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Telling Our Stories: You Are a Writer

Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Mary Schmich on finding your story


Part of the Vitality Arts Special Report

(Editor’s note: This piece by Mary Schmich, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Chicago Tribune, is part of a series of essays in conjunction with Next Avenue’s Telling Our Stories initiative, inviting readers to submit their own personal essays.)

When I was in seventh grade, my teacher, Mrs. Jean O’Neal, scribbled a life-changing sentence on top of one of my essays. I don’t remember the essay topic — she routinely assigned us to write on such weighty issues as “If I Were a Millionaire” and “If I Had 24 Hours to Live” — but I do remember her scribbled comment: “You could be a writer.”

I felt a jolt of revelation. A writer? Me? She had uncovered my secret desire even before I’d named it, and by naming it, she helped it to come true.

By the time I was in college, I still felt the itch to write, but write what? What did it mean to be a writer anyway? That you liked to play with words? That you had something worthwhile to say? That you had no practical skills?

In a creative writing class, a professor nailed my problem with yet another scribbled comment. “You certainly can write,” he said. “All you need to do is find your story.”

I’m not sure I would have found my story if I hadn’t found work at a newspaper.

Newspapers provided the thing many could-be writers need most. No, not inspiration. Inspiration is overrated. What many of us need is a deadline and an assignment.

Fear Is Normal

By now, I’ve written thousands of stories and columns, and people often ask, “Does it get easier or harder?” The answer is both. Three times a week, I sit down to write a column with the same elation and the same dread: What if this is the time I just can’t do it? And then I do it.

Through the years, I’ve developed some tools for pushing through the fear. The first is to understand that fear is normal. One of my self-invented mantras is “Panic is my muse.”

Writing lets you explore your mind and what’s outside it, lets you be a tour guide for others.

Here are a few other ideas that help me get it done:

Where to begin your piece? Maybe you have one great sentence running through your head that sums up what you want to say. Start there. A story is a good way to start, too, as long as you can connect it to your larger point. (See Mrs. Jean O’Neal above.) Talk your idea through with one smart friend and listen to what you say and how you say it. Write that down. Lie in bed when you wake up and let your lucid morning mind tell you where to start.

Where to end? If you’re struggling with that question, look back at your beginning and consider how you might connect it to your end.

Remember that writing for the public isn’t the same as writing in a journal. You can write a story that’s very specific to you, full of the details that make a story come alive, but add a sentence here or there that lifts the details into wider meaning.

It’s been said that the secret to writing is staying in the chair, but sometimes staying in the chair staring at the screen is a waste of time. Take a walk. Read a poem. Do yoga. Breathe. Sit back down.

The first time you think you’re done, you’re not. Walk away from your brilliant creation. Come back. Be appalled. Revise. But don’t revise so much you miss the deadline.

It’s been half a century since I was in seventh grade, and I’m amazed every day that Mrs. O’Neal’s dream for me came true. Looking back, at the age of 66, I realize that my desire to write was really a desire to travel and to connect with the world.

Telling Our Stories spot art

Writing lets you explore your mind and what’s outside it, lets you be a tour guide for others. My exploration now often involves the mysteries and inevitabilities of getting old. What does it mean and how does it feel to routinely lose people you love, to keep your balance in a changing world, to become suddenly obsessed with trees?

Those of you accepting this Next Avenue challenge are lucky. You’ve got an assignment. And a deadline (August 31). So it’s time to stop thinking about writing and write. Go find a spot that makes you happy. Sit down. Let yourself hear the words: You are a writer.

Mary Schmich was born in Savannah, Ga.  She earned a B.A. at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. and attended journalism school at Stanford University. She has worked as a reporter at The Peninsula Times Tribune in Palo Alto, Calif., The Orlando Sentinel and since 1985, at The Chicago Tribune. She spent five years as a Tribune national correspondent based in Atlanta. Mary has written a column for The Chicago Tribune since 1992, except for the year she spent at Harvard University on a Nieman fellowship for journalists. She won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary.

From 1985 to 2010,  she wrote the “Brenda Starr” comic strip. She plays piano and mandolin and teaches yoga. She is also the author of the hit “Wear Sunscreen” by Baz Luhrmann, which is based on one of her columns. 

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