This is an essay I wrote for an online class over at Coursera, about my beginnings as a writer. Some of my legions of two fans might find it interesting. It did bring back memories – which may simply be an indication of early onset senility.
Writer? No, no way. When I was fifteen my life course was set. Bacteriology. Microscopes and petri dishes. After all, I’d spent my whole life messing with science stuff. Chemistry sets. Microscopes. Electronic gadgets. Yup, I was headed for the laboratories of Science. And nothing in the world was going to change my mind.
Not that I was a slouch in high school English composition. I was pretty good at it, probably because I read a lot, always had. But I never gave a thought to Writing as a career, as something to be sought, as a life path to follow. I just needed good grades.
One day my guidance counselor called me into his office. More trouble? Nope. Mr. T had a job offer. The local office of the regional daily newspaper, the Cape Cod Standard Times, needed a high school stringer, someone to report and write news from my high school. Apparently, glowing reports of my writing skills had turned Mr. T to my direction. And it’s not as if I weren’t familiar with the newspaper business: I’d been a paper boy for a couple of years for this very same paper – even won a trip to Italy for writing a contest submission to Parade’s Young Columbus project.
So I said yes, why not. I could make a few bucks, do something different for a while, hell, maybe even get my name in the paper as a writer. Couldn’t hurt when it came time to apply to college.
Yeah. Goodbye science, hello journalism! Oh my, take my breath away why don’t you!
I interviewed with the managing editor of the local office, Bill S. He seemed to like me and seemed to think that I could actually write decently, though not professionally, not yet. He hired me and put me under the wing of Paul A., who was about ten years older and a real, day-in day-out staff writer, a real news reporter. Paul was about six feet tall, immensely thin, and a little hunched over, as if he’d spent his entire life from babyhood bent over a hot typewriter. Paul was to be my mentor, trainer, confessor even, in matters of the typewriter. He introduced me to Bob E., the photographer, who would fill the same role in matters of the camera. Bob was a gentle man, all smiles and fun, and intensely competent.
I should note that this all happened back in the days when newspapering was about hot lead Linotype machines, big black office typewriters, rotary dial telephones, and the Internet of the time, the teletype machines, big noisy electric keyboard machines that sent the news out from our office to the main office and picked up the news from the AP, from UPI, from the New York Times, from the world out there. That was newspapering, old style, and it was wonderful. Sometimes, later on, I got to work in the main office down the Cape, and I can still hear the sound, at eleven every morning, of the big presses starting to roll on the other side of the building, starting off slow, and building quickly to a rumble and a roar as they took the copy I’d written an hour ago and thundered it into the day’s newspaper. God, the smell of newsprint was intoxicating! And now, fifty years on, my favorite writing program is called WriteMonkey, and I love it for two things – it’s plain black screen that holds only the words I type, like a page of newsprint copy paper, and the sound effect of old fashioned typewriter keys as I type.
But all that came later. In the beginning I was just the new kid. They gave me a desk in the back of the newsroom, with a big black Underwood typewriter. Paul explained how to write a news story, how to use the inverted pyramid style, and the basic questions a story had to answer: who, what, when, where, and why. He taught me what was news and what wasn’t news, and how to write it. Paul was always calm, always professional. He was a gentle man, self-effacing but by no means weak or retiring. He knew how to dig a story out of a recalcitrant world.
Bob, the photographer, taught me the secrets of the old Forties-style Graflex Graphic cameras with focal plane shutters, those with the big flash attachment. He showed me how to slide the plates into the back, plates that held two pieces of film. I’d take a picture, then have to flip the plate to get the other film in place. He showed me how to develop film in the basement darkroom and how to make prints. He taught me what made a good picture, and what made a poor picture.
After a while they sent me out on some assignments that weren’t for the high school news. Take a picture of a meeting. Get information on some little story. And come summer they hired me as a full-time staff writer for the summer. The real deal. One of the best moments came when Bill called me in to his office about a short business story I’d written. It was only a few paragraphs. ‘First rate,’ he said, handing me the piece he’d cut from the news page.
My last summer I started writing a feature a week for the Sunday paper. Long pieces. With my byline identifying me as a Staff Writer. But I knew better: I was a reporter.
I learned to write in that little office downtown. I learned to write fast, to deadline. I learned to write clean copy that got to the point. I learned to think a story through as I wrote it: there wasn’t time to agonize over words and phrases. The clock was ticking. The main office would roll that big press at eleven in the morning, no matter what.
I learned other things too. Bill died of a massive heart attack a few years later. He was 39. Bob took a job in upstate New York. The office moved, got modernized. The paper changed its name. All that happened after I left the paper, about a year after high school, after I had worked for about a year down Cape as a full time staffer. I never worked as a reporter again after that last stint: I was too restless, had too many paths to run. Paul, the guy who taught me how to write, how to write news, moved up to the main office in Hyannis and stayed with the paper for his whole career. A few years ago I ran into Paul again. He was at the local supermarket, bagging groceries for minimum wage. Trying to make ends meet, he told me.
Seeing Paul again reminded me that there was no better place to learn to write than in a small newspaper office, facing daily deadlines, working with competent writers. Seeing Paul calmly bagging groceries reminded me that there are no guarantees in life, especially in the writing life. The best we can do is to write honestly, to write with integrity, to write with care, but no matter how good we are at it, we are subject to the same vicissitudes of the universe as everyone else.