October 10, 2010

Words Are All I Have to say

This piece was written in September for another blog as a result of some "dust-ups" between writers on that site.

Words are pretty much all I have. Can't sing, can't dance, can't paint, don't hunt, don't cook, don't tan, don't work on cars, don't cat juggle. There is reading and then there is writing. This is my personal writing history. I'm not sure where it leaves me, nor am I sure if it matters or if it is all just semantics, that which is beyond our own joy.

Am I a writer? Am I a journalist? Am I a flack? I started writing for a weekly newspaper at minimum wage when I was fourteen. Like Elmira Gulch in The Wizard of Oz, I rode my fat-tired bicycle around the village, taking pictures and writing stories. The editors of this little paper ran Linotype machines all morning, and left at noon for the bar next door to drink their lunch. I can't remember them every returning after lunch.

The managing editor taught me how to count headlines, proof legal ads, take wedding information, take obits from the funeral home, and check the police blotter at the police station.

During college, I held paid writing jobs for a number of publications, which helped pay the rent and fund Dollar Pitcher Night at the Chug-O-Mug. My college had a magazine style yearbook and I was responsible for three sections of copy and received twenty hours a week at student wages. Among the joys of this time in life was attending the National Collegiate Press Association convention in New Orleans and watching our professors warm up to strange women on the French Quarter. And members of the 1977 Clemson University newspaper staff, we will never forget you.

During summers, holidays, and other breaks, I worked at our county daily newspaper where I still write a column on alternate Thursdays. This newsroom was substantially larger than the little weekly that had three employees and me. On the editorial side, if you could wave away some of the omnipresent cigarette smoke, you would find a city reporter, society reporter, several news and feature writers, and the editor. The editor was a woman of tremendous personal stature, except that she was only four feet eight inches tall. She had no children and treated her employees like family. Sometimes she was a little wacky. She might send me over to the Ace Hardware to buy seeds for her flower boxes, and when I got back she rammed the old Rolleiflex-TLR in my hands and sent me out to cover a fatal car accident. We'll call it eclectic experience.

Working for the paper that gave me so much opportunity and real world experience again has been a joy. I wanted to give something back to them, and writing the column has by far given much back to me. I have not lived in that community for thirty years. My family lived there from 1830 until 2005, so we have a rich history interwoven with the community. Lots to write about!

In graduate school I was a Publications Assistant, as opposed to a Graduate Assistant, at the Alumni center. I wrote copy for the university's alumni magazine and other publications. After graduate school I went to work at a large state university in the publications office where I edited faculty publications. Those were the good old days, if there ever was such a thing. That office had four writers. Four. I suspect now there is one person who serves as director and does everything else.

On my first day, the Director of University Relations took me out to lunch with him and the news director of a local television station. I was 23 and the only hard liquor I ever drank was from a frat party's Hairy Buffalo. We were poor, we drank beer. My new boss and his friend each drank about four martinis at lunch (Remember the four martini lunch?) My two main responsibilities at that job were editing the university publications and the monthly magazine of their NPR station.

Over the next twenty years I worked in jobs where writing was my primary job function. I also took classes about and learned a technical writing skill that is very challenging: grant writing. Now that's a writing challenge. Take everything you know and throw it out the window, especially if it is a state or federal grant. This is a lucrative field, someone with real talent could do very well. I don't have the intestinal fortitude to write grants all the time without frequent electroshock.

I also continued to write freelance feature stories outside of work when the Great Spirit moved me. About ten years ago I moved into a sales role. No one on my team could put a sentence together. I became the go-to person for presentations and speeches.

Two years ago when I lost that sales job I started ramping up my freelancing and much to my delight I found plenty of work. I suspect the reason there is much freelance work in my area is that there are so many layoffs. People who were working full-time as reporters or in some type of editorial services aren't interested in per project work. I cannot say it has been incredibly lucrative but it has been steady and there are a wide variety of projects available. I write about what I want to write about.

So I don't know where this leaves me in the whole debate. Any person who has paid his dues and achieved recognized success in a variety of disciplines across the writing spectrum deserves our admiration. And it is wonderful when someone with those skills and accolades freely helps others learn and grow.

I love to write. I like writing on this site (the writer's site) because I can write nearly every day, and I know that will make me better. I also like reading pieces from other writers and seeing their personal growth. This is a virtual world, and I don't have a lot of back-story relationships because I do have that pesky little eight-to-five non-writing job I have to do all day.

Be kind to each other. It gets difficult sometimes because our pieces are often a written extension of our hearts and souls. And those are the pieces I want to read, those that stay with me all day. I find myself thinking about a wonderful headline, or snappy dialogue, or prose that is almost poetry, or an ending that leaves me breathless or laughing.

Once I worked in an office that had a sign that said, "Check your ego at the door." I don't think that applies to writers. "Bring your ego when you comes -- it shows through to your soul and I want to see it."