Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The Soul of a Writer

Last week, one of my journalism professors called me a “writer.” But she didn’t stop there. She accused me of having “the soul of a writer.” That was all very nice and I was, of course, flattered and humbled. I happen to have a great deal of admiration and respect for her… she has been (journalistically) where I have yet to travel. Although I know, based on my grades in her class, I am able to competently write news; it was not my news writing that she was talking about.

Through a series of events that are not all that important, she recently became aware of my blog and has had occasion to stop by here and read some of my “free-form” writing. It is decidedly not news writing. Indeed, I’m not quite sure how I would categorize it. Be that as it may, her observation wasn’t exactly all that surprising. In all humility - and I have written about this before – I know that I am a writer, and a pretty good one at that. But the soul of a writer? Ok, I’ll take it.

What was surprising is that she said it was a quality that she did not possess. Huh? She said in class once that she has wanted to be a journalist since she was a kid. She’s been writing – for money – for many years. She is a writer! How is it that I could have the “soul of a writer” when she didn’t?

So this all has been bouncing around in my head for about a week now. It’s making me think – something I already do far too much of. I began to compare the different kinds of writing and what it is that makes good writing in the various genres stand out.

Is it “soul?” Do some forms of writing need it while others don’t? Is there a difference between an author and a writer? How about a journalist and a reporter? What distinguishes an essayist from a columnist? These and other sorts of writing are vastly different from each other – but the bottom line is that a writer writes. I am better at some forms of writing than others… and yes, some forms require something special.

In news writing, there are a number of rules. Some, like spelling and grammar, are applied pretty much across the board. Other rules or “style” are no less rigid but may vary depending on the publication one is writing for. Most use the Associated Press (AP) style. Furthermore, news writing doesn’t allow for bias, ambiguity and opinion. There is no use of the first-person – ever. The writer can’t be in the story. I know, I know – save it. No one is perfect, especially Fox News.

The point is that given the facts, the quotes, the attribution and the research, the “art” of news writing is much more mechanical than that of, say, a column or an essay. The flow is top-down. We give it all up in the lead - who, what, why, where, when and how. It’s called a reverse pyramid, the detail becomes less and less important towards the end of the story. There is no room for flair, build-up or suspense. Leave your profundity at the door - this is news.

Profile and feature articles have a little less rigidity, but they too are dictated by rules. Although I enjoy writing them slightly more than straight news – it is still not among my preferred genres. I like news for reasons other than the writing. I like the discovery, the curiosity and, of course, the power. The writing, others’ and mine, represents a vehicle. The beauty is in the accurate, efficient, coherent and responsible transmission information.

News writing doesn’t allow for self-expression, that is not its purpose. Clever vocabulary, grammatically complicated - but correct 100-word sentences have no place in news writing. News writing comes off the street, not out of my head. Is there “soul” in news writing? Maybe not, but the passion of getting the story and getting it right – the soul of the journalist certainly does exist.

It is interesting that I can rattle off these 800-odd words and be relatively happy with their arrangement, their flow and their purpose in one sitting - in just about one hour. But when I have to follow the rules of news writing, I struggle and re-write… I throw my hands up and come back to it… it just plain doesn’t come easy – and that’s after the “reporting” part is finished. It could take hours to write 800 little words. I might be good at it – someday, but I’m still learning.

I usually don’t title these posts until I’m all done and staring at the blank title field. I knew what title of this one was going in...


Anonymous said...


Its always been evident to me that you have the soul of a writer. It seems to me that writing from the soul, writing what comes from within can't be compared to journalistic writing at all.

Journalism is a learned skill, it can be taught in a class, it can be mastered over time.

Soul writing happens naturally. There are words inside that need to come out. A story needs to be told. A feeling needs to be described.

Maybe I'm being too simplistic. I think poetry comes from the soul and novels come from the mind. Free from writing comes from the soul. Journaling or blogging can be both combined.

I don't know if I have the soul of a writer, but I think I have a writer's soul. I think you have both.

Biker Betty said...

I always enjoy your writing. It's interesting, thought-provoking & humorous where needed. It doesn't surprise me that your journalism teacher would tell you that.

Lee Ann said...

I think you do an excellent job.
Just take in mind...we all are still learning (hopefully 'til the day we die)!
Have a wonderful day!

JR said...

Good reflection and analysis of the various writing forms. I agree you have the soul of a writer. People who think in words, words that easily flow and fall naturally into place forming pictures and stories, those are natural born writers. I started out as a poet, progressed to essayist, dabbled in reporting, and understand the different voices and mechanics involved in each. When a person recognizes your soul as that of a writer, it should be a compliment that the identity of your essence is so articulate that no one could mistake you for anything else. My daughter has the soul of an artist. She thinks in colors, images, emotions, words don't come easy to her. I think when people recognize who we are at our core, it brings a sense of comfort, confirming who we also believe ourselves to be. I feel I am beginning to ramble, hope this all made sense.

Snaggle Tooth said...

The free-style of the blog-flow, as in this public-journal-forum is also what I find easiest.
Getting back to the planned fiction projects without tossing it out after hours of work can be far more difficult, but the product of fun in the finished product is the same.

If you must do it n can't live without it, do it in your dreams, n even without the machine n paper to put it on,
The words become YOU!

awareness said...

I believe all good writing comes from the soul.........whether it's balanced journalistic writing, or poetry or opinion pieces........whether it's a novel or a short story......the words all form in our soul because that is where creative emotion ferments. One does not leave ones heart out of the equation when writing a news piece no matter how hard you try.

I also don't think good journalism can be taught. The mechanics of how to write the story to fit the tableau, yes, but not the words.

Different forms of writing require different thinking patterns......which make the writing a different experience......more difficult, more personally satisfying etc.........

I thoroughly enjoy your writing style, Mike. You have a gifted soul.

Michael K. Althouse said...

Barb ~ Sometimes I look at where i am today and wonder what happened... things like my wreck and so much more seem almost like another lifetime. Yet, at the same time I can feel every moment of my struggle to get to this point... and now my difficulties are decidedly different.

Perhaps all that was in preparation for all this...

BB ~ Thank you, the surprising part was not what she said that I had, but that she didn't.

lee ann ~ Isn't there a Limp Bizkit song that says as much... "Life is a lesson, you learn it when you're through..."

vv ~ please, ramble here all you want! I get what you're saying, and I agree - however much I don't want to.

snag ~ good to hear from you! I think without the experience, the words - if I could find them at all, would be meaningless.

dana ~ I agree to a point. Really good journalism only come through practice. But I don't know if it's the same quality involved. I think a journalists' drive is every bit as inspired, but it is not manifested so much in the writing as in the compilation. Maybe it is the same thing..

Lady Prism said...

yep' are a soul stir something from within through your words..not every one can pen that way...that's energy..and you got it!