The Freelancing Life

It's early for Valentine's Day, but never too early for love stories, and I have one for you, in this month's issue of the new Hallmark Magazine. See that story on the bottom right? "true love." That's me and a few other writers who have shared stories of "How We Met" in this month's Hallmark.

As a freelancer who pulls from several wells to make a living, I especially love magazine writing and the essay form; I cut my writing teeth on personal essays (or personal narrative, as I tell my students). As a human being telling stories, I especially love love stories. Real love stories.

So, when Hallmark said, "Five-hundred words on how-we-met, can you do it?" I said, "You bet." Famous last words! As I sat down with my notebook and began brainstorming -- the prelude to almost all my writing -- I realized, before I even began a draft, that writing a publishable 500 words was akin to writing a publishable picture book manuscript, and every word was going to count -- every word.

Try writing just 500 words about a topic you are passionate about -- a large topic, too, because we met twice, Jim and I, once when we were teenagers, and again when we were in our forties, and both meetings are crucial to the story I wanted to tell.

How would I narrow it down to the essentials and still keep a narrative arc? How would I choose just the right focus that would give me the most bang for my story-buck? How to connect with readers on an emotional level in 500 words? How do you do it? I find it helps if you have a good teacher, or editor, which I did. We did good work together. And today, the magazine came.

So we celebrated, at my house. (Well, my editor wasn't here, but my new husband -- he of the how-we-met -- and I were here, along with a couple of guys hanging out on the roof, and two cats. That's enough for a party.)

I grated some cheddar, whipped some eggs and milk, and baked a vegetable pie using yesterday's leftover stir-fried beets, turnips, onion, broccoli and cauliflower.

And I basked in the beauty of the car house that Jim Williams and Stoney Vance are roofing with tin today. See my shadow? ("Wanna see my essay?" "Nah, that's okay... we're workin' with tin here...")

Now it's the end of the day. The river rock is in place, the workers are gone, the pie is eaten, the sun is setting, and the story is in print. First line: "He wore wingtips."

So... one more story out there in the world, to be shared. And isn't that what it's all about -- sharing our stories. For me, telling stories is a way to make a living, as it's what calls to me most strongly. Writing these stories makes me braver in the world, somehow. It's the way I understand myself and the world around me. Richard Rhodes said it in his book HOW TO WRITE: "Story is the primary vehicle human beings use to structure knowledge and experience." Yeah. Somethin' like that.

When I taught "Writing Techniques for Teachers" at Towson University, I used to invoke the words of Mrs. Frizzle of THE MAGIC SCHOOLBUS:
"Take Chances. Make Mistakes. Get Messy." It's what I tell fourth graders when I'm teaching personal narrative writing and showing them my messy notebooks. It's what I told the fourth graders at Mantua Elementary last week. And, bless their hearts, they made a mess. A joyful mess.

I showed them my drafts, too. I did three major revisions of this 500-word story for Hallmark, all of them messy. I had a great Mrs. Frizzle, my Hallmark editor. And I just kept trying to structure my experience, figure out what I had learned -- what knowledge did I have, if any, and how could I tell this short story from the deepest place I could touch? I believe story comes from what you know, what you feel, and what you can imagine. And I love the challenge of writing short.

So... if you've got your notebook: write 500 words about how you met your sweetheart. One of your sweethearts. Your child! A best friend. An enemy. Remember: What you know, what you feel, and what you can imagine. Show, don't tell. And have fun. It's just for you. See what comes up. As you write, keep in mind these words by poet Mary Oliver:

“To live in this world, you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.”