Adam-Richter.com

Writer, editor, playwright

This year, as with every year, I made a New Year’s resolution to write “more.” Whatever that means.

The best way to do this, of course, is to actually write more. Write every day. It’s that simple, and that complicated. But if you want to be a writer, that’s what you do. Much smarter and more talented people than me have said it.

Getting into that daily practice is easier said than done, even when we’re NOT in the middle of a pandemic. People have jobs, bills, kids, spouses, family. For artists of any type, the need to balance creative pursuits and, well, everything else can feel like walking on a tightrope made of dental floss. How does anyone do it?

For me, the answer was: Enter a monthlong writing challenge.

I signed up for the 28 Plays Later, a contest of sorts run by the UK-based nonprofit The Literal Challenge. And, strangely enough, it worked. I wrote more plays in the month of February than I have from 2018, when I started playwriting, through Jan. 31. The forced habit of writing something new every single day taught me a few lessons. I’m putting them here in case you find them useful.

1. Write every day

Opinions vary on whether you should wait for inspiration to strike or simply sit down each day and grind something, anything, out that you can throw on the page. I’ve tried both techniques in my life and can say with certainty that the former method does not work. If you wait for inspiration or the next great idea, it will never come.

The problem with waiting for inspiration is that you’re not really waiting for an idea; you’re waiting for a good idea, one that will let you form your first draft in exactly the way you want. But — again, smarter people than me have said this — if you want to be a writer, you have to write. If you want to be a painter, you have to paint. If you want to do any sort of creative endeavor, you have to work at it. Every day. Most of your output will be terrible. This leads me to the second, also not original, lesson that hit home for me in February:

2. Accept the lousy first draft

In her book “Bird By Bird,” author Annie Lamott devotes an entire chapter to the perils of perfectionism. She warns, rightly, that the pursuit of perfection stands between you and the “shitty first draft.”

I’ve spent countless hours at my desk, staring either at a blank screen on my laptop or at an empty notebook page, struggling to come up with a story, a paragraph, a sentence that my inner editor won’t reject with a “that sucks” admonition. When you have a deadline every single day, you don’t have time for such nonsense. Tell that inner editor to STFU and get some words on the page. It doesn’t matter if they’re awful. It doesn’t matter if they don’t make sense, if they’re too flowery, if they’re too sparse, too clichéd, too bizarre.

Once the words are on the page, you can do anything with them. You just have to get them from your brain to the page.

Again, this advice has been said before by smarter and more talented writers than me. But a daily deadline, where you have to turn something — anything — in helps bring into focus the importance of creating that lousy first draft. Anything after that is gravy.

3. Know how it ends

One of the rules of 28 Plays Later was that it had to be a full play. You couldn’t turn in a single scene from what you hope might be a larger piece. It had to be a self-contained work. That meant it had to have a beginning, a middle and an end.

I only have a finite amount of time to write each day, so I don’t often think of endings; I just think of how much I can get done in the early morning hours before my kid gets up.

28 Plays Later forced me to look at the whole story. Even if what I wrote was incredibly short — no full-length plays were born in this process — each of the 28 plays had a defined story arc.

One of my weaknesses as a writer is that I will often start with a great idea, carry it through to a solid middle and have no idea how to resolve it. Then the piece goes in a metaphorical drawer and never sees the light of day. This challenged forced me to think of endings. It helps to know where you’re going when you start on a journey. That’s true of plays, stories and any other creative endeavor.

4. Learn different styles

The prompts for the 28 Plays Later challenge were varied and incorporated theatrical styles I knew nothing about.

I’ve never seen or read a play by Bertolt Brecht. But I still had to write a play in the Brechtian tradition (hello, Wikipedia!). Same with Sanskrit theater.

Do I understand what that is? No.

Was I helped by watching performances of Sanskrit plays on YouTube? Also no. (Actually, a little bit.)

But now I have a better idea of the many different styles of theater that are out there, beyond the simple two-characters-in-pursuit-of-a-goal.

The lesson of these prompts can apply to any creative pursuit, and it can be summed up in two words:

Absorb everything.

5. Accept that some of what you write will be good.

You know how I just said, three subheads ago, that you should accept the lousy first draft? Here’s the flip side:

Be prepared to like some of what you write.

In February, I wrote 28 plays. Six or seven I’m going to treat as mere writing exercises (no one needs to see my hurried rewrite of “A Doll’s House”). A few I’m throwing into the editing pile to see if I can’t flesh them out a little and make them submission-friendly.

The good news is, one play I wrote in February was good enough to get accepted into a short-play festival. More importantly, a few of the plays that I showed to playwright friends received good feedback.

