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Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Cultivating A New Arts Writing Format

I'm a sucker for non-fiction books
about women's friendships,
or compilations of letters,
or North Carolina history.
So this book hit all three.
March 1974

"The Observer dropped my column several years ago. They wanted the space for a staff member to do a how-to column. He calls me to ask the answers to the questions. I was heartbroken at first, because I found to my amazement that a weekly column is the most delightful way to write. You don't have to hold yourself down to any lengthy subject but you can go into whatever interests you at the moment. Then I learned so much, by being asked about so many things I didn't know, and having to find out. And the instant response is so stimulating; I would go to St. Peter's at eight, and someone would already have read the morning paper, and would comment or disagree, or have something to add."
~Elizabeth Lawrence

I couldn't help but chuckle when I read this passage in 2 Gardeners: A Friendship in Letters, a collection of over twenty years worth of correspondence between Katharine S. White (editor and writer at The New Yorker and wife of author E.B. White) and Elizabeth Lawrence (A Southern Garden author and garden columnist for the Charlotte Observer).

I loved the whole thing and could go on about any subject, but the reason I chuckled at that particular passage has to do with my own writing, both as the editor and a columnist at The Marbury Project, hosted by The Clyde Fitch Report*, and here on my blog.

You see, I agree with Elizabeth's feeling that a weekly column is the best form of writing for the public. And that writing within a given area--but given complete freedom on particular topic--is a fantastic way to learn and grow. Today, Elizabeth might be an avid garden blogger: answering questions from readers, posting pictures of her daffodils on Instagram, keeping a running Excel spreadsheet with flower dates submitted by avocational growers across the country. She did all of this on paper, in long-hand, and published in the newspaper fifty years ago. (She also wrote many books on gardening, on which she often collaborated with other gardeners and illustrators.)

I grew up in newspaper reporting; my high school and college experiences both included stints writing and editing for the school newspapers. But I've always thought about blogging as not like newspaper reporting. Either a blogger is too personal, the blog serving as a sort of public diary, or the blog is a "how-to column," 5 tips for this or 6 easy steps for that.

Both types of blogs have their place, absolutely; I've written them. But the writing I enjoy doing (and reading) is the newspaper columnist style: a lot of research to educate the reader about a topic, with a liberal dose of experience and personality thrown in to make the reader feel like a friend.

Most of the theater or arts blogs I read regularly (or try to, anyway, there are so many) fall into the latter category: how-to do [insert arts focus here]. And quite a few of them are... let's say they leave me discouraged about the field. I am a bit Pollyanna-ish when it comes to the power of the performing arts to change lives, so to read writing that bemoans the state of affairs without giving positive stories as well leaves me drained (and turning to gardening books to take my mind off of it).

I do want to start writing here regularly. Perhaps Elizabeth's old once-a-week column format would serve me well. Katharine edited quite regularly but only wrote every few months, much like what I do over at Marbury. I'll stick to the performing arts (mostly). I'll start doing a bit more research. I'll even throw in a how-to piece every once in a while.

And if you know of another overly optimistic arts blogger I should follow, do let me know! Or if there is a particular question you have about theater in North Carolina or women/mothers in the arts, drop me a line.

*I should note that most of the monthly columns at The Clyde Fitch Report are in the journalist/columnist mode. So very well worth reading, every one, and I'd say that even if I didn't work there.