laptop and lay down on my bed, which also serves as my office. I grab a pillow to rest my elbows, sit on my stomach, and start typing. I’d write at my office but there’s too many distractions there. This kind of writing needs to be done in solitude. I turn on the TV for some subtle background noise. I prefer sports, so I find a basketball game and ignore it as I work on the press releases. I get through those relatively quickly, leaving me with this week’s feature stories.

Features are where the pressure lies. Those are the stories with my name on them, the words that I claim, the stories I compose and must stand by and defend. They’re also the most challenging, because I begin with a blank slate, and it’s my task to supply the content. I always write features after everything else is completed so I don’t have to deal with any residual work poking around, dangling and distracting me.

As I flip through my notes I also begin to skip over to the basketball game. Timberwolves are leading the Bulls by five. Never saw that coming. I focus back on the computer screen, which remains blank. I look back at my notes. Sometimes the best trick for me is to write down all of the quotes, and use those as the story’s blueprints. I give that a try.

…There, I have a starting point. Let’s fill in those gaps. I put some words down, but they don’t seem right. I erase them. Try some more. No, still not good enough. I need to put some heart into this. I’m not a machine, and neither are my readers. They need movement. Relevance. Motive. Passion. Energy. Active verbs.

All I need to get moving is a good opening sentence. Summarize the entire story. Yes, that works. Now, provide details. Yes, I’m moving now. Motive. Active verbs. Got them all. I’m moving right along.

Ninety minutes have already passed by. The game’s over. Wolves lose. What have I done so far, I ask myself, as I look at my list of finished content. I have a mountain of press releases and one skeleton of a feature story with a bunch of random quotes and no visible sequence. I need to make this a story now, and try not to make it look like cheap news filled with simple, declarative sentences.

Maybe I should eat. I had only one snack today, and it’s already 9 p.m. I make a cup of tea and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. My time-tested brain food.

I eat the sandwich and drink the tea as I think about the story. I finish my meal with no further progress, but I spent that entire time ruminating from a distance. A writer needs that.

I notice that I’m watching the post-game for the Wolves. I love sports, but despise watching people talk about it. Just give me the event, not the hype. I flip through the stations. Nothing on. I often pop in a movie and ignore that, usually something with a light and folky feel that doesn’t demand my attention, but I figure it’s a good time to soak in some music. I normally write best with music playing softly in the background. Everything is background right now. The focus is the story at hand. So I get my mind back into the work and begin typing with all the attention I can give it.

…I wake up at 12 a.m. The music put me to sleep. So did the work. A jolt of nervousness shoots through my body. What if I had slept all night, and got nothing done? What would happen if these stories weren’t ready by the time I have to put the paper together?

I check my phone. No missed calls. I should stop being by myself all the time. Why don’t I call my friends anymore? Why don’t they call? I need that personal connection with someone else, and the occasional checkup on Facebook isn’t doing it. I used to actively write status updates every other day. Now I have tumbleweeds blowing through my personal page. I?m not as active in it as I used to be, mainly because I want my friends to notice it and wonder why, so that they’ll call me and see what I’m up to because I don’t offer them the instant fix online anymore, and then we can hang out in person instead. But the phone never rings. I don’t hear from them. Maybe they’re in the same pit I’m in.

But this isn’t just about friends. How is it possible for me to meet a woman under these conditions? When do I have time to find someone, let alone find a date? I barely have time to shave.

Moreover, looking at my current situation, what potential girlfriend or wife could tolerate a person like me who works hours like this, as the clock is just rolling past 1 a.m.? Jesus, it’s 1 a.m. already. Am I missing out on the love of my life? Because of this lifestyle? How can I find someone when I’m in front of a computer most the day? Oh, of course. That IS how people meet these days. Online dating. EHarmony. Match.com. What are we becoming? This computer is a device, not a way of life. I’ll never resort to that. I desire surprises in life, human interaction, the natural progression of getting to know someone, not a catalog of potential love candidates that I choose from a pre-sorted list.

I should just get out more. But I need friends to do that. I should call some of them.

Maybe I’ll just Facebook them, the computer’s right in front of me.

Okay, where was I? Oh yes, the story. Let’s get back into this. Let’s go ahead and write this for the meager paycheck I receive, the one I’m not proud of but am glad to get.

