Write a mission statement for your work.
In 1996 the St. Petersburg Times published my series "Three Little Words," the story of a woman whose husband died of AIDS. The series appeared on 29 consecutive days and received unprecedented attention from local readers and journalists everywhere. A month of chapters was a lot to ask of readers. But here was the catch: No chapter was longer than 850 words. You could keep up by reading five minutes a day. Long series, short chapters.
I wrote a mission statement for my story.
Let's imagine that Mark Twain wrote a mission statement for "Huckleberry Finn": "I want to tell a story through the eyes and in the voice of an 11-year-old boy, Huck Finn. To capture his dialect and his view of the world, I'm going to have to repress my own vocabulary and work through irony. I'm not sure any author has tried anything quite so daring before, if I may be permitted a moment of self-congratulation."
Most writers aspire to some invisible next step -- for a story or a body of work. For some, this aspiration remains unfilled and metastasizes. Writing down your mission turns your vague hopes for a story into language. By writing about your writing, you learn what you want to learn.
I scribbled my mission for "Three Little Words" on two pages of a legal pad. It covers both the content and the form of the story, what I was writing about and how I wanted to write it. It begins: "I want to tell a human story, not just about AIDS, but of the deeply human themes of life, love, death, sorrow, hope, compassion, family, and community." On one page I list seven points, including how I want to frame the life of my main character; how this story on AIDS will differ from others; how I hope readers will react.
On a second page, I turned to issues of story form:
- I want to restore the form of the serial narrative to newspapers –- using the shortest chapters possible.
- I want to reconcile the values of short and long writing.
- I want to give each chapter a stand-alone quality, a cliffhanger ending, a new starting point for readers.
[For a complete version of the mission statement, click here.]
I cannot overstate the value of this exercise, which took only 10 minutes. It gave me a view over the horizon before I began drafting the story. It provided the language I needed to share my hopes with other writers, editors, and readers. It could be tested, expanded, revised -- and it was -- during the drafting process.
Mission statements can bring into focus individual stories or an emerging body of work:
I. "I want to write a city government budget story so clear and interesting that it will attract readers who usually ignore such coverage."
II. "I want to write a story about a World War II veteran who tells great war stories and has lead an amazing life. But I want to render the story in his voice, not mine."
III. "I want to transform the writing of photo captions into an art form."
My "Three Little Words" workshop goes on and on as I hear from readers and journalists years later. From this distance, I see things I would have done differently: reduce the number of chapters by a third; make the reporting and writing methods more transparent; create a straighter narrative line by eliminating one flashback.
By writing that mission statement eight years ago, I not only planted the seeds for my own learning, I created a playing field where many others could tag along.
1. Write a short mission statement for your next story. Use it to discuss your aspirations with editors and colleagues.
2. Do the same for the body of your work. Where is the next level for you, that unseen but imagined destination over the horizon?
3. Study some of your old stories, especially ones that worked best. Write a mission statement after the fact, listing what you learned from each.
4. Imagine that famous authors had written mission statements for their masterpieces. What would they look like? If you know the work, write one for "Moby Dick," "Hamlet," "The Catcher in the Rye," "The Color Purple," or "To Kill a Mockingbird."