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Under the Influence of: Reporting
New hope for old journalists
First a gross generality…
I’ve found there are two types of fiction writers: those who began as journalists, and those who began by formal study in fiction-writing programs. Of the two, the former tend to use simple language to tell a driving, well-plotted story. While the latter use beautiful language to craft stories that can be clever and lovely or funny, but tend not to be page-turners. Again, this is a gross observation.
Journalists soldier on, such as Nora Ephron, through every iteration—reporting, essays, novels, film, live theater—of a writing career.
Fiction writing majors, teach fiction writing. A huge, gross generalization, I admit.
In college I took one fiction-writing course. The professor asked each of us our major, and I said journalism, and he said, “Journalism isn’t writing. It’s formula. A vocational degree.” He also said this to Janet Bardosi, a friend of mine, also a journalism major sitting next to me. The professor’s method was to read aloud each student submission in a withering voice, so Janet and I only wrote in first-person. Stories that began with lines like, “The dog’s penis tasted salty…,” and descended from there into first-person accounts of acts too obscene to mention here. It was our joy to put such words into the professor’s lofty mouth for a few weeks. We both dropped the course a heartbeat before we could be flunked. That was my only formal training in the writing of fiction.
Granted, there weren’t a lot of writing programs around in 1982. And I was among a generation who held Woodward and Bernstein and Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, not to mention Nellie Bly, as heroes. I wanted an exciting life, and to read about Bly being thrown into prisons and asylums and writing exposés, not to forget Sinclair Lewis with The Jungle, well it was hard to imagine a more exciting life. Oh, to be Hemingway or even Hedda Hopper and always around the action, that’s how I wanted to live.
A couple years back I spoke to a class of journalism students at the University of Oregon, and I could smell this same hunger. To be a reporter is to be around people at the best and worst moments of their lives. It means to be constantly moved to tears or enraged, which is probably why reporters have the second-highest rate of alcoholism. Second only to dentists. To be a reporter is a shortcut to manic depression.
Given my chance to fire young college-going minds, I’d folded. Bitter from paying off a fat batch of college loans, I’d prattled about job skills applicable to many fields. And I’d finished by telling them not to smoke marijuana. Until recently I’ve told myself that I wasted over a decade toking bong hits and guzzling bong water when I could’ve been crafting elegant prose alongside, I don’t know, Mary Gaitskill.
The truth is I was always writing. As a stringer for newspapers. As an intern. Eventually as a bona fide full-time reporter for a newspaper, albeit a very small one. Despite the parties and the bong and the Cacophony Society and an army of poorly chosen associates, I was always writing. Before ever dabbling in fiction…
I became a newspaper reporter…
This will be short. Through college I worked as a stringer, submitted stories to The Oregonian, which always wanted “college life” features, and to the Eugene Register-Guard as well as the Springfield News. I interned for a year at the Cottage Grove Sentinel, if you’ve seen the parade scene at the end of the film Animal House you’ve seen the red-brick downtown of Cottage Grove, Oregon. If you’ve seen the film Stand by Me, it was also shot in and around Cottage Grove. Among my assignments, my editor sent me to infiltrate the on-location crew of the River Phoenix movie and covertly shoot candid photos. Rob Reiner himself yelled at me. After college I worked for the Gresham Outlook in a suburb of Portland, Oregon. By November 1986 I was on the Freightliner assembly line.
Freelance journalism, talk about a tough way to make a living. I “bicycled” my work; this was what local reporters called it when you wrote and rewrote a single story so you could sell it to radio, print, and television. I wrote the program for the 1986 Mt. Hood Festival of Jazz. Every kid I knew had her own collection of “clippings” like actors have their “reel.” My final reporting job paid five dollars an hour. What with student loans to repay and a broken-down car I’d bought in 1978, I bailed from the fourth estate.
Reporting gives you a great sense of what makes a good story…
If nothing else, reporting hones your gut intuition for a good story. On a newspaper you’ve got to attend pitch meetings where each staff member proposes ideas for stories. You’ve got to suggest a “hook” (a detail that makes the story timely) and an “angle” (a way to approach the story). In effect you’ve got to sell the idea to your editors and peers, and be ready to accept their feedback, or to have your idea dismissed. Most important, you’ve got to come to that table with a list of ideas. This forces you to always be trawling the world for compelling people, events, details. You pay close attention to everything because several times each week you’ve got to pitch a list of proposed stories to people generally smarter and more experienced than yourself.
