Thursday, December 01, 2005

One Thing Leads to Another

I've been asked to talk to my girls' high school art class next week. Some of these kids are very talented advanced placement students already preparing portfolios for future academic and professional careers. I've spoken to high school classes before, usually on the topic of "how I lucked into a career combining two things I love best: science and writing." Now that I've got a published graphic novel in hand, I suppose I can extend that list to include "art," yet I have a nagging fear that some of these kids are already way ahead of me.

I was thinking about what I might discuss when my eyes settled on this laminated card pinned to my bulletin board, my first official press pass:

What a goober.

This was where my professional writing career began, fresh out of college at a small daily newspaper in central California. I got the job of part-time night-shift sports writer based on paltry clips of an opinion column I wrote for my college paper plus, I suspect, my ability to type fast--a skill not as common 20 years ago as it is today. I must have been the only applicant, because anyone else with respiration would've been better qualified. I nevertheless got a foot in the door and covered a season of high school basketball before a full-time (daytime!) position opened on the city beat and I was on my way.

One day the editor bellowed out into the newsroom: did anyone want to fly to Fresno for the weekend to cover the opening of a new power plant? Since no one else spoke up and I was trying to build a reputation as the go-to science guy, I took the assignment. It turned out to be a good story about a hydroelectric turbine complex dug deep inside a mountain between two lakes. The place looked like the cavern lair of a James Bond villain. I had fun, wrote the feature, and forgot about it.

Helms Pumped Storage Hydro Plant. I was there.

Twelve or thirteen years later, after a decade away from journalism, I applied for a position with a firm that wrote scientific, technical, and marketing material for people in the energy industry. I passed their writing test and showed up for the interview with one relevant clip: the power plant story. I got the job. And thanks to that job, just a couple of years later I was ready to break out on my own.

I derive three lessons from that story for the young'uns. First, take on tasks nobody else wants because someday, somehow, in a way you can't imagine, one of them will pay off. Second, one thing leads to another in unpredictable ways that only make sense in hindsight. A column in a college newspaper leads to part-time sports writing leads to full-time reporting leads to freelance magazine writing leads to something that begins to look like a career. Be ready for unexpected opportunities.

Third, if you want to be a writer, write. Anything. I learned the most about writing by covering a season of high school basketball. Two or three games are easy; by the tenth or twentieth you're working mightily to keep it interesting for both your readers and yourself. Because, let's face it, every high school ball game (or city council meeting or planning commission hearing) is pretty much like any other. I figured my job was to pay attention and figure out what made this game, meeting or hearing special, and then explain that. That made me a pro. (My personal definition of "professional" is "doing a good job even when you don't feel like it." Or, as Charles Schulz said, "writer's block is for amateurs.") I suspect that applies to art as well.

By the way, in my three years as a reporter and close to ten years as a freelance writer/journalist/editor, I've never once had to show a press pass to anyone. Too bad.


Anonymous said...

Ha! Brilliant from beginning to end! I have also told kids not to wait for opportunity to knock -- put yourself in its way! Do interesting stuff and see what turns up! And you are right about covering that 11th basketball game -- theres even a computer program for small papers in which you just type in the team names, the high scorer and a few other things and it writes it for you. The trick is to be better than the computer at doing it. And, honest, Brian, as soon as I saw the press card, before I read a word, I said to myself, "Nice card. I never actually had to use mine. Wonder if he did?"

Mike Peterson
Glens Falls NY

BrianFies said...

Mike, I'm glad you saw this and commented. I was thinking of you when I wrote it. Thanks!

ronnie said...

What Mike said. A wonderful post, a wonderful piece of writing in its own right, and I've sent it to a number of people, some of whom are just beginning their careers.

I often tell the whippersnappers I work with, who are inordinately impressed with my career as a freelancer (people who've never been one often are, oddly) that my most humbling moment came when I realized that it was 1 a.m. and I was writing an article to deadline on a bull semen auction for Rural Delivery (an Atlantic provinces farmers' magazine with a readership of about 7).

If I feel like a homily of some sort is in order, I add that I did care as much about that article, and worked on it as hard as, my pet projects (like an article I did on how women gather the courage and resources to leave abusive relationships I did for Canadian Living magazine - a story which got spiked due to the Meech Lake political mess, which became the magazine's focus for several issues. Ah, fickle fame.)

And for the record, I think you looked absolutely adorable in 1985.


Brian Fies said...

Thanks, Ronnie. I'd love to read your work sometime.

One of my "bull semen" assignments was writing for a newsletter devoted to Electric Water Heating. I did not care a whit about electric water heating but there are people in the world who care about it passionately, and actually get a bit miffed if you confess that your water heater uses some clearly inferior fuel such as natural gas. The key to that job was understanding why it was so important to *them* and communicating that. I didn't have to care; I just had to figure out why they did. Once I got that angle, the job was easy and even kind of fun.

I completely agree about caring for every job and working equally hard on them all. Although I can adapt to different publications' house styles, I really only know one way to write. Maybe two, if you count putting words in balloons floating over cartoon characters' heads.

I was 100% goober in 1985. But thanks for saying otherwise.