The Birth of The Lion, Redux
July 26, 2014

I wrote this last year. But yesterday I saw in the obituaries of the Enterprise that my friend and mentor in those early days, Paul A., just died. He was 81 years old. Call this repeat publication a tribute to him and his influence on the course of my life.

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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.

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Some Personal Notes On Writing, For My Eyes Only, Of Course
September 8, 2013

An old obviousness: If you want to succeed as a writer, you have to write.

Okay, fair enough.

But what about the underlying question? What about the part that says ‘Do you want to succeed as a writer?’

There’s the nub of it. And it has a couple of nubs itself. What does ‘succeed as a writer mean’? And what does ‘want to succeed’ mean?

My newspaper days fixed in my head that I’d be a writer, that I was a writer, that I’d write for a living. And then I left the newspaper world and never found my way into any other world. And never found my way in the writing world either.

I’ve never had an ambition that amounted to anything worth the name ‘ambition’. If you’re ambitious that means you stick your head up, and if you stick your head up you get whacked. That’s what the various worlds I lived in taught me about ambition.

Ambition isn’t just wanting to do something particular. It involves also doing the work that gets you to the culmination of the ambition. And as far as writing goes, I haven’t done that. Writing has been merely a sideline to the playground that is my mind. Not a barren playground, certainly: I’ve written two novels, one for practice, one for real; a number of stories; a bunch of humor; and tons of stuff just for me, like this bit, that sometimes make it into the world.

But here, let’s look at what it takes to write. In the first place you have to write. In the second place you have to write. In the third place you have to write. It’s write all the way down. Pencil to paper. Fingers to keys. Ass to chair. Doesn’t matter if you want to. You have to. The act is all, the act is everything.

I don’t do that. I write in fits and starts.

But now, how about looking at what it takes to ‘succeed’ in writing. How do we define success? How do I define success, more to the point.

The world defines writing success as publication and sales of substantial numbers of books or stories or articles. By publication the world means ‘publishing house’. McGraw-Hill. Random House. And the like. By sales, the world means a lot of sales, a lot of money, enough to merit a lot of recognition and a degree of fame. The world doesn’t mean just making a living writing. A mid-list author isn’t ‘successful’ under the world’s definition. Not a failure, but not successful. That path requires submitting your work to the opinion, and sometimes educated judgment, of a lot of publishing professionals, in competition with infinite tons and tons of writers. Perhaps there is something to be said for the process; perhaps back in the day when writers were fewer and publishing was a different game something could have been said for the process. Today, I think, not so much. 

But the world’s definition of success may have to change now that e-publishing is a reality. Although, perhaps not, as epublished authors don’t have the fame aspect of success no matter how much money they make. They don’t get into the newspapers, they don’t get interviewed by the bubbleheads anchoring news programs, they don’t get into the gossip columns. The best may get some moments of Internet fame, or possibly transit over to paper publishing. But e-publishing does change the game. Bad writer, good writer, it doesn’t matter – you can publish. The only sieve is the market. And thus publishing no longer marks minimal writing success. Sales are the mark now.

But I can’t say I’m happy with any of those definitions of success. I need to decide what success is, means, to me. How do I define success, and what do I have to do to consider myself successful as a writer?

Well, I have to write. So far I’m failing that qualification. By ‘write’ I mean not these notes or little blurbs at Facebook (been away a week today). At a minimum I mean blog posts, but not just any blog post. I mean something considered, something organized in language to make a point or create an effect. Broadly, by ‘write’ I mean attempting consciously to organize thoughts into words, sentences, and paragraphs that communicate specific thoughts, emotions, ideas, to a reader somewhere out there in the vast.

In practical terms, I mean sitting at a desk with a keyboard or a pad and pencil and putting words on paper with the aim of creating, at the finish, perhaps in the first draft, perhaps after several drafts, an organized set of words, sentences, and paragraphs that create an effect in a reader.

But there’s more to it. I encompass in the meaning of ‘write’ the act of writing regularly. Every day. As if at a job. Writing every day is how skyscrapers get built, how cities get built, how civilizations get built. It must be a habit, an organized habit.

In fact, I might go so far as to define success as a writer as simply doing that, as simply writing every day in an organized way, at such and such a time and at such and such a place, or at different times and different places as suits one’s personality, but in any event every day, seeking to create an organized piece of writing that creates an effect in a reader.

