Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Ever Wider Concentric Circles: How I got my first writing job by going around and around

By the time I graduated college, in 1974, I knew I had to become a writer. This wasn’t a conscious choice; writing had become the default activity of my life. It was what I did each day if I couldn’t find anything better to do. And most days I couldn’t.

But I also had to support myself financially, something even published writers had -- and still have -- difficulty doing. Writing fiction wasn’t an option; at that point I’d only published two short stories in literary journals, and was halfway through my first novel. So that left non-fiction, and – given the options available in those pre-Internet days – that meant newspaper reporting.

Being young and naive, I decided I would become just that, a newspaper reporter. True, my entire journalistic experience amounted to a handful of stories for my college newspaper plus a few puff pieces I’d written for the college public relations office, but I wasn’t about to allow such paucity of experience stand in my way.

Compounding the challenge was Watergate, and an entire country that had recently been captivated by the exploits of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. As a result, the goal of becoming a muck-raking newspaper reporter was popular among many college graduates. The desks of newspaper editors were awash with job applications and resumes, many from candidates with degrees in journalism, or at least with numerous under-graduate journalism courses completed.  In other words, candidates who, on paper and off, were vastly more qualified than I.

Given my slim chances, I was advised by someone wise (Sadly I can no longer remember who) that my best -- and possibly only – shot at finding a job in journalism was probably to show up at newspapers in person and attempt to talk my way into the office of anyone – A managing editor? A publisher? – who might be in a position to hire me. I was specifically warned not to call and announce my visits in advance, as that would give the person on the other end of the phone line the opportunity to say no, don’t come, you don’t have experience, we can’t hire you.

(Photographer Mike Carey and I spent a day doing a story about what being a West Point cadet was like. We got to dress in Army uniforms.)

Hoping to accomplish this task of appearing unannounced at newspapers in an orderly fashion, I bought a map and drew concentric circles at ten-mile intervals emanating from New York City (I skipped the newspapers in the city itself, since they only hired reporters who had proven themselves worthy through many years’ experience). Then I started driving. First to every newspaper within ten miles of the city, then within 20 miles, and then 30.

What may seem remarkable now is that in those pre- 9/11 days, I was often able to talk my way into a newsroom to see someone in a management position, if only for a few minutes. The security measures that today prevent people from even getting in the front door did not exist then. Alas, not a single newspaper within 30 miles of the city had a job to offer, leaving me no choice but to try newspapers 40, and then 50, and then 60 miles away.

The results of these forays continued to be negative. And yet, despite having absolutely no backup plan or alternative course to follow, I approached this endeavor not with a sense of desperation, but with blind youthful determination. I suppose that somewhere in the back of my mind I assumed I could just keep drawing concentric circles farther and farther from New York forever.

And then one day, somewhere around 70 miles from NYC, I found my way into the office of Glen Doty, the managing editor of the Middletown (NY) Times Herald-Record.

(Middletown still looks like this, only with paved streets and cars instead of horses).

I’d never heard of Middletown, a small, mostly working class city at the foothills of the Shawangunk Mountains, and a stopping off place for travelers on their way to famous Borscht Belt resorts like Grossingers and The Concord. Except for the modest downtown, where some of the brick buildings stretched as high as four stories, it appeared to be comprised mostly of small two-story wooden homes, discount stores, and bars. Beyond town in all directions was farmland.

The editor’s door was open and Mr. Doty was at his desk, pouring over copy with a blue pencil. He had a light-brown mustache, gold-rimmed glasses, and was smoking a cigarette. When I knocked, he squinted up through his glasses and asked what I wanted, as if anyone who knocked had to want something. I said that I was looking for a job as a reporter.

Mr. Doty gazed at me silently for a moment or two and then asked, “Do you have any experience?”

“I wrote for my college newspaper and was editor of the literary magazine.” I handed him a thin binder containing my resume and photocopies of some stories.

Only twice before – at newspapers in Red Bank, and Dover, New Jersey – had an editor actually taken the time to peruse this slender volume, and both times they’d been kindly encouraging as they sent me on my way, saying they’d be in touch if any job openings came up.  

Expecting much the same from Mr. Doty, I waited while he thumbed through the pages with his left hand while tugging thoughtfully at a corner of his moustache with his right. Finally he looked up and said, “Can you start a two-week tryout tomorrow?”

I knew I’d heard him clearly, but still found the words incredible. Restraining myself, I said I could. Doty nodded, said, “See you tomorrow,” and turned back to the copy he’d been editing.

The next day, charged with nervous excitement, I returned to the paper and was shown to a nicked and scarred gunmetal gray desk in the newsroom, where reporters were busy typing, editors smoked and edited, and a row of clunky teletypes along a wall clacked noisily.

 (We got all our state, national, and international newscopy through teletype machines from the Associated Press (AP), Dow Jones, and United Press International (UPI).  Around the newspaper they used to say you couldn't spell stupid without UPI)

 On my assigned desk lay a pad of mostly illegible notes next to an ashtray filled with cigarette butts. A half-typed story was in the typewriter. Clearly, someone had recently been working there.

Uncertain of what to do with the notes and story, I turned to the bearded reporter at the desk next to mine. He was a big fellow, wearing a plaid shirt, and typing with two fingers.

“Excuse me,” I said. “Is this another reporter’s desk?”

“Not anymore,” he replied without looking up from his typewriter.


“It was Gil’s desk,” the reporter said.

“Was?” I repeated.

“Yeah. He got shot two days ago.”

He continued to type, as if being shot was just another nuisance faced by reporters at small rural newspapers. “What about this?” I asked, pointing at the unfinished story in the typewriter.

“Chuck it. He won’t be finishing it.”

It turned out that Gil had been shot by his wife. He managed to survive only because he held his hand up in front of the shotgun barrel just before she pulled the trigger. Charges weren’t filed because Gil told the police it was an accident (People said she’d caught him cheating on her). Unable to continue working as a reporter because he was now missing most of one hand, he eventually returned to the newspaper and worked as an editor.

As for me, I began my two-week tryout keenly aware that if Gil’s wife had not shot him, and I had not wandered in looking for a job shortly thereafter, I would never have gotten my chance. I spent two years at the paper, and in my spare time finished and sold my first novel. I’ve been a full-time writer ever since.

Branch Rickey, the famous baseball executive, once said, "Luck is the residue of design." In my case, it was just a matter of drawing ever-wider concentric circles.

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