Even most importantly, some of the plays I wrote I actually enjoy reading. I don’t know if they have a future on the stage, or Zoom, or whatever form theater is going to take in our messed-up world. But to have a handful out of 28 plays that you, the writer, like, is a notable achievement.

Now it’s March. I’m going to spend a lot of the month editing, and perhaps writing something new that will take more than a day to complete.

Keep creating. Whatever you’re after, just keep working at it.

Every. Damn. Day.

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[NOTE: This was posted on Twitter, at my @richterific account, then on Facebook. My wife urged me to share it so more people could read it, so I’m posting it here. I made some minor edits, because Twitter ≠ Facebook ≠ blogs.]

I feel like writing a thread about how I got into journalism. 

But first, let me point out: I am still in journalism. Despite the news about the Reading Eagle bankruptcy, the upshot is that we are all still employed.

I’ve been at the paper a little more than eight years now, and I’ve been thinking about how I got into this crazy, precarious and rewarding business.

I entered journalism late in life. I was over 30 before I decided that it was the career I wanted. 

I spent my 20s alternating between wanting to be a philosopher (not a full-time gig) and a sketch comedian (also not a full-time gig, unless you’re incredibly funny). 

Neither really panned out. 

One day, after realizing all my favorite writers — John Steinbeck, Mark Twain, Dave Barry — started out in newspapers, I decided to leave the field of title insurance for journalism. 

(Why was I in title insurance? It paid the rent and I was not as driven in my 20s as I should have been.)

So I took the obvious logical step for someone looking to get into the field: I applied for a job at the Associated Press bureau in Seattle. 

I didn’t get a job there, but I did start freelancing and made connections, writing for a bunch of community newspapers in the city. Back then, Seattle had a robust community journalism scene. 

Eventually I got offered a full-time gig, editing one of those community newspapers. I worked at the Ballard News-Tribune for three years.

Then I switched gears and moved back to Pennsylvania, taking a copy editing job at the Easton Express-Times, where they also let me write quite a bit. 

From there I came to the Reading Eagle, where I’ve held various jobs for the past eight-plus years. 

Every step along the way — all the varied, weird jobs I’ve held in this field I kinda stumbled into because Mark Twain did it once — I considered myself lucky to even be here. 

And it’s been that way every step along the way. Seventeen years in, I still think of myself as a relative newcomer to this game. 

Even on a day like today, I consider myself lucky. Not just lucky to be here; but lucky to be working with an amazing group of talented and passionate reporters, editors, photographers and designers. 

We work in an industry that is fraught with uncertainty, but we still do what we can to keep people informed and to hold public officials accountable. Some hate us for it; some think what we do has no value. 

But every single person I work with, and every one of my peers I’ve ever met at any other news organization, knows that that this field is important, that it has value. Without it, the public — not just our paying readers, but everyone — suffers.

As I said, I’m a newbie in this game. But I’ve never shaken the idealistic notion that journalism matters. And that it’s important. 

Yes, we are going through some tough financial times as an industry. But we still keep going. Because journalism matters. 

Today, the company I work for was rocked by some startling news. But the doors didn’t close. The presses didn’t stop. 

And we will keep going. 

If you got this far, thanks for reading. And if you don’t subscribe to your local paper, please start.

 

If you don’t believe, can you still get peanut-butter eggs?

Easter is a holiday that, for a long time, never felt like it counted. It’s always on a Sunday, involves lots of chocolate and jelly beans and has such a strong Christian message to it that if you’re not a Christian, it’s hard to celebrate.

Unless of course, you like sweets.  I do, but not to the point of devoting a holiday to them.

Christmas is a religious holiday, too, but it at least has been secularized so much that even an atheist like me can celebrate the trappings and alternative meanings of the holiday without getting caught up in the birth-of-Jesus message. I like the idea of taking time at the end of the year to reflect on how much better we can treat one another.

Also I  like bright lights in the dead of winter.

Easter was always easy to avoid. It doesn’t feel much like a holiday if you’re not going to celebrate the resurrection of a man you don’t think existed in the first place. But now that I have a kid, Easter is as unavoidable as Christmas. I find myself examining a question I faced decades ago when I stopped believing in religion but still wanted to celebrate Christmas:

How do you celebrate the holiday when you don’t believe in its underlying premise?

This, of course, is the grand illusion: Easter predates Christianity as far as holidays go. Same with Dec. 25. Long before we heathens took the Christ out of Christmas, the Christians took the Saturn out of Saturnalia.

