On Writing Profiles

I just finished writing my third volunteer profile for my church’s monthly newsletter. I belong to First Unitarian here in Albuquerque, the first church I’ve ever been a member of, which is a subject for a whole blog post on its own, and I was recently recruited to join its Radical Generosity committee and do much of the writing for that committee. I was a little nervous about joining. I’m a writer, yes, but the kind of writing I’d need to do for the committee is not the kind of writing I have experience with. But I decided this would be a chance to stretch myself and learn something new, and also be of service to my church community, so I said yes. My first writing assignment for the committee has been to write a series of profiles highlighting the volunteer efforts of church members. One will be published in each month’s newsletter, under the title, Caught in the Act of Generosity. The first was published last week, the next will appear in three weeks or so.

I’ve found the whole process to be a challenge. I am a memoir writer. I write about my life, and the people close to me. It is mostly pretty looking inward kind of stuff. Profiles, by their definition, are very different from that. These profiles have involved interviewing people I don’t know, first over email and then over the phone. I am… not great at talking to people I don’t know well. It takes a lot of emotional energy on my part. A lot of anxiety in advance. A lot of anxiety during the actual conversation. A lot of exhaustion afterwards. And then once the interview is done, I need to craft that into something coherent with 400 words or less. My natural writing length is very long. I once turned in a 40-some page draft of a memoir essay to my workshop during my MFA program. (Sorry, classmates!)

But, like I said, I just finished my third profile this morning, and I feel like it is a good one. I’ve gotten into a rhythm with the work. First, I send the person 5 questions for them to answer over email. When they send that interview back, I print it out and sit down with it, reading and contemplating, and underlining the bits that catch my attention. I then schedule a phone interview with the person and spend a fair amount of energy in advance trying NOT to be anxious about it. When the time for the phone interview comes, I call them right at the appointed time, and then we talk. I go through their email interview and ask follow ups about the parts that most caught my interest, and I listen. Sometimes it helps to share a short thought of my own, being vulnerable inspires vulnerability. Once the phone conversation is over, this is important, I immediately begin to write. I draft a full profile right then. They tend to be about 600 words long. Once I have my drafted profile, I take a deep breath, and let myself go work on my cross stitch because I’ve just done a big difficult job and I deserve a reward.

The best part comes the next day, when I sit down with my 600-word draft and try to sculpt it down to 400 words or less. Sometimes I think of this as playing word-Jenga. I try to remove as much as possible without having the whole structure collapse into chaos. This part of writing is fun, always has been for me. Having a form to work within and revise towards, in the case that 400-word limit, turns writing into a kind of a game and I get in the zone while I play it. Its highly satisfying. And so far at the end of it, each time I’ve ended up with a profile I feel proud of.

The first profile was published in the newsletter last week. I was surprised by how anxious this made me. I couldn’t figure it out at first. I’ve published work before, much more self-revealing work. Why was this publication causing me to feel so self-conscious? Then I realized it is because usually I publish into the void. The lit mags that have published me mostly have readers I’ve never met, never will meet, and never will so much as hear from. That can be kind of frustrating, actually. But these profiles are being published and read by my church community, by people I know and see on Sunday. It is a much more vulnerable feeling.

I hope these profiles are helpful for my community, that they help to connect us to each other. A thing that is needed after the past two years of isolation. I’ve realized that writing them is good for me as a writer. It has introduced me to a new form and process, a more outward-looking one, and that can only make my writing life more well-rounded.

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