Reporting gives you a thick skin…
During my time in Gresham I worked across the aisle from a city beat writer named Debby Klonowski. Every morning we made countless cold calls to follow up on leads for stories. Or to set up interviews, or fact check. I just sat there with the phone glued to my head for two hours, dialing up a huge number of people who didn’t want to talk to me. Through all of this I’d be spelling my name aloud to the called-upon: “P-A-L-A-H-N-I-U-K” while Debby spelled aloud “K-L-O-N-O-W-S-K-I.” We sat so close that we could reach out and hand one another papers during this morning-long spelling bee.
People cursed me. People hung up. Most calls were dead ends. It was brutal and monotonous, but hell, it was nothing personal. Even now I try to be that kid who could take the rejection and abuse and keep slugging away for hours. Reporting makes you that person.
Reporting gives you a chance to experiment…
For much of the last century journalism tinkered with the language. There was a pot of money to be made if you could appeal to immigrants with limited English, so spelling got simpler. Sentences got shorter. Watch the newsreel at the beginning of the film Citizen Kane and you’ll hear an excellent send-up of the backwards “TimeSpeak” that had become the breathless hallmark of Time magazine. And for four decades the Chicago Tribune campaigned for phonetic spell. For instance, printing “thru” instead of “through.”
Every newspaper chain had its own style guide, and writers had to adhere to those rules. Often to career-making effect. A young Ernest Hemingway was forever shaped by the style guide during his first job, at the Kansas City Star. As per that guide:
Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative.
Likewise, as an advertising copywriter, F. Scott Fitzgerald was compelled to produce the romantic, image-driven prose that made him as a writer. Closer to home, the humor writer Mark Leyner slogged along writing copy for medical device catalogues, always exposed to trusses and catheters. All of this permeates his books such as My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist and The Sugar Frosted Nut Sack.
Writing by someone else’s rules sucks at first, but it breaks you out of being stuck within your own sense of good writing. Technical writing—George Saunders was a technical writer—drills you in the imperative (implied second-person, i.e. “Chock the tires and set the emergency brake.”) and exposes you to jargon and lingo you’d otherwise never be forced to use.
Reporting makes your work less precious…
Whether or not the piece is great or awful, it gets thrown away. There’s a wonderful sense of freedom in that.
Reporting acclimates you to the grind…
To paraphrase Joy Williams, a writer has to be bright enough to get the idea and develop it, but also dull enough to do the scutwork involved in getting it published.
Unless you really learn to love the whole process—the rewrites, the copy edits, the proofing, everything—you’ll burn out fast. Bad reviews are the least of it.
As a newbie reporter I was stuck with writing obituaries. The local funeral homes would send me forms that listed the details of each person to die that week. Just the stats and funeral plans and next of kin. And if you messed up ONE TINY DETAIL, say, you botched the date or time for the burial and consequently no one attended, well, you’d have angry people storming the newspaper office and angry phone calls for a month. Your Pulitzer-winning feature would be wrapped around a fish the next day, but people clip and treasure obituaries. Obituaries are forever. It’s these most-boring jobs where the attention to accuracy is paramount.
Reporting trains you in pattern recognition…
One of my recent students was a fellow journalist from the University of Oregon. He’d been drilled in the age-old method of using the “inverted pyramid.” This requires that the most important details—the who, what, where, when, and why—be included in the opening line or paragraph. Additional details had to be added in the order of their importance with the most trivial tagged on at the end, where they could be cut if the Composing Room decided to truncate the story to fit the news hole.
Gotta love the lingo. The “news hole” refers to the page area for news, versus the “ad hole,” which is the area devoted to advertising.
This student of mine still wants to put everything in that opening line. For journalists the hardest part of writing fiction is teasing out the story rather than announcing everything up front. To use the stripper analogy, a journalist drops trou while the fiction writing is just pinching the glove off of one fingertip.