The real battle, the real conquest, the real success, is the battle against oneself, the conquest of oneself: win that war and you can consider yourself a success.

So where does that leave me?

I am left feeling unarmed and out of shape. And stuck with the question, ‘Why write?’

Indeed. Why?

That’s a personal question. It is always a personal question. Some claim they have to write, that it is an obsession, if you will. Some claim they write for money, period. Some claim to write to give the world their message. Some claim to write simply to entertain, their readers or themselves. Some claim to write to excise old wounds or exorcise old ghosts. Likely there exist nearly as many reasons to write as there are writers.

So, what’s mine?

I could run over the usual reasons people give. Some would more or less fit, maybe some times and not other times, and to other degrees of more or less.

But the root of it all, down deep in the dirt of my self, comes to this: I like to move people. I like to batter a reader’s emotions. If my reader is not emotionally involved in a range of feeling from intense concentration to prolonged, outright bawling or laughter, I’ve done something amiss. And I know exactly why I’m that kind of writer. And no, I won’t tell you. That’s my little secret, all the more so because the only ones who were there at the time are dead.

In the end writing is not complicated. Write, or write not. There is nothing in the middle. Aristotle, 1: Yoda, 0. Or vice-versa. But there’s nothing relative about it, no matter which universe you are. Write or write not. One means success, the other means not not success. I’m the only one who cares what I do, and I think that is the hardest part about writing.

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The Grumpy Lion Answers Your Questions
July 31, 2007

Well, actually, no.

But once in a great while I feel the desperate need to clarify what the Lion is about. Why another snarky little blog that gets fifty readers a day, and in the great scheme of things doesn’t contribute all that much meaning to the great conversation of democracy…

Next question…

In part, I got tired of trying to write letters to the editor, only to come up against the competition of hundreds or thousands of others trying to break through to the editors, and seeing that when a letter does break through, the editors, who can’t write nearly as well, butcher the prose.

In part, I hate what Bush and the Republicans have done to this country. That whole bunch comprises some of the most despicable people in this country ever to rise to prominence in politics, in the press and the media, in business, in the law. And I had no voice. A vote is not a voice when the electoral process is corrupt. A vote is not a voice when the press lies and distorts, and kowtows to power. So, to keep my blood pressure at an acceptable level and preserve my health and sanity, I write here.

I don’t bring any new information. I don’t break new ground. I don’t investigate. I do read the Boston Globe every morning, with an orange marker in hand and a note pad and pen next to the paper. I read pretty much everything, and as I read I note the stories that engage my attention, that engage my outrage. It may be a quote buried in the story. It may be the whole story. And then I write, I write fast and hot, as if fighting a daily deadline like I used to do at the old Cape Cod Standard Times long ago.

I realize that in the great conversation of democracy what I do doesn’t amount to much. Maybe someone will get a different take on an issue because of what I say here. Maybe not. But I want to be part of that conversation. I refuse to allow the wingnuts and psychotics, the Bushes and the Rices and the Rumsfelds, the Giulianis and Romneys and McCains, to dominate the conversation, to take from me the right to speak my mind, the right to live as a free American, a real American who believes in freedom and liberty for all, not just the moneyed few and their yes-men, not just the haves and have-mores, as Bush defines his base of supporters.

If one word I say, if one sentence I write, contributes to bringing Bush and Cheney, Rice and Gonzales, and all the rest of them down; if I contribute in any way to making these people accountable for their crimes, for their brutality, for their studied destruction of the Constitution and the rule of law on their way to creating an American tyranny, then I will have done my part as a free citizen of a free nation to preserve and recreate an America, the real America, that lives in the deepest heart of true patriots.

That’s why there’s a Grumpy Lion. That’s why I write.

Sometimes I need to remind myself.

Thanks for your patience.

And Now, Boston Globe Sports, And Stupid Sports Writing
June 6, 2007

In the Globe’s sports section, on page D3, is a story headlined “Gold Cup Now Glittering Event”.

If you already know what this particular Gold Cup is, you’ll understand the story is about soccer. If you don’t know about the Gold Cup, you won’t get clued in until near the bottom of the second graph in the second column of the story.

Doesn’t do a lot to invite the curious who want to learn about soccer, does it?

In fact, I, who like soccer and know something about it, didn’t realize the story was a soccer story until the end of the third paragraph, first column, when the World Cup was mentioned.

Thanks, guys.