Thursday, November 15, 2012

On Writing

And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise.  The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.
Sylvia Plath (1932–1963), poet

Initially I was going to title this “Why I Write” because that is the standard phase used in most colleges and universities working off of the essay from George Orwell detailing his expedition to the world of writing. Instead I opted for the simple naming convention used by the father of essays Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, because I hope to emulate his philosophy, if not his style to write exploratory, free-floating pieces. His writing did not explain or teach anything, he just shared his thoughts. Here is my first such piece.

I have written for years, but not certain when I first declared that is what I wanted to do. I do recall in the 9th grade that I wanted to be on the school newspaper, but was too intimidated to sign up. Now that may seem a bit late, but I was very emotionally immature for my age.  As I navigate old age, I guess it doesn’t matter anymore if I have caught up or not, I am at least aware of that major flaw. When I got to high school and started hanging out with a new group of friends who said they were going to sign up for the journalism class, I was in.

The journalism class was a lot of fun. Writing stories for a girlfriend to help her pass the class and for me to get a date with her. Not sure if I really learned anything, except maybe the power of the press. When some players from the school football team wrote a letter to the editor, we had our cartoonist show the gym teacher writing on the chalkboard what the players should write. It was unfair on our part and got our absentee instructor in hot water too.

I moved on to college, two-year college first, known in California as junior college. One of my colleagues from the high-school paper served on the Jr. college paper with me. He covered sports and I wrote features about movies and music. I was qualified in neither area. I just happened to enjoy both. However, we did win awards for the best school newspaper in our division.

Fortunately back then it was not unusual to have a local town newspaper and my town had a nice one of about 20,000 circulation. I worked in the back shop where the paper was cut and pasted together from typesetters retyping the reporters’ stories, to paste-up professionals who expertly wielded Exacto knives as they followed the layout pages the managing editor sent back. The stories were run through hot waxing machines leaving a thin coating of wax on the back of the typeset article so it could be attached to full-size page that would be photographed to come out as a full-size negative, plated and then printed. Because I was on staff and a journalism major, I was able to intern and write stories.

I covered a major local brush fire. Knowing the hills were burning, I called the managing editor asking if I could rewrite press releases. She suggested I go to the fire and see what I could find. I was rewarded with a front-page story accompanied by a rare color photo (because color was just coming to the newspaper world). I parked my car, took a notebook and started interviewing residents who were evacuating with the worldly goods they could jam into a car or truck. I talked with a guy on his roof holding a hose, who planned to go down with the house. The winds were blowing and unbeknownst to me it was a very dangerous situation if the winds shifted. The fire captain drove by in his truck and told me to get in. I started interviewing him and asking questions about the cost of fighting such a blaze. The next day, I drove around town just to look at all the newspaper racks that had my story and byline above the fold.

I was able to write myriad stories for the local paper. However, when it came time to earn a living I fell into public relations. My first job upon graduation came from an ad in the department’s letter to journalism majors: reporter/photographer wanted — Six Flags Magic Mountain. I landed the job, not because of my skills, but because my boss was insecure and hired me because my PR instructor at the university was the National PR director for the amusement park chain. I was hired because I was networked with someone I had not even really known, nor did I want to know that PR flack because I thought I was a serious journalist. I sat in the back of the class and questioned most things with cynicism and disrespect.

One of my roles in this new job was to be the park photographer. I was given at top of the line Nikon F-1 or 2 with lens and a case of film. I went to the newspaper photographer, but was embarrassed that I was no longer a journalist. I waited until I could catch him in the darkroom away from the rest of the staff. I told him I purchased the camera and I asked him how to load the film, and if he could give me a few tips.  He asked how much I paid for the camera. I told him $250. He was shocked and asked if it was stolen. “No, why?” I had no idea there was more than $1,500 worth of equipment in that silver camera case. Public relations was now my profession, I confessed.

My first professional meeting at SFMM was about a new ride, Roaring Rapids, coming to the park. We were brainstorming how to get the media to cover the story. I was aghast that we would contrive an event for publicity. I called the managing editor and told him what I had witnessed. He just laughed.

I no longer do public relations, but the writing I do falls under marketing and my journalism and public relations background provide me with a skill set that not many have today, when it comes to writing.

One last story about my newspaper experience: I still worked at the local newspaper part-time proofreading while working full time at the amusement park. It was the Monday of Memorial Day weekend. The last reporter had gone home that evening around 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. The managing editor urgently came up to me and asked if I would cover a grocery store hold up with hostages at the Vons around the corner. I was there in a flash. I went to the police command post set up in the parking lot. I heard an officer report that suspect was not around, but the hostages were coming out. I took off running around the dark end of the strip-mall plaza. I heard rustling on the rooftop as I ran around the back of the building. I didn’t realize there were snipers on the roof. The editor of the paper showed up at the police command station and thankfully saw me take off because the snipers had me in their sites as a suspect running toward the hostages. The editor yelled that it was one of his reporters. I got a few brief quotes from a couple of the hostages, another front-page story, and again was blissfully ignorant of my brush with danger.

Covering news stories is exciting and is certainly not your everyday desk job. Ideally, I would have liked to have been a columnist where I could write on the current events or what was bothering me. I can’t think of a journalist who wouldn’t want that job. However, I am not sure there are many readers who appreciate my style of humor in that forum, which is to rant in a hyperbole sort of way that is viewed as negative. Maybe this essay falls under Orwell’s third reason, Historical impulse: Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up  for the use of posterity.

I have been writing for Toner Mishap for years off and on. It was started as a way to vent and try to prevent the reelection of George Bush. This follows under number four on Orwell’s list of four reasons on why we write: Political purpose — …Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.
I failed miserably, but the regular writing was great practice and the results were pleasing to me. Oh sure there were a number clunkers, but the good ones came like inspiration and I wondered how the hell did I think of that. Daily writing and a day job ended up conflicting with my time and even some of what I wrote about.

As Orwell wrote:
…I give all this background information because I do not think one can assess a writer’s motives without knowing something of his early development…

They say you can’t step in the same river twice and I plan to make this my platform for more serious writing. Maybe this falls under Orwell’s number one reason why we write: Sheer egoism — for a desire to seem clever, to be talked about, or to be remembered after death.  While I would not object to any of those benefits, I write first for myself. I have long ago given up writing for the masses. So, it’s true for me that ego and remuneration take a backseat to the act of making and the gratification of creation.

I guess that places TonerMishap under Orwell’s second reason: Aesthetic enthusiasm – Perception of beauty in the external world. Or, on the other hand, placing words in the right arrangement.

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