Why I’m Not a Journalist

The Good Old Days.

Let’s face it: Were things really that good?

Yes, they were. Those ’70s television sit-coms were the best things ever.

I’m binge-watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which ran from 1970 to 1977. It was funny then and it’s just funny now.

One episode isn’t quite as funny as the others, though, because it reflects an aspect of my life I find particularly painful.

First season cast: (left top) Harper, Asner, L...

First season cast: (left top) Harper, Asner, Leachman; (left bottom) MacLeod, Moore, Knight. Last season cast: (right top) Knight, MacLeod, Asner; (right bottom) White, Engel, Moore. (Photo credit: Wikipedia). By CBS Television Uploaded by We hope at en.wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s the scene in which news writer Murray Slaughter rushes home to operate on an ailing water heater, leaving associate producer Mary Richards to cover for him. If a bulletin comes in over the wire–

No problem, she says. The news is almost over, she says. If a story comes across the wire, I’ll just take it off the teletype machine, type it up, and get it to the anchor desk. It’s easy, she says.

She rolls a piece of paper into her typewriter, just in case.

Then a story comes in: A fire is threatening a munitions plant on the outskirts of town.

Mary tears off the bulletin, sits down at her desk, thinks… and thinks… types a few words…  erases… brushes away the crumbs… thinks… and thinks….

Producer Lou Grant, who’s been leaning over her shoulder, bouncing up and down on his toes, finally grabs the paper, runs into his office, types–like the wind–then flies out just in time to meet anchorman Ted Baxter leaving the studio. The show’s over. He’s already signed off–“Good night, and good news”–and the competition’s 7:00 o’clock news will get the scoop.


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That’s why I’m not a journalist. I’m not Lou. I’m not Murray. I’m Mary.

That, and because as a journalist, I would have to make cold calls: get people on the phone, request interviews, ask questions. I’m not comfortable talking to people I don’t know.

But mainly, it’s because editors would expect me to write fast. I don’t do fast. I’m slower than Mary Richards is. Sometimes getting words on paper requires moaning and weeping and riving of hair.

Looking back I wonder how I got to this point. Not the distaste for talking to strangers–I’ve never liked doing that–but the difficulty with writing.

In the beginning, I loved to write. By the time I was seven, I was writing long letters to grandmothers and aunts and cousins. Once when I was home from school, enjoying ill health, I used my father’s fountain pen to write letter after letter. Another time, I used a pencil with a point so soft and dull I doubt the recipients could read through the smears.

The summer I was eight, I spent June in Central Texas with an aunt and uncle while my mother was in Dallas with my grandmother, who was ill. My father, who remained at home in Del Rio, brought me a present one weekend: a ream of legal-sized paper.


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On a scale of one to ten, most children would have rated a ream of paper at minus 3. I gave it a twelve and used it to produce my own newspaper. Mostly I reported weddings in the cat and dog community. I described bridesmaids’ dresses worn by Blackie and Bootsie and Kitty and my fox terrier, Pat Boone. It was a devastating little parody of a small-town newspaper. That summer, I was a journalist.

Fairchild Mill Grindstone

Fairchild Mill Grindstone (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But things changed. Writing stopped being easy. It stopped being fun. It became a millstone ’round my neck. It became nose-to-the-grindstone work. I turned into Mary Richards, thinking, typing, thinking, thinking, typing, erasing, thinking…

How did that happen? I suspect it had something to do with school and English classes, and writing pieces I didn’t want to write, on topics I knew nothing about. And having to outline before I wrote.

There’s nothing that strangles the free flow of words onto the page than having to organize your thought before you’ve had any.

Portrait of E. M. Forster by Dora Carrington I...

Portrait of E. M. Forster by Dora Carrington Italiano: Ritratto di E. M. Forster di Dora Carrington (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A lifetime later, I discovered novelist E. M. Forster’s remark on the relationship between writing and organizing: “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”

In other words, if you can write an outline, you’ve already written the piece in your head. 

But I didn’t know that then. I didn’t know it doesn’t have to be right the first time. I didn’t know I could just start writing and, that way, find out what I knew and what I thought before I tried to put those thoughts in order.

I didn’t know Nancy Peacock would one day write, “If I don’t have the pages I hate I will never have the pages I love.”

I didn’t know all I had to do was lighten up.

Now I’ve lightened a bit, and so has the millstone. When I write for my personal blog, I’m fluent–unless I’m trying to be serious, weighty, and profound.

English: Original caption:"NASA Remembers...

English: Original caption:”NASA Remembers Walter Cronkite. Legendary CBS newsman Walter Cronkite speaks in February 2004 at a ceremony at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington honoring the fallen astronauts of the STS-107 Columbia mission. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I do not do profound. I think profound, but I write shallow. I wish it were otherwise, but, to quote Walter Cronkite, that’s the way it is.

Some things haven’t changed, however. I will never fit in the little journalism box. I don’t write fast. I don’t want to strike up conversations with strangers. And the only facts I want to deal with are ones I make up myself.

So that’s why I’m not a journalist.

That’s why I write fiction.

Writers of fiction have deadlines. But they don’t have Lou Grant leaning over them, fidgeting while they think and delete and rewrite and delete and rewrite…

Writers of fiction–especially we pantsers, who write by the seat of our pants–can see what they say before they know what they think.

