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American Journalism Review
This Magic Moment  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   July/August 1998

This Magic Moment   

While writing is a craft, flashes of inspiration are critical to making it special. Here's how some excellent writers position themselves to enhance communication with The Muse.

By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp ( began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.


O N A COON HUNT. IN A GRAVEYARD. Seeing an old woman handle her Bible. Imagining a child burned by a cigarette. Feeling scalding water run down your arm. Watching a giant rat terrorize a cat.
Inspiration zaps every writer from time to time, and it hits at peculiar places and odd moments. But it strikes, seemingly by magic, as it did cop-reporter-turned-author David Simon at the scene of a child's murder.
While researching his first book, ``Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets," Simon stumbled across a graphic metaphor for the racking frustration the case was causing detectives.
``Nothing was going right," says Simon. ``They weren't getting any leads. They were having no luck at all, but I couldn't just write that they were having no luck. We were in this alley, behind where the little girl had been found, and this huge, huge rat was walking down the alley and came across a cat, and the cat actually backed away from the rat. I knew then that this was going into the book. It was God-given."
Novelist Patricia Cornwell, like Simon a former police reporter, sponged up inspiration on a recent hunting trip. ``You always have to go out and enter the world you are writing about," Cornwell says. So in researching a forthcoming novel she found herself ``coon hunting with some good old boys," running a tape recorder in the dark and soaking up every new sensory image she could absorb.
At such moments, Cornwell says, it's as if ``you see something for the first time ever, and you think you're the only person in the world who has ever noticed it. Suddenly the magic just lights up all the circuits in the brain."
A onetime Charlotte Observer reporter, Cornwell now writes bestselling suspense novels featuring medical examiner Kay Scarpetta. She constantly primes herself for those ``creative bursts" that can surprise her at any time.
Cornwell, Simon and all other writers know that writing is hard labor. It demands nonstop attention to the nuts and bolts of process. But while this proper craft may lead to good work, great writing seems also to require something more, the spark of inspiration, some mighty artistic leap that elevates the adequate toward the sublime.
Let's call it magic. A great secret of writing is to unite the creative, right-brained world of magic with the methodical, left-brained world of craft.
Too often, reporters see these avenues as competitive. Many newsrooms, for instance, seem divided into camps, ``worker bees" vs. ``artistes," squared off and hostile. The key, instead, is to bring the two approaches together and draw on the best from each area.
For most writers, this means seeking the secrets that encourage magic to strike. Cornwell calls it the ``going-through-the-looking-glass experience."
Whatever they call it, writers recognize magic when it jolts them. The moment can be short and precise, an idea flashing into their heads as they stand in the shower, cruise along the freeway or flip through a notebook. Or it can last longer, a magical transportation into a creative zone where words and ideas pour smoothly into the patterns of literature, a writing frenzy that sets in unannounced and flees without warning in an exasperating poof.
Sometimes it comes during reporting, other times while writing. Sometimes engaging the material helps. Other times getting away from it is the key.
Rick Bragg, a Pulitzer-winning national correspondent for the New York Times, felt the magic strike while interviewing 87-year-old Oseola McCarty, a Mississippi laundry woman who amassed $150,000 and then gave it away. As McCarty held an ancient Bible, Bragg experienced his own epiphany.
``I was seeing the pages of her dilapidated, falling-apart Bible stretching up over her old hands," Bragg recalls. ``I thought she's so frugal she won't even replace her Bible. The most important part of her was her God, and she didn't even replace his words."
The third paragraph of his page one article read, ``She spent almost nothing, living in her old family home, cutting the toes out of shoes if they did not fit right and binding her ragged Bible with Scotch tape to keep Corinthians from falling out." Says Bragg, ``I could have not written another line, and people would have known what I was talking about."
Tamara Jones of the Washington Post recalls a profile of circus legend Elvin Bale, now disabled after an accident during the ``human cannonball" act. Her storyline, the agony of lost glory, hit her as she was ``hanging out at the circus with him," observing Bale watch another performer do his old act.
``I tend to do a lot of writing in my head before I ever sit down to write," Jones explains. ``And I talk to people all the time. I'll whine and bellyache all through the process. I'll go to editors all the time and demand that they tell me what my story is."
Jones then prefers to write quickly, ``from my mind," rather than from her notes.
Sometimes immersing oneself in material often brings on the magic. At other times seeking distance from it seems to unclog the creative veins. Alice Steinbach, a Baltimore Sun reporter, author and Pulitzer winner, tries both approaches.
Steinbach reads to prepare herself for writing. ``Reading good writing is a great tonic for me. It reminds me of how great good writing can be," she says. ``It helps me form in my head an idea for what I want the voice to be, the tone, whether it is going to be jaunty or wry or just trying to illuminate a character."
Steinbach also scatters pads of paper around her home and office for those instants when ideas pop into her mind. ``I find myself literally waking up in the middle of the night and wanting to write something down," she says. ``I usually do my best thinking when I'm not at the computer."
Once, while working on a project about a young burn victim, Steinbach accidentally poured boiling water on her own hand. ``It wasn't terrible, but it hurt like hell for a day and a half," she remembers. ``It was a tiny thing, but it gave me some deeper feelings. All I could think about was, `How did he live through all that pain?' "
Eventually Steinbach buries herself in the material. ``I look like a crazed person. I send notes to my editor and tell her I haven't combed my hair in four days, and I'm wearing mismatched shoes. You live and breathe and eat this stuff."
Denise Reaman of Pennsylvania's Allentown Morning Call remembers one story where she did much of her living and breathing in a cemetery. She worked for several months on a piece about a murder case, often returning to the victim's gravesite for what she calls ``sensory reporting." Reaman likes to experience as many feelings as she can while working on a story. ``The best work that I do is when I really open up not just my ears but my eyes and my nose and my sense of touch. You have to take the story on a more personal level."
On her visits to the graveyard, she would often just sit and notice the trees, the wind, the flower arrangements, making notes about what she saw and what she felt. ``It's more than just a story," Reaman says. ``Part of me is going into it."
As writers talk about these habits that inspire them, they often use language that seems mystical and abstract. But their actions--like visiting a graveyard or finding a comfortable place to write--are very much down to earth. Like most other magic, the magic of writing is grounded in hard work, a painstaking effort to raise the odds that inspiration will occur.
David Simon, for instance, believes in massive reporting followed by obsessing over the material, followed by last-minute writing marathons to make deadline. Simon, whose latest book is ``The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood," is a producer and writer for the NBC drama ``Homicide."
Sometimes, through exhaustive reporting, he lucks into ``something beautifully symbolic or relevant," the kind of detail that drives narrative writing, like the rat-cat encounter in the alley.
When he needs ``to turn a make it shine," Simon tends to transcribe his notes into a computer file, then pace and ponder and agonize until the writing flows.
``It's really letting the stuff percolate and walking around and thinking about it," he says. ``My wife says when I'm in this state I'm unreachable. If I'm driving and thinking about a story, I miss my exit."