Consider that fiction writers should begin with the smallest compelling detail and build toward the most important near the end. Recognize this distinction, and switching between journalism and fiction writing will be a snap.
Reporting acclimates you to editing…
Editors are your curse and your redemption. One editor decided our local “church” page of news needed some oomph so she assigned me to write a series. Each week I was to interview a local religious leader and distill all the tenets of that faith down to sixteen column inches. A soft-news feature, but not. From the Baptists to the Baha’i to the Sikhs, no one can boil their theology down that small. At least no one I talked to. This led to endless hours of interviews and editorial input and rewrites for a series of articles no one would ever read.
I was trapped in bad-idea hell, and my editor didn’t want to drop the project. Each religious leader had final approval of the copy, and none of them was ever satisfied. And one week the editor sent me to attend a backwoods, black-stocking service. It was held in a meeting hall deep in some forest, and during the service a baby began to cry. The mother took the kid out. I followed, well behind, and watched while she beat the kid unconscious and took it back into the service. Then I ran. The whole set-up made The Children of the Corn look like Norman Rockwell.
I hadn’t gone unnoticed. Within a couple days a contingent of shouting zealots stormed the newspaper. My doomed series about religions got canned. But… I walked off with much of my novel Survivor.
That said, I will always be frozen in those trees, stunned by the sound of that one final punch and that baby suddenly silent.
Reporting makes you horrible…
In the Willamette Valley, immigrant families would try to heat their homes using charcoal hibachis. What worked in Vietnam didn’t work in a weather-stripped mobile home. And I’d tag along as the sheriff inspected the dead: the parents, the kids, all peacefully dead in their beds. The immense sadness didn’t translate to the inverted-pyramid formula.
Another time, our sister newspaper in Creswell, Oregon ran a front page photo of an Oregon State Patrolman holding an infant at the scene of a traffic accident. The baby smiles and reaches down toward its mother and a fallen bag of groceries—scattered oranges and cans of soup—that spill from a crushed car. The mother is very pretty and very young and dead.
Another time two of my fellow reporters had been dispatched to cover the installation of a sign. This was the largest sign ever to be erected along the Interstate-5 freeway. It marked a new McDonald’s where local officials stood around a huge gravel parking lot and watched. It had been raining. Everyone stood in large puddles of water. When the rain stopped a construction crane hefted the enormous McDonald’s sign and—swung it into a high-voltage transmission line.
The power shot down through the crane, into the operator within the cab, and into the puddles of water. People dropped where they stood. I can’t recall how many people were killed, but our two reporters came back to the newsroom weeping and horrified. What had started as a bland story had become a scoop. I asked for their film so I could develop the photos. They hadn’t taken any. Not of the fallen people or the slumped crane operator. And when I asked why they hadn’t one reporter jumped me and stomped me and cursed me. I can’t say I’d have taken any pictures, but I felt that doing so was the duty of a reporter. We’re there to witness and record. Not just the nice things—the news that’s fit to print—but everything.
The co-worker who published the photo of the smiling baby and the dead mother, he got shit canned. People don’t want to know the ugliest parts of reality. At least not over breakfast. There had to be a way to depict the real world while still honoring those stories. And that’s why I began writing “fiction.”
That’s what I should’ve told that classroom of journalism students: You’re doing the right thing, for you. It’s a terrible, wonderful job, and if you don’t like it you can do something else. Recently I met the head of programming for HBO, and she’d been a journalism major, and she’d seen her then-boyfriend faint in Manhattan as I read Guts, and that’s another thing you can do with a degree in journalism. Run HBO.
Congratulations and a hat tip to Kerri and her new feature-writing gig for a newspaper.
Tom Spanbauer always referred to writing the first draft of a novel as “shitting out the lump of coal.” When it was too early to give significant feedback, the story was still being discovered, Tom would say, “Just keep writing. Shit out the lump of coal, and then we’ll take a good look at it.”
Well, thank you for your patience. I’ve now finished a boffo first draft of a new novel, and tomorrow it goes to New York. Start date January 31st, “finish” date March 13th. It’s not perfect, but it’s got out. I look forward to being more present here.
The dreaded Easter Quiz trembles on the horizon.