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.
Love the photo and the hat 🙂
Like you I read the daily newspaper at a young age. In fact, my parents told me that I learned how to read while asking my dad to tell me “what was the newspaper saying.” I do remember being intrigued by all the black signs that captivated my father. I’ve no doubt that your newspaper experience has made you a better writer and editor too.
It’s so interesting reading your background. I kind of want to know what happened next. How did you end up getting into blogging after leaving the newspapers? (Or do you still work for a newspaper? … I admit I popped over from April A-Z.)
Through your post, it’s interesting to see how time and technology have changed the reporting industry. And I’m sure you have more than a few thoughts about all of the politics surrounding “truthful reporting” that are going around now. I’d love to have the experience you have with cutting inches off of text quickly and focusing your writing. Maybe one day…
Thanks for sharing your story! I loved reading it! And happy A-Z! 🙂
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I do have a few thoughts about “truthful reporting,” and I laugh out loud whenever anyone claims that “objectivity” is either possible or desirable! A famous Bismarck quote has it that if one loves sausage or the law, one shouldn’t watch either of them being made. I would add “the news” to that list. 🙂
As to my trajectory — you can glimpse some of it in “E is for Editing,” and in “O is for Online” (which I will get around to writing today), but here’s the basic timeline. In 1999, having gradually acquired some publisher clients, I left the newspaper to become a freelance editor. I finished writing my first novel around 2002 or 2003 and finally got it into print in 2008. It got almost no attention from Vineyard bookstores or newspapers, which shocked me into pretty much giving up writing for several years.
Then, in January 2011, I finally got myself on Facebook. That changed everything. Ebooks were coming into their own, and I realized I could reach an audience even if the bookstores and newspapers totally ignored me. I started this blog that summer and my writing-editing blog, Write Through It a couple years later. I started working on a second novel, which I eventually set aside because it wasn’t jelling, but not before it had spun off Wolfie, my novel in progress, which is finally approaching completion. And that’s where I am now. 🙂
Thanks for stopping by!
“it’s not the reporter, supremely competent though she is, who gets the whole story.”
Wel, that’s true to life.
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Just about everyone i worked with at the Martha’s Vineyard Times got into journalism through the back door, which is to say that none of us had been to J-school or had newspaper experience from anywhere else. The situation was somewhat different at the Vineyard Gazette, which from 1975 to 2010 was published and edited by various members of the Reston family, but for the most part their on-the-ground workforce — the reporters, stringers, editors, and photographers — looked a lot like their counterparts at the Times, and indeed a few people had gone from one paper to the other.
I gathered from many conversations with “real-world” journalists that this was frowned upon: reporters should not be closely connected to the place they were covering. The longer I lived on the Vineyard, the more clearly I could see the rationale behind this — then came that momentous first Clinton visit, when crackerjack reporters from all around the country swarmed around the island in search of stories and for the most part got it at best incomplete and at worst laughably wrong.
In the wake of the 2016 election, this seems to have changed somewhat. Some news organizations are “embedding” correspondents in particular areas in order to cover them more effectively and/or making better use of local contributors. My experience on the Vineyard says that both are needed: the outsider with fresh eyes and experience of other places, and the insider whose feet are deep in the mud of a place.
“[M]ud of a place” is always preferable. You can only learn so much when you parachute into the mud.
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Ah, today’s youth know nothing of the levels of inventiveness it once took to KEEP from retyping an entire letter, story, or report! I remember whiting out, retyping the correction, then PHOTOCOPYING the letter less the letterhead onto a NEW blank piece of letterhead stationary. Yes, indeed. You had to be smart AND sneaky!
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Love reading about your career! S e of it brings back memories of my days as college news layout editor (tape and exact knife, indeed!) but mostly it fills me with admiration for your determination to interact with the world directly. Kudos and a round of whatever!