Some decades ago, when a flailing ex-thespian was POTUS, I found myself in the dark wood of unemployment, shaken to learn what the phrase “at will” meant. It means this: in Alabama, one may be fired from one’s job for any reason, or no reason at all. I’d been there before, but now, with a small family to support, I couldn’t waste a lot of time drowning sorrows.
After typing up a new résumé, I sat down in a broken chair in my back yard one day, fired up a Kool and considered my 30-something career options. As I opened up my dank and chunky Birmingham Post-Herald, headed for the Help Wanted section, I saw a notice that their long-time “People and Things” columnist Clettus Atkinson was about to retire.
Fortunately, I was one of those people who had uncovered at an early age — without realizing it until much later, unfortunately — that writing was something I had to do. I went to college long enough to secure the student deferment that kept me out of the hands of the draft board, but then dropped out to continue living a quasi-bohemian life in skeevy urban areas. Ever since, I’d been trying to piece together bits of fiction into something bigger. Perhaps this employment lacuna was the ideal time for me to shift into non-fiction and leave behind any bong dreams of fiction-writing.
But there was that strong indictment of journalism by my old pal Schopenhauer –
Exaggeration of every kind is as essential to journalism as it is to the dramatic art; for the object of journalism is to make events go as far as possible. Thus it is that all journalists are, in the very nature of their calling, alarmists; and this is their way of giving interest to what they write. Herein they are like little dogs; if anything stirs, they immediately set up a shrill bark.
In my experience of local news provision, this seems as true now as it did in the Eighties (sorry, no idea what sparked the German philosopher’s ire back in the early 19th century). I do have my misgivings about this blanket canine condemnation. What kind of journalistic yapper (I must ask myself) was Dr. Hunter S. Thompson — our finest Old Yeller? And when I hear Seymour Hersh’s yapping, I pay attention; Hersh’s tone, as well as his content, is deeply different. It’s not the “if it bleeds, it leads” bark — no, this is a bark to which one must pay attention: My Lai. Abu Ghraib. National malversation needs to be barked at, and loudly.
I got all daring and dashed off a cordial introduction letter to the editorial page editor, including a few pieces to pique his interest, and basically asked him to hire me as Clettus’ replacement. I’d really rather not discuss the pieces I submitted, but let us just say they were . . . drolleries, oddball idylls, though one did concern Halley’s timely comet. I should have known that there was no chance – zilch – that anything good would happen, but I have on occasion been known to take a wild chance.
I got a letter politely inviting me to come down and visit the editor at the newspaper, even though there was no comment about my work. In short order, probably freshly trimmed and shaved, bedecked in my best straight-folks Eighties duds (I wish I could see me), I was standing in the elevator that took me up to the editor’s office. It may have been a carpeted elevator with one of those gilt mirrors above. I glimpsed one or two of the higher floors, where the owners of the newspaper had their offices: floors to which not just anyone might ascend.
The editor saw that I wasn’t too bad a fellow, as indeed I recall seeing that he wasn’t so bad a guy either to be the big boss at a downtown newspaper. Did I get some kind of tour? I think so. Presses bigger than elephants churning behind massive panes of glass. Bunches of people typing, working, riding in the elevators, driving forklifts.
Then I was taken to another room where the editor sat down and mentioned that he, too, had done some work at a truck line.
“So you know what the situation is like,” I said. I should have gone on: And why I’m here, trying to get a job with normal people, in a place where I can use my talents.
With tact and skill he told me the reason he couldn’t take a chance on a guy like me: their newspaper had only recently hired someone with a degree from the Columbia School of Journalism. “And those are the people we want.” I was given to understand that if I went back to college in the future, it might be worth my while to check back with them. Not a terribly negative interview, among the many of those weeks.
Also, the advertising firm down the street — even I had heard of its name – Forney – was hiring people to write copy. Did I know that? Had I been down there?
“That wouldn’t be a terrible place to start. Might want to head back to college, take some mass communication courses….” He shook my hand and handed me my envelope of sample stories. We were waiting at the elevators when I remembered to ask him what he thought of my writing, why it was so unpublishable. “I can’t publish something if I don’t understand it.”
I took this as a compliment, but I often try seem to see benevolence where others find only, at best, the plainest apathy.
My wife says she remembers that I was mildly crushed about the failure in career direction change, but all I recall is that I soon went to back to work as a shipping clerk for a wonderfully-named boss, Beryl Duck. Within a few weeks of my son’s birth, I got an offer from another truck line desperate for rapid alpha-numeric typing skills, and there I would remain for almost two dozen years — night shift work.
Some years later, I did manage to wander back to the University for that BA in English (the plan was to become a teacher). After plugging along with my unpublishable (yet not quite unwritable) fiction while working full-time, I eventually managed to self-publish a fictional autobiography (Beautiful Illusions), a collection of novellas and short fiction (Magic Sweat) as well as two other works later on, but I had learned my lesson. Aside from a comment on the war of 2003, I have never again approached a newspaper with any writing that I felt good about. Arched subjective viewpoints still seem to have no place in the Schopenhauerian Eine-Kleine Hund journalism screened by local and national news organs — day after day, the little dogs keep on barking.
On a somewhat related note: my next door neighbor used to have a small dog that barked every morning at 6:43 a.m. in the most horribly predictable way, like a robo-yapper, always waking my wife, who invariably mumbled, “kill that dog.”