The Agony and the Ecstasy


Every week, I put myself through the wringer. The most nerve-wracking day of any given week is a Monday when I have nothing written for my self-imposed deadline of Wednesday afternoon. My blank laptop screen stares back at me; I have nothing to write. Well, not nothing. But nothing that calls to me, “I must be written right now.” And I will tell no tale before its time.

I could write about birds, I tell myself. I could write about our boy dog that has a special affinity for peeing too close to my piano. I could write about the Great Yogurt Debate: Is it or isn’t it healthy for us? But, seriously, I would lose all my pro-yogurt friends. And friendship blood is thicker than yogurt, usually.

Sometimes, I put on my stretchy yoga pants to help me think. Because too much binding at the waist cuts off my creative circulation. I sip coffee or sweet cinnamon tea from my “Pronoun” mug, hoping my imagination cup will runneth over. If the house is too quiet while I wait for my always-tardy muse to show up, I put in a DVD of The Dick Van Dyke Show or Alex & Emma – anything portraying a writer with a deadline, to keep me company in my hour of need.

At 3 p.m. on an uninspired Monday, I decide to take a nap because the stress is too much for me. Then I do a little laundry. Pull a few weeds. Return some phone calls. Do the budget. Tear out some walls. Of course, I don’t vacuum; I will never use vacuuming as a diversion. That’s just crazy.

When I wrote for school newspapers, I was often assigned a story without having the luxury of choosing a topic. The college journalism room abounded with noise, fervor, and weirdness, as well as a lot of colorful language spewing forth as deadlines drew near. Duke, one of our reporters, would strut around the news room, clucking “In the Mood” like a chicken. Mr. Fishsticks, a sports writer, taught me not only about the layout of the paper, but how to tell time by the stars in the sky. And A.J. Foyt, our editor during my freshman year and a devout Razorback fan, often hollered “Woooooooo. Pig. Sooie!” when he felt especially inspired. I learned to write in the midst of delightful chaos. In my second year of college, I became co-editor of the paper with Barrett, a humble role model and talented poet. We worked well together, and she exemplified quiet strength to me.

Our ruthless journalism instructor was Napoleon. Okay, she wasn’t that bad, but she was strict. Which was exactly what I needed.

“Welcome to Journalism,” she said on my first day in class. “You can put away your notebook paper and your pens. From now on, you will type your stories.”

I gasped. From the beginning? I asked silently.

“No writing longhand and then typing it up; you will compose your stories as you type them, from beginning to end,” she answered my thoughts.

Napoleon’s demands forever changed my life as a writer. Her teaching me the art of writing at the keyboard saved me countless hours throughout my college career, and it has been the only way I write since.

Reporting on a wide variety of subjects, including the dangers of colchicine-laced marijuana, and Society Security benefits being in crisis, challenged me as a writer. The day I received my first “no comment” from an interviewee, while covering a controversial story at a different college, is forever etched in my mind. I was ecstatic; it was an All the President’s Men moment. My let’s-blow-the lid-off-this-thing attitude energized me and Jimmy Buffet, one of our talented photographers, as we drove back to our campus. We were ready for 20/20. And Barbara Walters was the journalist I wanted to emulate; she had chutzpah and asked the difficult questions. Barbara would be proud of me today, I told myself.

But feature stories interested me even more than breaking news. One of my most memorable interviews was with Mike Peters, creator of the comic strip Mother Goose and Grimm. He flew in to speak at our campus, and I interviewed him on our ride from the airport. As a gift, he drew Ronald Reagan on a huge poster for me and labeled it “Win one for the Gipper.” Also during college, I was able to interview Carl Mauck of the Houston Oilers; he was narrating Peter and the Wolf as a Houston Symphony presentation, and I was picked to cover the story.

Everything about reporting made me feel alive - deadlines, stress, always learning more, editing, weekly staff meetings. All of it. I was going to change the world one article at a time.

I still love the writing process, although some weeks it makes me crazier than usual. Sometimes I miss Napoleon assigning stories to me; the decision on what to write can take longer than writing the first half of the story.

Flash knows if he walks in and gets no response from me while my fingers are flying across my keyboard, I am in The Zone. Especially if it’s a Monday after 5 p.m.

“Hi,” he said when he walked in from work last Monday.

All he heard in response was clicking on a keyboard. He knows I’ll say “Hi” back when I’m at 1500 to 1700 words. And it’s okay.

Eventually, I figure out what to write for my Wednesday publication. It comes to me when I’m washing my hair, or driving, or have my hands covered in raw chicken. Anything that prevents me from running to the nearest Post-It note to jot down my revelation. And it comes after I’ve desperately prayed, God, please, show me what story to tell this week. I light a candle. I read scriptures. I sacrifice a half-gallon of Dryer’s ice cream. Whatever it takes. Although, I must caution you, dear reader: If you ask God to give you something to write about, He will. It might be the toilet clogging as you are leaving for the rodeo, and your dashing out of the bathroom with your new boots on. It might be the doctor, who’s treating your mother, coming too close to making a serious mistake and your having to tell him how to do his job better. It might be your walking out of a public restroom with a trail of toilet paper stuck to your shoe.

Or it might be your getting trapped inside your own car. In your driveway. While the alarm is blaring.

I was on the phone with my friend Jersey. “I’m sorry, Jersey, I can’t hear you right now. I can’t get out of my car.”

“What do you mean you can’t get out?”

“The alarm is going off, the doors won’t unlock, and pushing the button on the key fob is doing nothing.”

Flash and Cowboy came out to see what all the commotion was about. “I’m trapped,” I mouthed to my beloved, who turned and walked away after 30 seconds, leaving me with Stephen King’s Christine.

“Roll down the window,” Jersey suggested. I did. I tried the door handle from the outside, but was still trapped, trying to avoid climbing out like a stock-car driver.

“I may be here a while, Jersey. If I’m not at church tomorrow, you’ll know why.”

“That’s okay. We can bring our Sunday School class to you.”

I pictured myself spending the night in the Honda, surrounded by mosquitoes or fire ants or June bugs that decided to show up a little early in the season.

Finally, silence. The locks started working again. I phoned the fire department and cancelled my distress call.

“Why didn’t you rescue me, Flash?” I asked as I walked into the house.

“You were on your phone, so I knew you were fine. If you really need to be rescued, get off the phone next time.” Hmmm. Interesting criteria for a traumatic event. We’ll see who’s there for him next time he locks himself out of the house and decides to call me.

And, there you go. You pray for creative juices, you get a super-sized slushie of experiences. But sometimes, you get great subjects, like buying a $100 hammock for only $43 for Flash’s anniversary gift, in spite of his un-heroic behavior during the Car-Trapping Incident.

Until the end of time, and even in the hereafter, there will always be something to write about. Always a story to be told. Finding which story to tell, and when, is the challenge each week. So I pray. And I wait. And then, in the midst of life and noise and decisions and stress, there comes a quiet knowing in my heart which story must be shared. And with you along on this journey, dear reader, I’m up to the task.