A blank page confronts every writer on deadline. Turning that empty space into an article someone might read takes more than simply hitting keys on a keyboard.
Two images of a woman at a typewriter trying to find an idea. Photo illustration by News Decoder.
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My mind’s a blank. I’m due to deliver a piece for News Decoder, but the deadline is a long way off. So I do nothing, trusting something will pop into my head in due course.
But before I know it, the time is approaching and still I have no content. OMG, OMG!
This is what it’s like to write a column for a newspaper, or these days a regular blog. It’s scary. Week after week, where do the ideas come from?
When I was reporting news, I never had a problem. My job was to convey accurately what I had seen or heard. My brain went into action and cranked out the required number of words, by the given deadline. The pyramid form of the news story was almost like a template, just needing to be filled in. Occasionally, if I was tired, there would be a bit of writer’s block but a mug of coffee soon shifted that.
But that was when the subject came from outside. When I started writing columns, the inspiration had to come from within. Writing a column (or a blog) is on the border between journalism and more creative kinds of writing; it’s halfway to writing a book. Scary. Where do the ideas come from?
Finding your voice
When you write a blog (or a column), you start to find your own voice. Strangely, I started writing columns after I had studied singing. With singing, I had to learn to breathe. Breathing put me in a relaxed state of emptiness, where ideas visited me. Elizabeth Gilbert in her book “Big Magic” talks about this readiness to receive ideas.
You must do research, of course, but it’s a looser kind of information gathering. You see something. It sets off an association. A phrase enters your mind. Where will it take you?
Quite often, the day before my column was due, I still didn’t know what it would be about. And then suddenly the idea landed, and it was as if I was just taking down dictation. Unlike my news reporting, my creative writing came from a different place, a place of inner stillness.
I never became a singer but I found my voice as a writer. I trusted that if I didn’t force them, the ideas would never let me down. I no longer needed to grind out words but instead let them flow through me.
The idea arrived, but then it was my job to express it — to see the work through to the end. Afterwards, I would look at a text and think: Did I write that? The idea no longer belonged to me but had gone out into the world.
A workable idea for a column
Let me give you an example of how I went from “no idea” to “vague idea” to “workable idea”. In the 1990s, I was living in Russia, among ordinary Russians, almost as a Russian myself. This was in the good old days, before the war in Ukraine.
Suddenly it struck me that the life of my neighbours was like Coronation Street, an old soap opera about working class community life that I used to watch when growing up in the UK. This was the first inkling of an idea. Then came the fully formed idea — a regular column about how my Russian neighbours coped with economic reform.
It was published weekly in The Independent and republished in The Moscow Times. Writing it was quite easy. It was just like writing a letter or postcard home. And it’s the same if you are writing a blog.
With a blog, you do need a theme, because you can’t write about the whole world, can you? It could be travel, or the environment, or science. But give yourself the freedom of an open title. Call it something like “Perspectives” or “Footprints”, because these are endless and will not tie you down.
My column was called “Faces and Voices”, general enough that the possibilities from my encounters with ordinary Russians never ran out.
Tell other people’s stories.
The Russians were living through turbulent times, after the collapse of Communism. There was a pianist who became an estate agent to feed his large family, an astrophysicist who sold cat food to make ends meet. An expat businessman living in Moscow wrote to me with dry humour, saying: “Thanks for meeting so many ordinary Russians, thereby saving me the trouble of having to do so.”
But the pleasure of meeting the Russians was all mine. They were the stars, not me.
In your blog, you can allow yourself to be personal and use the pronoun “I”. But don’t overdo it.
In this age of “selfies”, focusing on ourselves can be a dead end. When you write a blog, you have to remember it’s not all about you. It’s got to be about something or someone else, and if you come into the picture, make yourself the butt of the joke.
So in Moscow, whether I’d lost my cat, or been defeated by some battleaxe shop assistant, or allowed my car battery to go flat on a frosty night, I was the batty English lady while my Russian neighbours were the knowing ones, always coming to the rescue in the end.
Questions to consider:
- How does creative writing differ from reporting?
- Do you sometimes find writing difficult? If so, why?
- What kind of blog might you have?
From column writing, British-born Helen Womack went on to write a book about her experiences in Russia: “The Ice Walk – Surviving the Soviet Break-Up and the New Russia. From 1985-2015, Womack reported from Moscow for the Reuters international news agency as well as The Independent, The Times and the Fairfax newspapers of Australia. Now based in Budapest, she covers the European Union’s relatively new eastern members. Since the refugee crisis of 2015, she has written for the United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, about how refugees are settling in Europe.
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