On Assignment

Grandpa and Fire
My Grandpa doesn’t need a kick in the butt to get moving; he has a thing to do and he just does it, no excuses.

During these last four months of starting my own business as a writing mentor while continuing to work on my own stories and articles, I have struggled to figure out how to find my next story and where to send it.

I admire literary journalists, including the well-known and fairly local Tracy Kidder, who lives Northampton, Ma.; the illustrious and risky Ted Conover, who is my favorite of them all; Nicole LeBlanc, who gave up almost a decade of her life to write about a crime family; and Rebecca Skloot, who persisted to discover who Henrietta Lacks was for years, until she finally wrote a book about the woman and her family, and the family was given what they deserved.

But I struggle with finding and seeking out journalistic stories. I seem to just not know where to start, or I have so many ideas that they overwhelm the pages of my journal, and even the Word Document sources on the computer. My ideas are innumerable; as I’ve said often, I suffer from the opposite of Writer’s Block: I have Writer’s Overwhelm. Maybe it’s a kind of Manic Disorder, or a figment of ADHD, or maybe it’s got something to do with anxiety. Whatever the reason, I have ideas, and often too many.

So, I decided to gather the few narrative journalism pieces that I’ve written and figure out what they all have in common.

Three pieces come to mind:


  1. The Multiple Partnership (A profile piece about a couple, where one is monogamous, and the other is polyamorous. The piece also studies utopias, a Pagan group, and analyzes fear and selfishness)
  2. The Open Pantry (A profile piece about a young mother living in a group home)
  3. Not a Strip Club (Another profile piece about a woman in her 20s who works as a shot girl, not a stripper)

The one thing these all have in common? Every single one began as a class assignment. School gave me a reason, and therefore permission, to explore my own dark questions, and to branch out and speak to others as well.

  1. The Multiple Partnership arose from a magazine writing class that I took at UMass Amherst. The instructor gave us many exercises, but one of them was to write a list of ideas that really interested us. And then to choose just one and come up with questions we had about this idea, and then to go out in the world and try to answer our question. Mine began with Relationships. After talking to a woman who had been single for a long time (because in my interest with relationships, I decided that I didn’t want one and should talk to people who were alone) my teacher asked me what I was really interested in about it, and I realized that I didn’t know how couples stay together. That was my ultimate question.

    So I started looking for someone to talk to, and then I heard of polyamory, a dating style where one person dated a few people at a time and vice versa. A couple of people in the pagan group that I was part of were dating, and one of them was polyamorous. Sensing the conflict in this relationship, I asked if I could interview them about it, and they said yes.

  2. The Open Pantry began from a community journalism class that I took with Nicholas McBride. He asked us to come up with a list of ideas with a partner and drive into Springfield, Ma.. I went with my partner Lyndsey (who drove through several Stop signs by accident—she was always a very entertaining, if somewhat dangerous friend) and we stopped at a few places, such as a local restaurant where I had my first gyro for lunch, and the Teen Living Program. This last place is where I was offered a job teaching writing to young mothers, and of course I said yes.

    A little while later, while talking to my advisor Norman Sims, he suggested that I ask to write a story about one of the girls for my honors thesis, and when I did, the director agreed that it was fine. The class sent me out into the world looking for a project, and I got a job teaching. Then, my advisor took a look at what I was doing every day and that job offered me a story to tell.

  3. Not a Strip Club was a small assignment given by John Calderazzo while I was at Colorado State University. I can’t remember the exact prompt, but I’d been visiting this nightclub for a few weeks, and I had burning questions to ask the shot girls, who wore nothing but lingerie and cowboy hats, and this gave me a reason to ask, and a task to complete.

The thing that always trips me up, and perhaps rightfully so, is: Where will I send the thing that I write? And this is the reason that I’ve been collecting and reading magazines, studying their content like a madwoman so I can get the recipe just right. If I can just figure this out, go out and find a thing that sounds like something worth writing about, then I can query an editor and hope they get back to me with some instructions or at least a go-ahead; anything to let me know that I should pursue the idea I’ve offered. Once there, I know I’ll do it, because I always have.

Do you need permission to write or work on your art? What helps you get started? What keeps you going to the end? Do you do things for the finished project, or are you more focused on the journey?

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