Okay, the title of this column seems a little extreme but in the midst of the process, it often feels like that's the case.
In younger years, as I documented earlier in addition to my desires to be a scriptwriter, I fancied myself something of an editorialist. To those who know me this likely comes as little surprise. I was, uhm, how do I say this politely, one of many opinions of which I was willing to share with pretty much anyone who would listen and many more who might not. I was a talk show host for six and a half years, for goodness' sake.
Thus, for some time, my earliest attempts at publication were in the essayist vein. It may have been unrealistic (it may have been?) but I figured once local papers figured out how urbane and erudite I was a fairly regular personal essay in New Yorker would be sure to follow. I mean, they frequently published Steve Martin's ramblings and what had he ever done? Mostly I began writing the personal opinion piece, obervational epistles I ventured were charming and witty, Seinfeld in essay form. Why does Vanity Fair continue to include perfume sample inserts when I specifically requested my subscription be scent free? My early morning walks to work and the importance of the neighourly wave from the old man sitting silently on his back porch sipping coffee at dawn, alone on the back porch. Looking back it's difficult to determine whether my intent was to entertain and enlighten, maybe cause the reader to observe and reflect a little or just to show how clever I was.
Clever was a characteristic I actively sought as opposed to being observed by the few readers who actually saw the work. I once wrote a very clever little piece about the art of rejection, how I could claim success compared to other writers I had met perversely because I had been rejected by bigger names and organizations than had they.
I won't inflict those clever works upon you (except by request - I'm sure I could find one or two of them if there was a groundswell of demand*), though if or when I ever get to building my new and improved website – one that hosts Word or pdf documents – I may just post them for the sake of having them out there in Etherland.
In those early days of wannabe freelancing, the commitment to the work at hand was pretty significant. To begin with, if you can believe it, I began making freelance submissions by mail – mail! For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, this meant I wrote the entire piece, edited, polished and printed it, stuck it in an envelope and dropped it in the mail to the publication of choice.
And then I waited. And waited. And when I was done waiting, I waited some more.
Perhaps not surprisingly, this type of unsolicited freelance work actually encouraged the type of personal reflection writing newspapers were loathe to print. How could one write an op-ed piece on a news item when after completing the piece it took three to five days for the paper to receive it, review it, determine they had column inches to spare and then run it? Most newspapers didn’t even bother to respond, particularly to much of the ‘non-newsy’ kind of material I was producing. The lovely Max Wyman, then the editor of The Vancouver Sun’s now defunct Saturday Review, magazine-style weekend insert focused on arts, culture and yes, occasionally essay-style writing, was one of the few editors to not only respond to an early freelance submission but to telephone me personally and give me feedback on my submission.
Which he rejected.
The fax machine certainly helped with the speed of submissions and permitted me to at least focus my writing more on the Op-Ed page responses to news items and issues and this was where I first began to find some publishing successes. Of course even that modern technology innovation was occasionally fraught with peril: not initially owning one myself I oft resorted to submitting via my day job’s equipment. When once I submitted and had published a piece critical of the public education system – which was my day job at the time – the fact that my initial submission had come from the school’s fax machine added additional fuel to the employer's ire [that experience is worthy of its own post – stay tuned].
What strikes me to this day about one of the first pieces I had published was following advice I had received from a journalist to whom I had been speaking. After looking at one of my pieces he said: it’s good. It’s a decent piece. I want you to go through it and change every third sentence into a new paragraph. This, grammatically and, well, intelligence-wise, made absolutely no sense to me. When I protested that it interrupted the argument and broke up the flow he said ‘it doesn’t matter. It’s a newspaper. No one wants a paragraph more than three sentences long – four tops. Try it is an exercise. Don’t even think about where the paragraphs ought to be – just make a new one every three sentences.’ I did as was recommended and submitted it to another publication.
It was the first daily newspaper piece I had published.
Next week – more adventures in the print trade.
*groundswell may require only a single 'hey man, I've got nothing going on in my life right now - I'd be willing to give it a read"