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Sarah Elton: Slaying the Deadline Demon

Posted: 06/15/2013 12:36 am

Sarah Elton will be appearing at Trinity Bellwoods Park on Saturday, June 22nd, from 12 - 4 pm at A Literary Picnic, part of Luminato Festival 2013. With the theme of "Beginnings" as inspiration, over 60 authors will take to three stages to share selections from their work and offer insight into where a story begins, and how writers confront the blank page. Many of the participating authors will also be setting up their own picnic blankets "backstage" for one-on-one exchanges with the public throughout the day.

On each Saturday leading up to the festivities -- as well as on the big day itself -- The Huffington Post is presenting blog posts from selected authors on how they personally handle writing that daunting first word. Today, we feature Susan's contribution. You'll find past entries here.

When you're a journalist working in the daily news grind, the page can't stay blank for long. You're responsible for turning your interviews and reporting into a cogent piece, as quickly as you can, so the rest of your colleagues in the news chain can do their job too. Everyone's counting on you--and that pressure is a wonderful antidote to writer's block.

Early in my career, I worked as a news reporter and a morning radio producer and in both jobs, I learned how to crank it out. And I mean crank. I've composed opening lines for my articles in my head, while driving on the 401, riding an elevator, cycling and even while running, frantically, to save the 3 minutes it would have taken to walk. The deadline was breathing fire at my back.

Once when I was working the early shift at the radio station, I wrote an introduction as the segment was going to air--in mere seconds. I'm not saying this was necessarily good writing--though sometimes fast can equal good in a surprising, creative way--but it was certainly terrific practice to write whatever you can, when that blank page must be turned into something quickly.

Before starting my first book, I would have imagined that there would be lots of time in the writing process to ruminate over those opening words. To ponder and pontificate and all those things writers--sorry, Writers, with a capital 'w'--do. But two books later, I know how wrong I was. That deadline demon is always there, its fiery breath scalding my backside. I don't feel much different now from how I did when I had to race to file my breaking news story. There's someone waiting to read my 100,000 word text in the same way my news editor was waiting for my 600 words for the paper.

So when I was writing my latest book, Consumed: Food for a Finite Planet, the pages didn't stay blank for long. I conjured up my inner journalist and filled the blankness with stories.

For the book, I travelled to China, India, and France to report on the growing global sustainable food movement and I let the narratives of the characters I met there push me forward. So it was Rose, who grew up in the rice paddies of southern Yunnan where her parents saved and sowed their heritage seeds and who later moved to the big city of Kunming, like so many other Chinese of her generation, who filled my blank screen. Or Chandrakalabai, the Indian farmer I met who had radically changed her life when she switched to organic agriculture and sold her food directly to her customers, who filled another and another. Or the dynamic Monsieur Valadier in France, whose passion for stewarding the countryside and for making cheese kept the words flowing until the book was done and that demon satisfied.

Sarah Elton is a journalist and author. Her new book Consumed: Food for a Finite Planet is a bestseller. Please visit sarahelton.ca for more information.

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