In this series I’m going to be exploring what makes for an enduring and satisfying (and sometimes remunerative) business life in writing. I want to explore, with some of the best writers in our state weighing in, how a person of any age can get serious about making writing a lifetime career. Of course young people are thinking of this, but those whose life has changed or even seniors can take up a career like this with knowledge and a lot of dedication.
I’m not primarily talking in this series of essays about recreational writing, though that is intertwined with serious career writing. I’m not necessarily talking about making a living through all one’s years—though that does happen to many people. What I want to explore is how writing can “get serious,” take multiple directions from writing successful fiction to working on newspapers and on sites on the net to a variety of other writing channels. I want to cover how it can take a political bent, how it can become a springboard to other responsibilities in various enterprises, how it will evolve and change. I’ll be utilizing recognized writers from Indiana to add their own career suggestions. Most of all, I’m interested in what kinds of aptitudes and talents one needs, and even more than that, what are the work habits and inspirations that propel a career in writing forward.
I want to start with one person I consider able to express himself felicitously as well as succinctly in writing. I’m inspired by a certain column in a recent Indianapolis Sunday Star. I’m talking about John Ketzenberger, head of the Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute. I can’t say I know him personally, though we did speak on the phone a couple of time when he was IBJ editor and I headed Guild Press. With all of the “think tank” responsibilities he now has, John just can’t seem to resist writing pithy, well structured, well reasoned and interesting pieces for The Star and other places. His commentaries on the popular Friday night public broadcasting channel’s “Indiana Week in Review,” too, sound as if he were writing them in an orderly way in his head. He’s cautious in his opinion and basically fair minded. He backs up points he makes with specifics. He goes “away back” in his writing career: he was a business columnist for the Star and Managing Editor of Indianapolis Business Journal and has done lots of other writing. John seems an admirable candidate for analyzing a lifelong career in writing.
What I’m wanting to look at in this blog are the attitudes one must possess, or cultivate, to really be a success in public forum writing. Looking at this column and John’s lengthy career, what I know of it, can give me a jumping-off place in trying to convey basic attitudes, and some skills, which predict success for a career in writing. I haven’t involved him in this; I want to look just as what he’s put on the printed page and done in other media.
The piece I’m looking at, “Binford kept Indy on track” is a posthumous tribute. He begins with an anecdote; he is wandering in Crown Hill Cemetery. He’s climbing the hill to James Whitcomb Riley’s tomb through masses of color on flowering trees, when he sees the grave of the man who has a boulevard named after him, steward of the 500 Mile Race and civic leader par excellence: Tom Binford. Talk about invocation! In one paragraph Katzenberger has plucked at the strings of Indianapolis recognition with the most beautiful cemetery (lots of us think) in America, the feelings of retrospective city appreciation one gets looking at tombs and tombstones of those who built our city, and the Hoosier Poet every child grows up revering.
Then he moves into re-creating, vividly, what race day was like before the zoomies and TV sets made it high-tech. He interviews a sports anchor from a local station who makes that roaring and exciting day of the 60s, 70s and 80s come to life. He follows the history of Binford, who was a consensus builder, honest deal-maker and civic magician to boot—who pulled rabbits out of the hat several times to save major enterprises in the city. Binford is described with reverence and a heap of specific information and lives again through this piece of writing.
So what can we take from this about attitudes toward writing (and living) that mark successful career writers? I’m talking beyond this one piece to the hundreds of pieces of writing Ketzenberger has done that I’m aware of, and that have a small share in shaping the city.
- He is comfortable in automatically utilizing basic journalistic skills: use of selected specific detail, going point by point to make a case with several sources and direct quotes, lively four-color writing which sets scenes and carries us into the moment. It’s an attitude of professionalism garnered through years of training and practice. Know and respect your profession and practice its best teachings!
- He meticulously explores meaningful subjects for his community. Surely meticulous care about that subject keeps him interested and interesting and can, and has, propelled him upwards in his career. Deal in what counts and know what you are talking about!
- In this piece he shifts like a panoramic camera around his subject using all the tools of vivid writing I’ve mentioned above to capture the reader, bring that reader directly into the picture and to convince him or her. Make it interesting!
- There is a sense of deeper meaning, life exploration, in a lot of his writing, including the Crown Hill piece. Cultivate perspective and meaning. Take the reader into long-term questions and answers and point him on the road to personal—and community— self examination.
Beyond John, we’ll look at other successful writers’ attitudes that have helped make their writing a career path.
Nancy Baxter is Senior Editor at Hawthorne Publishing and the author of eleven books mostly about Indiana