I get asked all the time – well, once or twice a year, maybe – what it’s like to be a working journalist. Well, you know, I hardly ever get asked that actually, but I was, in truth, asked it just this morning.
When I was young and wanted to be a writer, I was motivated by the idea of sharing my wisdom and creativity with the world combined with the fact I’d been told that females found writers terribly romantic and sexy and consequently writers get laid more often than can be good for anybody.
I wanted to be one of those kinds of writers.
Instead, I became a journalist. The fringe benefits didn’t turn out to be quite as salaciously enchanting, but it was an interesting life in all.
So, as follows is a little bit about the elements of being a working journalist (which I persevere with, albeit in only bits and pieces). I like to call being a working journalist as having a surfeit of ‘scribe-iness’, as opposed to having a surfeit of aroused ladies at one’s beck-and-call.
A friend of mine who is a columnist in a larger city newspaper recently recounted how he was called upon to sit in on a journalism class at a nearby university. The object of the exercise, as the j-prof explained, was for him to sit in the class and just show the students what his ‘process’ was – what he did to pull a column together.
What a hideous exercise for anybody to have to undertake – sort of akin to what you do in the bathroom once the door is shut and locked – and, in other words, it’s just better not to know. Much as you don’t want to see what goes into sausages or to be entertained by a graphic account of your sister-in-law’s sex life. Make the sign of the cross and get outta there would be my advice.
Maybe that’s why I never took a journalism course. In my esteem, journalism is not something that can be taught. You either have an affinity and skill, or you don’t. The fact that somebody is inclined to publish my words is a reasonable indication there is a modicum of skill afoot. If somebody doesn’t, and especially if many people don’t want to publish you, this is an indication to get back to your mortician’s assistant apprenticeship program.
Anyway, my friend’s account of his process was quite amusing. And, of course, as such things do, it made me think of my own. I was once interviewed by a paper after I’d won a national award, and the young reporter wanted to know then how one of my columns came about. I still have the article. In it I lied outrageously and talked a lot about sweating bullets of blood, and so forth. Back in those days I was probably sweating bullets of the previous evening’s indulgence.
Today I no longer write a regular column, though I do write a lot of articles, some of them even quite serious. Lots of purple prose brings in those who pay the admission. So, rather than column-writing, I will consider what it’s like to write an article for which I have received editorial approval.
It goes like this:
* I have editorial approval. That is a good thing. That means I can get on with it. Cool, and at the end I’ll get paid.
*I have editorial approval. That means I’ll ‘have’ to get on with it. What if it turns out to be a piece of crap and destroys what little reputation I might fancy I have? I always feel like that at this point.
* But, with that approval, I’ll just have to get to it. ‘Getting to it’ is very definitely my own approach. It includes: having a further cup of coffee, playing a few rounds of solitaire, checking my email (the SPAMMERS still seem to be concerned about the functionality of my penis), checking for blog comments, checking other people’s blogs, then back to getting to what I’m actually supposed to be doing.
* When I began writing many years ago it was via typewriter. At that point I would stare at a blank sheet of paper. Now I stare at a blank Microsoft Word screen. Same thing, somehow.
* Many people develop a ‘plan’ and try to adhere to it. My plan is in my head – or not. If it’s not then I go to the old newspaper trick of writing my lead sentence. If the lead is a good one, then everything else should fall into place. If the lead is not good, then nothing will fall into place. But even if the lead (‘lede’, in newspaper jargon) is wonderful, it doesn’t always mean things will fall into place. That would be like judging the future prospects of a marriage by the beauty of the wedding ceremony.
* Continuing: I pour another cup of coffee. Try a little more solitaire and then check all the above things that I’d checked about 15-minutes earlier. After all, I have my lead, so everything should take off from here.
* Continuing: I look out the window. I write a few emails to friends, obsessively go to Facebook and check it out, look at stuff others have posted, then get back to it. Procrastination, of course. ofttimes inspiration can come from procrastination. Even more often, not. Remind me to tell you sometime of the comparison between procrastination and masturbation.
* I continue and I plod and after a few more FB check ins, I finish it. I then print it out for Wendy to edit. No sensible newspaper person trusts his or her own editing. Objectivity is needed. Wendy marks up the pages. I think she takes glee in so doing. . I gasp at the number of typos and non-sequiturs that have leapt out at her. I fix them. Looks good.
* I send it off and await receipt notification from the paper. I check out another version of solitaire, happy that a fine job has been accomplished. About two hours later I check some scribbled notes I’d made beforehand. Oh shit, think I, I neglected to include this vital element. Will anyone notice? Think of how many things you read on a daily basis in which the journalist has “neglected to include a vital element.”
Scary business this is.
I think that may be how wars get started.
And that’s my day in the life of a scribe.