One could always go for the pagan route and celebrate Easter as rebirth. It’s the time of year when flowers start to bloom, when the last of winter’s cold touch has retreated for good. Easter is a time to prune that which has died and tend to the care of living things that need to grow. (How deep into that metaphorical well you want to go is entirely up to you.) 

Or one could consider the story of Jesus from a metaphorical perspective. If the goal of Christianity is to be Christ-like, then the message of Easter doesn’t mean redemption; it means sacrifice. It means taking on the burdens of others. We don’t need to go to such extremes as he did, but it is worth asking ourselves when we see a loved one — or hell, even a stranger — in pain: What can I do to ease his/her suffering? 

You don’t need to be a Christian to ponder such questions; just like you don’t need to be a Christian to wish for peace on earth, good will toward men and women at Christmas time. 

This train of thought isn’t as fun as seeking out colored eggs or eating a chocolate bunny for breakfast. 

I don’t really have an answer to why atheists should celebrate Easter. But I do know that this atheist will celebrate in the morning. If nothing else, it provides a rationale to act silly with kids and spend time with loved ones. 

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Two great books that go well together.

I can’t read just one book at a time. At any given moment, I’m in the midst of reading as many as a half-dozen books. (According to my Goodreads account, I have 11 books on my Currently Reading list.)

As a result, it takes me forever to finish a book. But my multitasking habit has its upside. Every once in a while, I come across two passages in two books I’m reading simultaneously that I might not otherwise think about. This magical synergy happened recently when I read “The Republic of Imagination” by Azar Nafisi and “The Martian Chronicles” by Ray Bradbury. The books were written more than a half-century apart, but for a little bit, both writers talk about the same thing.

Neither Bradbury nor Nafisi is a fan of the new Common Core reading curriculum. I know this about Nafisi because she makes a well-reasoned case against Common Core in her book. I am guessing Ray Bradbury hated Common Core because of an inspired massacre he depicts in “The Martian Chronicles.”

More on that in a second.

Nafisi’s case against Common Core stems from the fact that it places a higher value on “informational texts” than fiction. In high schools, for instance, the split is 70/30 in favor of the former. Not that she opposes nonfiction; Nafisi wrote that she would love to see, for instance, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” taught alongside James Baldwin’s “Go Tell It on the Mountain” to demonstrate the “intersection between history and fiction.” But that’s not what’s happening. Imagination, she says, is being sacrificed for vocational preparation.

“The goal was … to replace anything that might invite subjective interpretation — the realm of imaginative knowledge — with tangible facts.”

Bradbury shows us the danger of such a lofty goal in “Usher II,” one of the later chapters of “The Martian Chronicles.” In it, an earthling named Mr. Stendahl flees to Mars to escape the “clean-minded” people who rid the earth of all great literature by the likes of Edgar Allen Poe, H.P. Lovecraft and others. He builds a mansion in tribute to some of Poe’s greatest horror stories on his new home planet.

When officials from the Department of Moral Climates come to inspect Stendahl’s facility, he kills them off one by one, in the fashion of Poe’s stories: an orangutan, a pit and a pendulum and of course, the Masque of the Red Death. He saves the best for last, sealing his last victim up brick by brick inside a vault.

The poor guy never sees it coming, of course; he’s never read “The Cask of Amontillado.”

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Those who don’t read Poe are doomed to die a grisly death.

The late Bradbury’s predictions weren’t spot on: “Usher II” takes place in 2005, long before Common Core became a talking point among education bureaucrats. At the time, he wasn’t after those people. Bradbury was satirizing censors who used fear to silence works of art. But his point still stands, even in this age when we don’t have (as much) to fear from prude guardians of taste who would destroy anything deemed the least bit smutty.

They have the same problem as the people who dreamed up Common Core’s dull standards: a lack of imagination. Consider this passage:

“‘Oh, the word “escape” was radical, I tell you.’

‘Was it?’

‘It was! Every man, they said, must face reality. Must face the Here and Now! Everything that was not so must go. All the beautiful literary lies and flights of fancy must be shot in mid-air.'”

And if reducing a high school student’s reading list to informational prose in place of imaginative fiction doesn’t shoot down the “beautiful literary lie,” I don’t know what does. 

Sports fans are made, not born. Most of the time, team devotion is handed down from parents to children. In my case, I learned to love the Seattle Seahawks with the help of some friends, and with the help of a profound sense of loneliness.

I became a Seahawks fan about ten years ago. That was the both the year I left Seattle and the year the Seahawks became a Super Bowl team.

Before you accuse me of being a bandwagoner — or worse, a fair-weather fan — let me explain.

Becoming a Seahawks fan wasn’t just about switching loyalties to a successful team. It’s been a way to connect to the city where I lived for a significant decade of my life.

