What I’m working on:
I work as a journalist for STAT, and I have a feature I’m just starting to get excited about. Earlier this week, I wasn’t sure there was a story there, and wondered if I’d even know a story if it hit me in the face, but then I did a whole slew of interviews and as they were happening I started to get that old tingly feeling, like I was being let in on some wild secret. To me, that’s a pretty reliable sign this is something I need to write. Now I’m starting to work out the structure in my head and fill in the gaps in my reporting. (Do I really, truly understand the immunology at play? Nope, not yet.) Plus, those conversations gave me a few profile ideas. So over the course of 48 hours I went from feeling like I’d never find a good story again to feeling like I hardly have time to pursue all these fun stories. I’m also very slowly writing a few essays in my off-hours, which will hopefully be done before I hit retirement age.
Where I work:
Before the pandemic, when I wasn’t out reporting, I would bike into STAT‘s Boston newsroom four days a week, and would work in the Cambridge Public Library every Friday (that’s where I got most of my writing done). These days I’ve been working from my apartment in Somerville. Now that it’s nice out, my housemate and I take turns working at a little folding table out on the back balcony, which overlooks our neighbor’s peach trees in one direction and the trash behind a burned-out house in another.
I’m very bad at sticking to a routine, but I try to be up by 7:00, go for a run, and then do a bit of writing by hand to remind myself that there are a million ways to formulate a sentence. I drink some coffee and tea—both at once, every morning—and then get to STAT work by 9:00 or 9:30. I always mean to make a careful to-do list, but usually my days are a hodgepodge of interviewing, reading, writing, reaching out to people, and trying to figure out how on earth other journalists tell such great stories.
Most productive part of my day:
I write best in the mornings, and then in the early evenings. Sometimes I can’t quite figure out how to write a section all day, and then just as it’s getting dark and I’m starting to think about dinner, my brain-plumbing suddenly gets unclogged and the paragraphs sort of write themselves. Though it could be that by then I’ve just lowered my standards and made peace with sending my editor drivel.
Most essential ritual or habit:
I’ve started walking up to the park near my house once I’m done with work to read a poem or play a fiddle tune, to try to let go of the day. I don’t always do it, but I’m really glad when I do.
Favorite note-taking techniques/tools:
I love reporting in person. I also find it really hard. I want to notice everything, to be able to reconstruct a scene with people’s words and mannerisms and surroundings. So while I’m following someone around a hospital or a patch of forest, I’ll usually balance one of those thin reporting notebooks on my right forearm, keeping it in place with the heel of my hand while my fingers hold my phone, which is recording. For phone interviews, I just clack away at my computer. I’ve never really learned to type properly, and my note-taking can be so loud that more than one interviewee has asked if I’m using a typewriter.
How I keep track of my to-do list:
I use a plain old spiral notebook, which also serves as a scratch-pad. One day I will keep a cleaner to-do list and floss religiously and learn the accordion and teach myself Turkish, too.
Essential software/apps/productivity tools:
I use Call Recorder or Apple’s Voice Memos app to record most interviews, and Otter.ai’s transcription software has really helped me find what I’m looking for in hours and hours of tape. I also do a fair amount of walking, and so often end up with bits of a nut graf or a potential lede in a notebook or in the Notes app on my phone.
Favorite time waster/procrastination habit:
Playing fiddle is both procrastination and therapy for me. If my mind is flitting all over the place, there’s nothing quite like a crooked Québécois tune to get it settled. Lest anyone think I’m some sort of grass-fed Canadian wholesomeness machine, I should also say I do plenty of doomscrolling and worrying and texting and email-checking-and-rechecking. I kind of like watching the rats skulk through the garbage piles next door, though every so often they give me the heebie-jeebies.
My reading habits:
I usually have a novel or a nonfiction book on the go, which I read in the park and before bed. The two latest are Trust Exercise by Susan Choi and The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBois. I loved Anne Carson’s essay on translation, Nay, Rather, which a friend gave me years ago and I finally just opened, and it really helped get me out of a funk. I also read news and magazine features in dribs and drabs throughout the day. Then there are those writers I often return to in the hope that some of their brilliance will rub off on me: Larissa MacFarquhar’s hospice-nurse profile to teach me how to listen for dialogue and detail, Burkhard Bilger’s mushroom-hunters story as a masterclass in creating scenes, Susan Dominus’s work to understand how people can come alive on the page, Ed Yong for his beautiful explanations. Sometimes, when I just need to remember what a good sentence sounds like, I’ll read some James Baldwin, Marilynne Robinson, Jorie Graham, Seamus Heaney, or E.B. White.
I should probably go to bed earlier. But as more and more of my friends are vaccinated, there are fiddle tunes to be played.