I do not need to go back in my mind to the Record-Searchlight newsroom, silent witness to my days as a cub reporter. The rooms of the newsroom, the two of them, often are with me without bidding when I sit down and set out to write.
The mind, it seems, anchors memories with images. I learned in seminary that the discipline called Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) speaks of this phenomenon in terms of its therapeutic applications. If you do not like the feel of a memory anchor, you can swap anchors in a simple mind process.
Basically, you close your eyes and pick a new anchor image.
And it works.
I have noticed, for a long time now, that the mind anchor that accompanies many of my efforts at writing is that old R-S newsroom.
A few details might help.
My hometown newspaper was, and is, the Redding (CA) Record-Searchlight AKA the Wretched Flashlight to certain of its critics, detractors, and employees, at least in my tenure at that newspaper. As a boy of 10, I begin delivering the R-S and kept my paper route until I was a manish boy of 17. Within a year, I was working the phones on weekend nights during football and basketball season. I talked with a lot of high school coaches and passed my notes and stats on to the sports editor and his sidekick.
In the lesser of the two rooms of the newsroom.
Sports and Society.
During the following summer, I graduated to the bigger room, and obits, and features, and press release rewrites. Plus an occasional school board meeting and anything else I was told to do.
After securing a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature at UC Berkeley, I returned as a full-time editorial employee, first as a copy boy and quickly on to the copy desk. Four years later, I moved to Oregon and stayed there ten years on the copy desk of the Statesman-Journal, going from the rim to the slot with time as night news editor on Sundays.
By going to seminary, I followed the advice of Ernest Hemingway — that newspapers are good for a young person who knows when to get out and do something else.
The Record-Searchlight building anchored a short block on the edge of downtown at the edge of the steep slope that marks the lateral edge of the floodplain of the Sacramento River. The building was made of concrete blocks. The newsroom’s two rooms held a couple of sports reporters, the society editor, and the Green Sheet editor on one side and about six reporters and a couple of city and copy editors on the other side. The Editor/Publisher had an office off the main room. He was a patrician old man with a round face and red cheeks like hard drinkers develop in age. Those of us in the know knew that he was not really Shasta Sam, who would write wry and amusing blurbs on local topics for the Saturday editorial page.
We all wrote Shasta Sams at one time or another.
The images that I anchor with when I write come from a visit that I made, on a hellishly hot afternoon, to the newsroom with a friend who let me in, to see the new computers that sat on the desks. The walls were a clean white and no posters or other untidy things adorned the walls. In my mind the place is deserted — clean and white, with a hum in the background and dust mites in the diffuse light of the weekend-empty room.
I do wonder why these particular images and not some other images pop up when I sit down to write. After all, I also have anchoring images when I read novels, and they are different each time, and it is a surprise and a pleasure to notice the images that link up with my reading time. A set of images will persist until I finish reading the novel of the moment, returning if I put down the book for a while.
But why the newsroom? I was not particularly happy during that time. I was a piggie little SOB, frankly, who had a long way to go. However, none of that clings to the newsroom images. Decades later, the images give me peace and draw me into the mystery of creation.
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When I asked my shrink, an older and wiser man who has forgotten more about NLP than I ever knew, he refused to engage with me on the subject.
“I don’t know how people create,” he said. “What is important is how you create. See you next time.”
I pick up my pen, or I sit down at the computer, and I write an essay or snatch of novel that I have been day-dreaming about. I anchor my mind with images that seem to be meant to occupy the parts of me that fret and prattle. I move along quickly without worrying much about my word choices. There is time for word-fishing when I revise, and I revise in rounds of polishing that have a charm of their own.
As a person of faith and as a Minister of the Word and Sacrament, I find myself in awe of the flow from outside me, through me, and out onto the page, to you. My writing is a gift, I believe, to you via me with the Spirit in a consulting sort of role that some wise persons call co-creation. I write out of gifts that God gave me, I believe, and I cannot write or speak of this without weeping, which is probably tiresome for others but not for me.
I weep as I write, when I know that the writing is good.
This is what writing is like for me. I do not suffer from writer’s block. My newspaper background grounds me in solid skills of expression and the exponential perfecting of my work. I am a heavy reader, as well, and this paired with study, I believe, makes for an effective method of writing. I want to say it is like playing in the fields of the Lord, and it is, but the words of E.B. White come back to me, too.
About writing, White said something like … All of it was hard and some of it was fun.
That is my memory, anyway.
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My preaching has its moments, too, from a creative standpoint. In the twenty years that I have been preaching, the lion’s share (what is the lion’s share? … anything the lion wants!) has been from an outline rather than a manuscript. I draw upon my writing, my reading, my day-dreaming, and my real-time grasp of English grammar and usage. I get up and start talking. I introduce an image or an idiom, or both. I tell stories from my life, and I listen to the Spirit, for the Spirit’s leading.
At first, preaching this way felt like tightrope walking without a net, but now it is a joy. My years of copy editing taught me to monitor the flow of everything I hear or say, for sense and for adherence to certain core principles of grammar and usage. As with my writing, my preaching comes to me as gift and goes through me, and does not stop.
When I preach, I am not usually aware of any anchoring images, but I frequently am aware of being in a light hypnotic trance (another piece of learning from seminary). From what little I know of hypnotism, I know that if I have achieved a light trance state, my listeners will be in a light trance state, too, if they enter into the experience and accept my leading.
This may sound hard, or odd, or whatever, but what I am aware of when preaching is the joy of creating stories and of speaking from my heart and mind, in the presence of the One who calls me and gives me gifts.
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I have been blessed in my working life. I have done creative work of many kinds, as a cub reporter, headline writing copy editor, book reviewer, and preacher, plus now as a novelist, essay writer, and print-on-demand publisher. By these measures, I have grown from a piggie little SOB to be a person who can follow his inclination when speaking or writing. There is no finer thing that one can do with both feet on the floor.
I fell so grateful.
Anchored and free.