I moved to Seattle from the East Coast in my mid-twenties, while the rest of the planet was in the mid-1990s. During the ten years I was there, I spent too much time working at clerical jobs I disliked. But I also learned how to become a writer.

Plus I did lots of things that underemployed people in their twenties ought to do: I dabbled (and failed) in sketch comedy; I bar-hopped and went to ridiculous clubs. I appeared in drag in a stage adaptation of “Night of the Living Dead.”

I went to the Folklife festival every Memorial Day weekend and I went to Bumbershoot every Labor Day Weekend. I saw Death Cab For Cutie in a small club. I was not impressed, but they grew on me. I saw a band called The Paperboys. I was impressed. I have been a devoted fan ever since.

I bought a share in a Mariners season-ticket package. I spent two seasons as a shareholder in a Sonics season-ticket package. I went to an NFL game at the now-imploded Kingdome, when the Seahawks were bad and Dennis Erickson was their coach.

I joined a writing group that met every other weekend, filling notebooks with character sketches, scene studies and bits of micro-fiction. I fenced competitively, then quit when it became too expensive.

I eventually figured out that I wanted to work in journalism. I sold some stories to various weeklies and covered soccer, gymnastics and volleyball games for a daily newspaper. Then I was hired to run one of the small neighborhood papers where I had sold some articles. I continued to follow the Mariners and the Sonics.

I went to two more Seahawks games but only because the tickets were free. Century Link field was under construction, so both rainy December contests were held at Husky Stadium on the University of Washington campus. It was a giant horseshoe with the open end facing Lake Washington. Both times, it rained so hard my waterproof jacket became waterlogged and I left before the games ended. Though the Seahawks had improved — they had Mike Holmgren as head coach and a promising  young quarterback named Matt Hasselbeck — I still wasn’t ready to switch allegiances from the Philadelphia Eagles, the hapless team I had followed since I was a kid.

I learned a great deal in my editor job, writing tons of stories each week, laying out the paper, writing headlines, editing copy and occasionally delivering papers on Wednesdays to the nice old ladies who called after circulation closed (but before I left the office).

I also learned that Seattle is an expensive place to live — and that  editors of weekly newspapers don’t get paid much. After three and a half years I needed a job that paid enough to let me start paying off my student loans. Since Seattle was fresh out of newspaper jobs, I moved back to Pennsylvania, the state I had been glad to leave a decade before.

Everything about that move was painful. Seattle had become my home. I missed my friends. I missed the beach at Golden Gardens. I missed the sight of mountains. I missed living in a major city. (I moved from Seattle to Easton, which was half the size of Ballard, the neighborhood where I had worked.) Financially the move made sense. But in the immediate aftermath I was depressed, lonely and struggling to adapt to my new life.

Along came the Seahawks.

That same year, the team had the most successful season in franchise history, going 13-3 behind Hasselbeck’s arm and MVP running back Shaun Alexander’s legs. They were just plain fun to watch. Because good teams are shown more often on national TV, I got to watch the Seahawks more than anyone on the East Coast normally would have. Following the team gave me a connection back to the city I knew and had so recently left. Their postseason run and Super Bowl appearance only cemented my loyalty.

I know that makes me sound like a bandwagoner. But I still followed them through the stinking seasons between 2005 and 2013, when they again dominated the NFC West (and finally won a Super Bowl).

Friends who are devoted Eagles fans don’t understand how I could switch my allegiance. I do root for the Eagles when they’re not playing the Seahawks. But on those rare occasions — such as the 2014 season, when the two teams met in Philadelphia — I pull for Seattle. My rationale is simple: I lived in Seattle. I never lived IN Philadelphia.

In the ten years since returning home, I have married a wonderful woman, purchased a house in a great neighborhood and get to experience the everyday joys of being a father to a beautiful child. Leaving Seattle was  also good for my career.  I wouldn’t change anything about the life choices I made since leaving The Emerald City.

Still, Seattle is a place that I will always miss, no matter how many times I visit. Nostalgia makes us long for the past as if it were a geographical place. For me it is: the northwest corner of the country where it rains much of the time and everyone has a library card. I may go back to visit, but Seattle will probably never be home again.

Facebook, texts and phone calls help me stay connected to my friends in the Northwest. Sports helps me stay connected to the city. Football is ideally suited for that. Following the Mariners from three time zones away (especially on a daily basis) is a chore. The once-a-week (and occasionally on TV!) football schedule, on the other hand, is easier to manage. For a team representing my favorite city in the world, I can make that commitment.

Go Seahawks.

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