The more I type, the more I randomly think about the stories I want to write myself, and the projects I have sitting around waiting to be started. I want to get to them, but I can’t tonight. Too much in the way. I must work on this dry and dreary task while my passions sit on the shelves. Just like every week before this one for the last four years.

What if I didn’t write anything? What if I didn’t even show up to work tomorrow? I haven’t before, but the temptation often arises. I could walk away from it all, it wouldn’t shake me. I could grab the money I’ve saved, let loose, and run off for a while. Go into hiding and figure out the depths of my happiness. I’m not looking for answers to solve the world, I’m just looking for peace of mind.

Yes. I could do it. I want to go. I still have my health, my passion, my energy. The remnants of my sanity. Will I ever muster the courage to get up and leave, and do what I want to do and move to Ireland for a year, and write my own stories? Stories of the soul, of the human spirit.

How much longer can I do this? Here I am, still working, still struggling with myself, still trying to find my purpose in the world while the 40-plus hours of work shields me from the real questions I need to ask about myself. It’s 3 a.m. now.

I wonder if anyone else’s Mondays suck this bad.

I keep typing away. I think the first story is done. I don’t proofread it. I can do that in the office later today. I’ve stared at it enough. I move on to the next one. The school board story. This should be fresh in my mind, I was only at the meeting 11 hours ago. It’s not as long as the other feature story, so this one shouldn’t be so bad.

I do this same process every week. But I’m suited for this kind of work. I’m my own boss, and I’m able to work at home if I want. The only downside to that is that once visible line between personal and professional life dissolved a long time ago. I don’t know how many people at their place of work get a knock on their door by their roommate asking them if they want to play Mario Kart on Nintendo Wii for a while. My work comes into my room on a daily basis, and I can’t run from it.

But I won’t complain. I have comfort, safety, a good life, good friends that I sometimes see. Money, fame, praise, material prizes, all that is just fodder for the ego. That can’t possibly define success. My terms are a bit different than what many people tend to tell us success is. I need a life of balance, good health, an active and healthy mind, some people I call friends, and a healthy, redeeming outlet for expression. I have all of those. For the most part. So what more do I need? I could probably get another lens for my new camera. Or buy another guitar. Maybe that will fill the hole.

…There. Finished. Finally. I look at the clock. 5 a.m. Man, time flies when a deadline looms.

I’m done. I did it. Let’s soak that in for a brief moment. I’ve done all that one person is able to do. I can take pride in that. This week’s work for the paper is completed. Now I can enjoy six more days of primarily non-stress work before I do this all over again next Monday.

As I turn off my computer, I feel a sense of abandonment. Something’s missing now. Why do I feel down? Because I’m setting my alarm for noon for another day of being an editor? No. Because for a passing moment that rush of possibility returns, and I’m left wondering what I’d actually do without my job. I know that every week I’m doing a service for others, and that satisfaction is incredibly rewarding. It provides me with a purpose. Without that sensation I fear I’d be lost. I would like to take that chance and hang myself out there, and fully embrace that bohemian life that often rises to the surface, but I’m not willing to step out like that and take the leap. I still need the assurance that I’m being put to good use. I’m good for now. I enjoy this process. Especially now that I?m at the end of it. I think Ireland can wait.

Right now my body needs sleep. Probably food too, but that can wait until tomorrow morning. Time to go to bed, do some more of this tomorrow.

Outside I hear that the see that the city is beginning to wake up, I’m hearing more traffic coming to life. Some people are going to work already. I just finished a marathon in my bedroom.

Just as I curl myself underneath the warm covers of my office, I take a moment to wonder where all this work was listed in the job description. Late nights, possible carpel tunnel syndrome, moments of hair pulling and minor panic attacks and underlying fears of how to fill up a newspaper every week, regardless what happens in the news that week.

But really, why do I even bother worrying about this? It’s a constant battle every week, and I haven’t lost yet after four years of warfare. I take on life’s unexpected challenges day-by-day, and I know that each day starts fresh, and so should I. I take it all in and move forward. I have more days in me, more than I know. There are so many more plays in me that I can write. And a lot more news stories too, I’m sure.

I chuckle as I think about the one key question bosses ask potential employees who apply for independent jobs like mine. I realize that I do, in fact, have the primary skill it takes to get this job done.

Self-motivator? Check.