In my younger and more gullible years, I was a correspondent for The Valley News in New Hampshire. This was the year before I got married and my husband was in his first year of medical school and I was also teaching high school in a town next door to the town where people claimed J.D. Salinger lived. Everyone was always saying they saw J.D., but I actually did once, at the co-op when he forgot his co-op card and the grocery clerk came running out, saying, “Mr. Salinger! Mr. Salinger!” And I turned to a tall, reed of an older man in a worn tweed coat. I only mention this because in my mind this running into Salinger seemed related to this job I’d landed at the newspaper, a harbinger of my imminent future. I mean, I thought it was pretty remarkable that the newspaper hired me considering I had no professional writing experience, no journalism degree. They hadn’t even asked to see any writing samples. And if they had asked? Well, up until that point all I’d ever written (other than papers for college) were a few okay poems and hundreds of awful poems I have since burned. But as a correspondent I would get the same hard-boiled training as Hemingway. I would learn to write clear, concise prose while absorbing the nuances of human nature and relationships in small towns where I would be one with the people. On top of all that, they were loaning me an official newsroom computer so I could send my late-breaking stories to them by my midnight deadline. All too good to be true, I thought, as I bought myself a reporter’s notebook and put on my horn-rimmed glasses and pulled my long, thick hair into a bun and went to report on my first town meeting.
I arrived early and sat in the front row of the town hall, like an overly eager student, writing down the names and physical descriptions of all the officials at the table in front. And then the meeting started. Words flew across the room: Sewage Treatment; Sanitary District; Municipality; Zoning Regulation; Assessment and Reassessment; Infrastructure. Infrastructure? I had no idea what they were talking about. I’d heard these words, but I didn’t have a clue how to use them in a complete sentence. I scribbled something in my notebook, facial expressions and body language and a very detailed description of the town hall ceiling and raced home to my computer (which, I forgot to mention, was one of those prehistoric giants that took up my entire desk top and all the leg room underneath and moaned and flashed as I painstakingly eeked out my first official news story).
The next day I was thrilled to see my byline, my words in print, and secretly surprised that the gobbledygook I had written made any sense at all. And that night I was off to another meeting, in another tiny town, with another cast of characters and talk that made me glossy-eyed and foggy-headed. I tried to make the writing interesting, throwing in “absurd,” over here and “antithetical,” over there. but the words and the issues merged together into an amorphous blob eating my brain. I remember flashes of things: Gruff voices and lacquered hair, the tick and ping of old radiators, throat clearing, shoes shuffling across worn wooden planks, the crackle of a wax paper bag and the yeasty smell of a jelly donut. And the long ride home, through the dark, winding country roads, I had to blast the radio, singing bad eighties songs at the top of my lungs, to stay awake. But night after night, I went to the meetings and wrote my stories, telling myself, this is how Hemingway learned to write. This is how professional writers are made.
And then it was summer and my teaching job and my husband’s semester were both over for the year and we were planning to leave for Massachusetts to get married. A couple of days before we left town, I went to another meeting in another town and wrote another story.
I’d been meaning to call my editor to tell him I would be gone for a few weeks when a day later, he called me and said, “We have a letter here that takes issue with your story. The chairman claims there was nothing absurd about anything he said.”
“Did I say that?” I said. “He’s probably right. I was so tired writing that story the other night…”
“So you’ll send me your response to his comment?”
“No. Actually, I’m leaving town any minute now.”
“And what is your response?”
“My response is… I have no response. I’m leaving town. I’m getting married.”
“And when will you be back? There’s a Woodstock Village Board Meeting on the 24th of August and our regular reporter can’t cover it. That’s a much bigger meeting than you usually cover and it would mean a bigger story and…”
Was he kidding? Couldn’t he see how absolutely incompetent I was? “I’m not sure I’ll be back…” I said.
That week?” he said. “We’ll increase your rate. Give you more towns to cover.”
I pictured myself at another town meeting, the smells of stale coffee and breath and issues swirling around my head and me singing, “Another One Bites the Dust,” all the way home to write a story I didn’t understand or care about. I pictured weeks and months and years of this same scenario and I realized I’d been fooling myself. I wasn’t a budding Hemingway, never would be. I was pretty sure I wasn’t cut out to be a writer at all. And it occurred to that the only reason they’d hired me was because they couldn’t get anyone else to cover these boring meetings.
“I’m not coming back–ever,” I said and hung up the phone.
I know by ending this post here, I risk leaving you thinking of me as careless and clueless, a failure and a fraud. But I got in the car and rode on, to marriage and more crappy jobs and a long, circuitous path that eventually lead back to writing that didn’t require me to ever have to use the word infrastructure again, until now.
17 Replies to “Another One Bites the Dust by Deb Gail”
And aren’t you glad you gave up those stale donuts and rank coffee?
I came up the ranks through the journalism side and I’m with you 100%–I just couldn’t see hanging out at dull council meetings clock-watching and trying to understand what the heck they were talking about. I worked in TV for a while, the high point of my career interviewing a giant rabbit who delivered “bunny-grams.” I knew I’d made it when…
That’s funny, Jenny, because my next job was also in TV, only it didn’t involve writing (maybe the editor from The Valley News called to warn them).
Gail, great post! What a beginning for you. I love it!
I’ve covered my share of town meetings, school boards, etc. Lots of drama there. Except for the late nights, I kind of enjoyed it. My most boring assignments were the annual pieces: town fair, pumpkin chunking, etc. What more could be said?
You ended up where you belonged.
Yes, Amy, there was a lot of drama, it was just that I didn’t know what the drama was about… maybe I would have been better covering pumpkin chunking.
My first newspaper job involved filling paper cups with horse glue and writing down, by hand, all the closing prices on the Pacific Coast Stock Exchange. I would have loved a town meeting.
Horse glue? What is that?
I loved your descriptions of the meetings…perfect! I can REALLY relate to this. As a grantwriter, I use the word “infrastructure” far, far too often.
Thanks, Jess. Grantwriting, huh? I’m impressed! I wouldn’t know where to start.
Great story. Very honest and real…just like everything you write.
Great post! You’re lucky you quit when you did. The more they pay you, the harder it is to leave.
who’s to say that those meetings might not seep into your writing one day? okay, okay, not the meetings themselves, but perhaps some of the characters? okay, okay. Well, umm….hey, if Richard Russo can write about small town life in upstate New York and hook the reader, I’ll bet you can use SOMETHING from the ancient past today…after all, you had me believing that Paris smelled like rotten eggs….;-)
If your articles read anything close to this post — and I bet they did –, it’s no wonder your editor tried to keep you, Gail. You not only offer us a great sense of being there with you (last week, Italy), but you connect on heartfelt level as well. Monday has always been my favorite day of the week and now it’s even more so because of Deb Gail Day!
That’s probably true, Lisa. So I guess it’s probably a good thing I realized my own limitations or I might still be covering town meetings.
You’re right, Jim. It’s all filed away in there somewhere and I hate to waste anything, even bad memories. And Paris DOES smell like rotten eggs.
Larramie, I am so flattered by your kind words. Thank you!! Although honestly, my town meeting news stories were REALLY bad…
Wonderful post, Gail. I look forward to your posts!
What a funny post, Gail; I like picturing you at those town meetings, yawning and trying to figure out how to liven them up in your news stories. I so haven’t paid my dues that way…
Really, those kinds of responses are the best kind of responses. Good for you … and think of all the great stories you get to tell now because of it!
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