When writers tell me stories about working on big projects, they often use one of two metaphors to describe their method. The first is composting. To grow a good garden you need to fertilize the soil. So some gardeners build a compost heap in their yards, mounds of organic material containing scraps, like banana peels, that others would throw away.
The second is saving string. Bits of twine get rolled into tiny balls that grow into bigger balls that grow, in extreme cases, into balls of civic pride. A man named Francis Johnson created a ball of twine that weighed more than 17,000 pounds, was twelve feet in diameter, and became the main roadside attraction for the town of Darwin, Minnesota.
Johnson should become patron saint of those who save little bits of stories, hoping that one day they will grow into something publishable. Here's how it works for me: I will be struck by a theme or issue in politics or culture. Right now, for example, I am fascinated by the plight of boys. As the father of three daughters, I've watched many young women succeed in education and flourish in careers, while young men seem to lag behind. I lack the time or knowledge to write about this topic now, but maybe I will someday. The chances will become greater if I begin to save string.
To save string, I need a simple file box. I prefer the plastic ones that look like milk crates. I display the box in my office and put a label on it, say: "The Plight of Boys." As soon as I declare my interest in an important topic, a number of things begin to happen. First, I notice more things about my topic. Then I have more conversations about it with friends and colleagues. They start to feed my interest. One by one, my box fills with items: an analysis of graduation rates of boys versus girls; a feature on whether video games hurt or help the development of boys; a story about decreasing participation by boys in high school sports. This is a big topic, so I take my time. Weeks and weeks pass, sometimes months and months, and one day I'll look over at my box and hear it whisper. "It's time." I'm amazed at how full the box is, and even more astonished about how much I've learned just by saving string.
This process of story growth may appear long and unproductive. Too much waiting around. The trick is to grow several crops in your garden at the same time. You can fertilize one crop, even as you harvest another. So in my office, I have several boxes with labels on them:
I have an AIDS box, which culminated in the publication of the series "Three Little Words."
I have a millennium box, which culminated in publication of a serialized newspaper novel "Ain't Done Yet."
I have a Holocaust and anti-Semitism box, which culminated in the series "Sadie's Ring." It is now a book manuscript, rejected by 25 publishers, but still looking for its place in the world.
I have a box titled "Civil Rights," which culminated in an anthology of newspaper columns from the 1960s on racial justice in the South.
I have a box titled "Formative Reading," bursting with materials on critical literacy, which I thought would become a book. It has produced several articles.
I have a box called "World War II," which produced two newspaper features, one of which might become a small book some day.
I once learned an important lesson from James W. Carey, one of the great scholars of journalism and culture. Some scholars, he said, build their careers by attaching themselves to topics of narrower and narrower interest. Carey encourages young writers and scholars to attach themselves to big topics: Religion in America, World Population, News and Democracy.
Take another look at my boxes and inventory the topics: AIDS, the Holocaust, racial justice, the millennium, World War II, literacy. These are topics of inexhaustible interest, capable of generating a lifetime of reporting, storytelling, and analysis. Each one, in fact, is so huge, so imposing, it threatens to overpower the writer's energy and imagination. Which is the reason to save string. Item by item, anecdote by anecdote, statistic by statistic, your boxes of curiosity fill up without effort, creating a literary life-cycle: planting, cultivation, and harvesting.
Here's the real value of saving string. Right now, buried in routine, you feel you lack the time and energy to undertake enterprising work. Maybe you cover the education beat for a small newspaper. Perhaps you have to produce a story, or more, every day. Let's say that you, too, are interested in the academic backsliding of boys. If you are too embarrassed to create a box, start an electronic or paper file. As you do your routine work, talk about the "plight of boys." Harvest opinions and anecdotes from parents, teachers, and editors. Scribble them down, one by one, fragment by fragment, until one day you'll look up and see a monument of persistence, ready to be mounted in the town square.
1. Review your writing for the last couple of years. Make a list of your big categories of interest and curiosity. Which of those topics do you want to save string on?
2. What other big topics interest you that are not reflected in your current writing? Which one fascinates you the most? Create a box or a file and put a label on it.
3. If you are covering a regular beat, what topics have you been unable to get to? Create a file for one of these and begin talking about it with your sources.
4. Do a Google search on one of your new topics. Spend a little time exploring. Add to your file some items from blogs or Web sites that connect with your new interest.