W HILE MANY WRITERS SPEAK OF inspiration as arriving ``out of the blue," as though it comes by chance from somewhere outside and beyond, they also acknowledge that in reality it may be far less capricious. A writer's lifestyle and work habits can directly raise the prospects of arousing the magic. If you want to attract lightning, you might go stand under a tall tree in a thunderstorm. If you want to invoke the muses, you need to pinpoint what prompts their presence. You need to make yourself into a walking antenna that is best calibrated to intercept their messages.
There is no foolproof system. But the likelihood of success increases exponentially with hard work and effort. To help, writers consider various settings and mindsets: Time and place. Many writers feel more likely to be inspired at special times and in special places. When they need inspiration, they seek out such settings.
Rick Bragg likes to write late at night, ``when it's quiet." Alice Steinbach works better in the morning, staring at deadline. Denise Reaman carries her notes and story files wherever she goes, to stay close to the material. And, like many writers, she says, ``I dream a lot about it. I wake up and say, `I've got to do it this way.' "
So attached to her comfort zone is Patricia Cornwell that she makes duplicate sets of her notes and keeps one at each of her three homes. She likes to write where she sleeps, near the people in her fictional world. ``I get up and get my coffee and go into the room and say hello to the people in that world before I do anything else," Cornwell says.

  • Constant alertness. Regardless of how long they actually sit at their terminals, most writers consider themselves on duty 24 hours a day, always ready for a magic moment. Cornwell recalls relaxing on a beach in Florida, watching pelicans dining on small fish. ``They were gargling them down just like old boys throwing back bourbon at the bar," she observed. It struck her as such a good image that she quickly recorded it in the journal she carries everywhere. Rick Bragg constantly asks himself, ``What does this remind me of? What is this like?" He once described an aging prisoner's mental lapses as being like flies going through the hole of a screen door--an image out of his Southern childhood.
  • Shifting perspectives. Patricia Cornwell sometimes gets caught up in listening to people around her. ``Your ear has to always be listening in tune," she says. ``Somebody may be talking about crab cakes, and I'll be taking notes. Little do they know that this conversation will be carried around the world."
    Cornwell thinks of the process as entering ``another world. You get there through your emotion--the joy, the grief, the fear you feel when you are actually doing the research."
  • Motion and stillness. Bragg walks around the block pondering a lead; Simon wanders away from the computer when he gets stuck. Moving, walking, exercising all seem to restir the brain cells.
    So, in a different way, do stillness and reflection. Concentrated thinking time may be one of the writer's most underused powers, so difficult is it to come by inside a newsroom. Too often, a writer lost in thought is regarded as unengaged, an easy target for an editor who needs something done. But Bragg insists that many stories are ``in your mind. I close my eyes and I think back to the scene.... I think about the surroundings. And I ask myself, always, `What is it like?' "
    Whatever their preferred rites and procedures, outstanding writers seem to find ways to benefit from both craft and magic, merged ultimately into a unified approach. Hard work and attention to technique move along a parallel track with magical ceremonies and runic rules. Together they fuse discipline and creativity into excellence.
    Writing, it seems, is not just a way of working but a way of life. ``Your writing is a relationship," says Cornwell. ``If you have a partner or a child or a loved one in your world, you can be doing anything and something will remind you of them--maybe it's the way a little kid wears a cap in the 7-Eleven or the cologne somebody's wearing when they brush past you on the street.
    ``If your writing is a relationship," she says, ``part of you is always living with it."



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