Sorry, Mary Richards, but that’s the way it is.

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The Mary Tyler Moore Show, “Room 223”: Mary takes a journalism class
(Resolution isn’t great, but the show is.)

Other high points:

The Mary Tyler Moore Show, “Chuckles Bites the Dust: Chuckles the Clown goes to a parade dressed as a peanut, and an elephant… But it’s okay to laugh.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show, “The Lars Affair”: Sue Ann Nivens closes an oven door in a way formerly unknown to man.

I don’t understand the legalities of putting these programs on Youtube, but as long as they’re there, I’ll assume it’s okay to link to them. Enjoy.

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P. S. I don’t like being interviewed either. I always tell reporters to be sure they make me sound intelligent. One young lady told me she didn’t have to fix anything because I talk in complete sentences. I told her that was strictly accidental.

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–Posted by Kathy Waller

 

Shattering a Vase

…it was like taking a vase and setting it down so hard it shatters…

~  Tracy Chevalier

When I taught secondary English, grading essays was my least favorite task. I was happy to read them, but assigning letter grades? I hated that.

I hated judging. I hated trying to determine the difference between a B and an A, or, worse, between a B-plus and an A-minus.

But the worst–the part that made me want to moan like the Ghost of Hamlet’s father, “Oh, horrible, oh, horrible, most horrible!”–was listening to students who thought their work merited higher grades: “But I worked so harrrrrrrd.

Some had watched classmates complete an entire assignment during a lull in history class and then score A’s. It wasn’t fair.

“Harrrrrrrrrrd” was my signal to say that no, it didn’t seem fair, but that good writing comes from more than just time sheets and sweat. It’s the words on the page that matter.

Now, to my dismay, I sometimes find myself slipping into student mode. For example, when I submit a chapter to my critique group, or an agent, or a publisher, or a reviewer, or even a family member, and they find fault, or don’t even mention my genius, I have to restrain myself from wailing, But I worked so harrrrrrrd…

Each time it happens, I pull out the old talk about time sheets and sweat. I add that whingeing is the hallmark of the amateur.

And I meditate upon Tracy Chevalier.

Chevalier wrote the critically acclaimed historical novel Girl with a Pearl Earring. Her next (third) novel began as a draft written in third person, with small sections in first-person voices of children. The finished manuscript was a disappointment.

When I reread the first draft, she says,  I cried at the end. It was boring, dead weight, terrible. Then I looked it over and thought, there’s nothing wrong with the story except the way it’s told.

She found the solution in another contemporary novel:

I had the idea when, just as I was finishing the first draft in third person, I read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, which uses five different voices beautifully. It’s a wonderful book, using multiple voices very successfully, and I thought, “Oh, that’s an interesting technique, I wonder if I should take the kids’ voices I’ve already written and have the three of them tell it.” It just felt right.

The revision was published as Falling Angels, an exquisite novel about a young wife and mother struggling to survive in the rigid, but rapidly changing, social structure of Edwardian England. The book is written in first person, from twelve perspectives, in twelve distinctive voices.

I came across Chevalier’s account when I was just beginning to write fiction and became obsessed with the work. Writing an entire manuscript, setting it aside, starting all over—it had to be pure drudgery. I couldn’t imagine putting myself through that. 

Recently, though, I reread the article and a different passage caught my attention—Chevalier’s description of the rewrite:

I took the draft, and it was like taking a vase and setting it down so hard it shatters, then putting the pieces back together in a different way. I rewrote the whole thing in first person with all these different voices.

That passage doesn’t describe drudgery. Shattering a vase, putting the pieces back together to make something new—that’s a picture of creation, of the excitement and the pleasure and the beauty that accompany it.

I love Tracy Chevalier’s novels and admire her talent. But, on a more personal level, I’m grateful to her for sharing publicly how Falling Angels made its way into print, for reminding me that hard work and drudgery aren’t synonymous, for implying it’s okay to cry over a bad draft and that perceived failure can turn into success, and for showing that the act of writing itself affords as much pleasure as the spirit is willing to embrace.

And—for tacitly suggesting that no one really needs to hear me whinge about how harrrrrrrrd I work.

It’s the words on the page that matter.

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Note: I do love Chevalier’s novels. In fact, I love Falling Angels so much that during library duty one Saturday morning, I was so intent on finishing the book—just racing toward the climax—that I unlocked the front doors but left the lights in the reading room off, and spent the next ninety minutes parked behind the circulation desk, reading and hoping no one would walk in and want something. I’m not proud of what I did, but patrons didn’t seem to notice anything different, and I finished the book.

Note: The angel pictured above stands in the Oakwood Cemetery in Hendersonville, North Carolina. Carved from Italian marble, she is the angel often referred to in Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel. Wolfe’s childhood home is in Asheville, about twenty miles north of Hendersonville.

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Information about Tracy Chevalier comes from Fiction Writers Review.

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Posted by Kathy Waller

Kathy

Kathy

Two of Kathy’s stories appear in
Austin Mystery Writers’ crime fiction anthology,
Murder on Wheels.
She blogs at Kathy Waller ~ Telling the Truth, Mainly,
and on the group blog, Writing Wranglers and Warriors.