My guiding principle in writing has always been that I try to write the very best essay, story, or poem that I can at that moment. I’ve spent much of my career writing essays and feature articles for newspapers and magazines, and now, of course, for online news sources and journals. Sometimes the print publications are free to the community, or cost the reader one or two dollars. Mostly, I’ve gotten paid for my work, even if often it is barely enough to buy a new inkjet cartridge for my printer.
The key is that I never say to myself, “I’ll just slop something down. It’s just The Beach Reporter” or “It’s only Main Line Life” (two community newspapers I have written extensively for in southern California and suburban Philadelphia). Whether I’m aiming for The New York Times or the Pioneer Press, my commitment to excellent writing is the same.
When I write for publications in my community, I feel a special commitment to doing my best work, even though I am not garnering the prestige and pay of a national news outlet. I think of all the readers (they might be friends and neighbors) sitting down to breakfast or lunch, skimming the headlines, restlessly turning the pages or clicking their mouse, looking for something that catches the eye: my column, my essay, often buried in the “Lifestyle” section, sometimes below the fold. They start to read. They are willing to give me a sentence, a paragraph. This is where I have to reel them in. I can feel them as I tap-tap my next essay into my laptop. I don’t just toss something down because I’m only getting fifty or seventy-five dollars and no one outside my zip code will ever read it.
I think, I tap, I delete. I race forward at breakneck speed, I eat chocolate, I puzzle. I consult my synonym finder, I go back and put paragraph three where paragraph two was, I sweat blood over the last sentence. The readers are all. I am writing to them. I aim to make them laugh or cry or ponder. I want to entertain, provoke, inform, and move.
It would be easier not to care.
But this is my life. This is what I do. I’ve tried other things, but I’ve always returned to what I love, what I’m actually good at. And, with that in mind, every time I begin to write I always try to make it the best I can at that exact moment.
The carefully selected detail that illuminates the larger picture. The story that a reader will remember ten years down the road. The image that will resonate inside someone, in some secret place that maybe they were not even aware of. Until they read what I wrote.
The essays and short stories of Kathy Stevenson have appeared in an eclectic array of magazines and newspapers, including The New York Times, Newsweek, Red Rock Review, Chicago Tribune, The Writer, Philadelphia Inquirer, South Boston Literary Gazette, Los Angeles Times, Clapboard House, and many others. Kathy is a frequent contributor to newsworks.org, the online news source for WHYY (NPR) in Philadelphia. She earned an MFA from Bennington College. A link to her essays can be found at: www.kathleenstevenson.blogspot.com