Monday, August 31, 2009

The closing door

By Amanda Gillooly
BLB Guest Blogger

In Stephen King’s book “On Writing,” I learned that he believed that while every wordsmith has her own style and method of composing, one rule of thumb is essential: Write with the door closed and edit with the door opened. That was like a ray of light to my career in newspapers. I stopped questioning my leads and running them in front of my peers. I think King was trying to advise me and other young writers to follow our collective guts when it came to storytelling.

I was lucky enough at the Observer-Reporter to work with reporters who never tried to point out what was wrong – only what could be improved. And through all those edits and all those stories, I stopped questioning myself so much as a writer. Mistakes are the reason the delete key was invented, after all. I was able to finally be writing clean and tight – two skills that had eluded me all those years since.

And here I am, sitting on my couch, looking at a box full of court transcripts and handwritten letters from a young man imprisoned at 17 for a crime he says he didn’t commit. I was super excited to be a part of the Innocence Institute again. I worked on its flagship investigation and received credit for the series, which ran in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. I’ve been over every piece of paper. I’ve made lists of notes. I’ve read manuals and done research online to understand some of the legal things I just couldn’t wrap my brain around.

Then, last weekend, I visited this now-32 year-old man’s parents and younger brothers. I sat with them for two hours and in the midst of our conversation the phone rang. It was him. His mother smiled broadly and told him he had someone he wanted to introduce, and then handed me the phone. And after talking with the young man, and being thanked by him for my time, I felt too small to write the story.

I’ve made an outline, but every time my fingers try to flush out a lead, nothing comes. I’ll type a few words, stop, read what I have written and promptly erasing them. And with that sentence gone, only the blinking cursor remains – my enemy. I questioned everything.

The "what ifs" surfaced shortly thereafter. What if it isn’t good enough? What if my mentor didn’t dig it? And I realized that I lost more than my job, I lost the people who were always more than coworkers and more like coaches or cheerleaders. Since I couldn't turn to my podmates for a bit of reassurance, I turned to my familiar muses – I read some Emerson and Rilke and Thoreau. But nothing made me feel big enough to be able to do this story justice.

Then a voice from my high school years came floating up into memory. A local author, Albert French, told me that at the end of the day, a writer just has to fill the page. And I was heartened. I’d forgotten that we writers can be great or we can completely flub a story on any given deadline. But at the end of the day, the writer has to write.

So I ignored that mocking cursor and started at the beginning.

With the door closed.

Amanda Gillooly previously worked for the Observer-Reporter and now freelances for the Valley Independent in Monessen, Pa. She can be reached by e-mail at


  1. That's a great description of what it's like to "start."

    It reminds me of those times in college... sitting there at 1am, staring at a blank word processor document and realizing that the 20th page won't get done if the first sentence doesn't materialize at some point.

    Do you ever hit that stride where it feels like you are transcribing the words of someone else... you focus and type furiously... as if someone is reading your writing to you and if you don't get it all out there on the first go-round, they might not repeat themselves?

    Some call it a muse, some call it Red Bull Overdose :-)

    On a side note, how can someone get involved with the innocence institute?

  2. I hear ya, Amanda. I find it difficult to write on my laptop because I'm not yet comfortable with the environment. It took me a while to get used to the desk at the O-R after spending 16 months in my Daily Mail cube. Sometimes you have to just throw something on the screen, and then go back later to fix it up.

  3. E: Thanks! I've always likened the writing process for me as puzzle. There is only one right piece, and until you find it, you can't continue. Jimmity, I hear you. It is too quiete at home for me to write. Once you get used to composing in the wake of the scanner, slamming phones and feverish typing, being at home with the sounds of crickets in the background throws off my mojo, man.

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  5. I'm glad we're keeping the pod alive. Now we just need to get Barb Miller a Google account.

  6. Sorry to get off track... but just for the sake of knowing... Does Scott still not like me?

    It doesn't really matter one way or the other... just curious.

  7. I'm not really sure. why don't you pass him a note on the bus and ask him. Circle yes or no.

  8. Uh, duh? We don't ride the same bus... helllllllllo?