I started reading a daily newspaper — the news section, not just the funnies — relatively early in life, when I was around 10. As a preteen and then teenage Arabist I clipped stories about the Middle East, taped or glued them to bond paper, and filed them in a two-drawer file cabinet. Most were from the Boston Globe, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Sunday New York Times, which were the papers my father subscribed to or brought home from work.
In high school a couple of friends and I put out an occasional newspaper that, as I recall it, was short on news but long on tongue-in-cheek commentary.
Through college I wrote regularly for the papers, The Hoya at Georgetown University, the Daily Pennsylvanian’s 34th Street features section and then the alternative Penn Voice at the University of Pennsylvania.
My forte was always reviews and commentary. I don’t recall ever doing any reporting, apart from the story I wrote for a one-off class newspaper in fifth grade. For that one I interviewed a neighbor about her family’s plans to build a swimming pool. Note to anyone who unearths this journalistic effort of ca. 1961: The swimming pool was never built. This may have put me off reporting from the get-go.
Having graduated from college with a liberal arts degree, a demonstrated talent for writing, and no other marketable skills, I sent out cover letters and résumés to numerous small newspapers in New England and upstate New York. This elicited a couple of interviews, one tryout, and no offers.
The handwriting on the wall said I’d better learn how to type, so I signed up for Katy Gibbs’s eight-week secretarial course for unemployable female liberal arts graduates. (In those days, unemployable male liberal arts graduates generally went to grad school or law school or were mysteriously routed into management training programs.)
No regrets about finally learning to type, not least because within fewer than three years my secretarial skills had led straight to my first editorial job, in the publications office of American Red Cross national headquarters. (I moved back to D.C. in May of 1977.)
While learning to type, take shorthand, and write business letters, I worked part-time as the proofreader for the Massachusetts Lawyers News (title approximate, memory hazy), which was published by the same company that published the local paper, the Weston Town Crier. The production process was a hybrid of old and new photocomposition techniques. Producing a galley required several time-consuming steps, so I became adept at fixing typos with Scotch tape and an X-acto knife.
Truth to tell, I had little interest in or aptitude for reporting. I wanted to engage with the world around me, including the people in it, and write about my own take on it all. But life kept pushing me in a newspaperly direction.
I moved to Martha’s Vineyard in 1985 with enough savings to live frugally for about a year. Before they ran out completely I started doing odd jobs, including, of course, typing. Thanks to a classified ad I was running in the Martha’s Vineyard Times, I was recruited by Eileen Maley, then the Times features editor, to fill in for the editorial typesetter, who was going on sick leave. After a couple more temp gigs they hired me as part-time proofreader. As a stringer, I started writing theater reviews and the occasional feature and op-ed. When Eileen retired in 1991, I succeeded her. (This story is recounted in more detail in “E is for Editing.”)
How did this influence my writing and me as a writer? I can’t count the ways. Start with deadlines. Deadlines had to be met. At some point you had to stop writing, tweaking, and rewriting because the story had to go to press. In those days before newspapers moved online, space was as inflexible as deadlines. Stories had to be cut to fit the space available, and the space available might change at the last minute if an ad came in or a lead story went long. I learned to cut inches off stories, not just a sentence or two.
I can’t say it cured me of my perfectionism, but it gave me plenty of ammo to use against it.
I also learned to love seeing my work in print only a few days after I’d written it, and to realize that hey, it was actually pretty good. This affinity for (nearly) immediate gratification was, not surprisingly, a drawback when I got down to the long haul of writing my first novel. And when Mud was greeted with (nearly) complete lack of interest by the island’s bookstores and newspapers, I was devastated. It was years before I started writing seriously again. One big factor was the rise of blogs, social media, and ways of reaching an audience that didn’t depend on island bookstores and newspapers.
Of course my newspaper experience is all over The Mud of the Place. I get warm fuzzies rereading the many newspaper scenes, remembering how much I loved working for the Times in those days. But I can’t help noticing that it’s not the reporter, supremely competent though she is, who gets the whole story.