Want to Write Non-Fiction? Get a Life!
by Ruby Bayan
The first time I saw my byline at the bottom of my own column in a glossy magazine, I rejoiced. "Wow! This is great! I'm a real writer! I'm a natural! I'll be rich! I'll be famous!"
Six issues and two newsletters afterwards, with another deadline staring me in the face, I found myself nervously pacing the floor, throwing pleading glances at my computer, and desperately grumbling, "What on earth am I going to write about now?" Gradually, my colorful visions of being a natural, heralding fortune and fame, faded into sepia images of nervous tension, destitution, and obscurity.
Get A Grip!
Freelance writing is undeniably an excellent career. You keep your time, you speak your mind, no door-to-door selling, no telemarketing, and no dress code. And the best part is you get paid for expressing yourself – pretty much like musicians, dancers, and talk show hosts.
I'm a non-technical, non-fiction writer by choice. Although I spent a good number of years drafting company profiles and product brochures for my employer, I have really always preferred inspirational writing – speak-from-the-heart articles that inform, teach, uplift, and motivate, all at the same time. Because it's easier? Not by a long shot.
Oh, I tried fiction writing. I thought that was easy – inventing characters and fabricating suspenseful or romantic twists and resolutions. But I discovered that my succinct attention span pulls me in a hundred different directions, leaving me undecided on the hero's temperament, iffy on the turn of events, not to mention inconsistent on the point-of-view. In short, back to non-fiction. A true-life, first-person-perspective, how-to article was much quicker to resolve. The challenge was giving it substance.
Common sense dictated: research. All I had to do was get some books, maybe talk to a few experts, and my well-written topic would be on its way. My library grew overnight. I chose material that caught my interest and read everything my time and money could afford. With reference books all around, my fingers went back to work. I whipped up a creative slant, threw in a word of advice, and voila! Piece of cake!
I got away with a few vicarious topics, sure, but I wasn't too happy about it. I stayed up at night, thinking, "How can I give my articles more depth? They lack the passion one can only express by having been in the thick of things – that voice of credibility – that first-hand experience. How can I motivate a reader to do something I haven't really done myself?"
Then I knew what I wanted to do. No one could stop me – I left my keyboard to climb a mountain. I figured, "That should be something to write about!"
And was it ever! It took a year to tone up this forty-something body into climbing form. So my articles at that time talked about fitness routines and energy boosters and a champion's attitude. I spoke with authority and my editor promptly published my work.
Then the moment of truth: my first climb. Suffice it to say, I almost died. After the second mountain, I decided to quit punishing myself and went back to my keyboard to write emotionally about the lessons, the trauma and distress.
But the mountaineering bug had bit me so I trekked again... and again... and so told a different story about perseverance, conquest, and camaraderie. I learned about survival and shared the importance of life-saving skills. I described numerous mental pictures of exotic scenery that touched my wandering soul. I translated into words the intense emotions that grip every weary climber, as he stands jubilant and exhilarated, high above the clouds. For years my writing moved and inspired both aspiring and veteran mountaineers to push on to meet new challenges. The first-hand experience paid off.
Get A Life!
Oh, no, I didn't always have to throw caution to the wind to get published. Alongside my self-inflicted tribulations over climbing-mountains-because-they're-there (and living to tell about it, thank heavens!), I still held my day job, and explored less fatal adventures. I visited Germany then wrote tips on how to enjoy a trip to a foreign land. I fell in love – you know how much one can write about that! (Come to think of it, that was near-fatal, too!) I grew a liking for Japanese food and deliberated on my sushi exploits. At the same time, I was raising a son, bonding with friends, relatives, and officemates, and coping with middle age. Yes, my marvelous editor published my inspirational how-to articles about those, too.
Now, here I am in a serious endeavor into full-time freelancing, pushing an article on how I needed to climb mountains to find the passion to speak from the heart. Oh, I would love to just have to sit all day, typing up anything that comes to mind... and have someone stuff me with royalty for my pure imagination.
But I have chosen the path of sharing information, and motivating and inspiring my readers – to teach a lesson, stir emotion, and urge to action – to improve the overall quality of life. Quite a tough calling for a writer, I must say. But it gives me a reason to get a life... and eagerly return to my editor to share a sincere word that would hopefully make a difference.
So, let me end this piece right here – I believe it's time to go and experience something new to write about. Did you know that Missouri has more than 5,000 caves?
[First published in Keystrokes Magazine, Feb 2000]