Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Other writing experience

It has taken me a long time to finally commit myself to write a novel. I’m a lot older than I thought I would be when the literary impulse was tugging at me in my youth. Work obligations and fear are probably the biggest reasons I delayed. But part of it was just not knowing how to go about it. Some people can launch right in when they are young and understand how stories are put together, but I wasn’t one of them. I would write a sketch of an interesting person in an interesting situation and couldn’t understand why it didn’t feel like a story.

Luckily I was always able to have writing as a part of my employment in some capacity so that I was at least keeping up and improving my chops at the sentence level, and I think some of that early experience has been constructive.

-Teaching ESL: First thing after college I traveled abroad teaching ESL. That’s not really writing experience, but (since there was no real curriculum and I had to wing it) I did have to teach myself a lot about grammar. I learned a lot about the different verb tenses just trying to figure out how to explain to people the different between He had done, He will have done, He was going to do, and He did.

-Grad school: Next was a lot of writing in an academic context aiming to get a Ph.D. in the humanities. (In the end, I didn’t make it that far.) Now, I am decidedly not an anti-intellectual. I think the values and goals and methods of scholarship and intellectual work are important. I treasure what it can be. But I’ve come to think that academia can’t be trusted with it. My problem is with the institution and the culture of arrested development it encourages. I think most academics have made bargains that betray the potential of intellectual work. This period was a giant waste of time for me, and I think it was generally bad for the writing impulse and bad for writing skills. Generally. I do think that writing can benefit from a certain amount of analytical skill, and graduate school was good for developing that.

-Bookstores: I had a period where I worked in book retail a lot. Customers would say to me, “Oh, it must be wonderful to work with books all day.” Right. Just like I love coffee so I would love working at Starbucks all day. Neither of those jobs are working with books or working with coffee. They’re working with customers, and since a lot of people when they feel anonymous in a crowded retail setting indulge their worst social instincts, it wasn’t usually very pleasant. All I learned about literature there was what was how much it weighs, since with my bad attitude with customers I spent a lot of time in shipping and receiving.

-Small town newspaper: My first real paid writing gig. It was the least glamorous thing a writer could do, but it actually was quite important for me. It was for a company that published a lot of small weekly suburban papers out of one operation. My first job was simply writing blurbs for the calendar column. I would take a pile of faxed press releases and retype that careful prose into some other careful prose that followed our format. Something like: “Square dance lessons, Monday, 7 p.m., Village Community Center.” It sounds horrible, but there’s something to be said for the close attention to copyediting and format that it required. A comma here, a hyphen there, bold for this kind of info, italics for that kind and so on. Paying attention to that helped later.

Each time somebody up the food chain left the company I would get assigned new duties. After that came “rewrite.” In this case it was taking the press releases that seemed slightly more worthy of attention and basically flipping the sentences around so we weren’t printing them verbatim. Now I was getting three-paragraph stories published—dozens of them a week—with no byline.

Next came obits. This was my big breakthrough. I had to call people up and ask them questions and turn their responses into stories of all new material. This was real interviewing and reporting. Usually I was talking to the staff of the funeral home. There were maybe six funeral homes or so that would regularly fax over their own write ups on the memorials they were handling that week. I would call up each one and get more information than they had sent over or get some clarification. And sometimes I talked to the families. The format was essentially three parts—the deceased’s unique story in two paragraphs or less, all the details on their survivors and predeceased, and where to send flowers. It taught me two things that were important: Listening for the story, because everything has to have a hook, even a 100-word obit, and making sure you spell names right. I never felt so bad as a reporter as the first and last time I got a message saying that the name of the deceased was misspelled. To this day, if you told me your name was Jones, I would spell it back to you to make sure I have it right.

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