Friday, July 13, 2018

appreciated advice

In late 1964, when I had left the army and had a job with a New York book publisher, it took a while to recognize that book publishing was a bit too pluperfect pink for me. Everyone was bright and dressed nicely and there were muffling carpets on the floors. What I loved about books was not what book publishing was about. Instead, as a friend had warned me before I took the job, "book publishing is about selling shoes."

The discovery came in slow increments, but once it had a toe hold, it refused to let go and I scrounged around wondering what else I might do and took up the idea I might like newspaper reporting. The only problem was, I knew squat about the business -- how to break in, how to gain some credibility, where to get some practice. And so I felt lucky when someone gave me the name and phone number of a city editor (the newsroom top gun who threw your latest effort in the trash bin with a snort) on Long Island. By the grace of God, this guy was patient with my endless ignorance.

The game, he said, was played like this: Don't apply to the New York Times (the holy grail from where I sat) at first. Instead, get a job away from the bright lights and big city. Build a repertoire at another paper and THEN apply to the New York Times.

He also gave me a nutshell summing up of the reporting business. Like all nutshells, his advice was only as good as the effort anyone might put into it ... walk the walk and not just talk the talk. His advice was deceptively simple when it came to journalism: "First, it's a craft, not an art. And second, be yourself." Since that long-ago-and-far-away, it has occurred to me more than once that his advice as regarded journalism was equally true for any other longing or passion or leaning: It's a craft, not an art and be yourself.

Besides these two facets of the newspaper business, the only other pointer he gave me was to stay with a smaller newspaper for no more than five years. "During the first five years, you learn good habits. After five years, you start learning the bad ones."

But it was the first two pointers I remember best and wrestled with over the years ... fucked up and kept going, fucked up and kept going, fucked up and kept going. Idealism was good as long as you didn't get too convinced by it; hypocrisy was no surprise; self-promotion was always in the mix; the news source would use the reporter and the reporter would use the news source ... and symbiosis could be addictive. I have known reporters who wallow like pigs in shit in the fact that they are rubbing elbows with the powerful and empowered. I've done much the same.

A craft, not an art. These days, what's left of journalism is mired in art, in predicting a future no one can know, on not digging any deeper. And a craft is something that gets done and not just imagined. It is not simply hoped for or pimped for or postured in support of. A craft invariably leaves something out and that something is the reporter's responsibility. Telling the 'whole' story is not possible, so what part of the story are you willing to ignore or sweep under the carpet or set aside. You might love not to be a liar, but A. words are not facts, so you are, perforce, a liar and B. the choice to lie is not someone else's choice. Every key stroke, every note struck, every movement of the brush ... it is a craft, not an art, even when others call it art.

These days many are far too willing to overlook their own lies. And certainly that is one danger. Another is to become bogged down in a recognition of the lying aspect ... and accomplish nothing. What choices anyone might make is entirely up to his or her own mettle. What compromises is anyone willing to live with? Finding out is part and parcel of the craft. Neglecting this responsibility is a mistake: Not easy, but a mistake.

And then the other part of the advice column -- be yourself. Oh shit! Who am I ... the one I am encouraged to be? It's an easy question for those who swagger and announce, "I know who I am." Right ... and pigs know how to fly.

And it is a mistake that segues into the business of "being yourself." Surrender to my own cherished beliefs ("I know who I am") is one option. A little peace and quiet is nice. A little satisfaction. Don't dig too deep or you may stub a toe painfully against some unseen rock. If I am a falsifier, from what truth does that grow? And, conversely perhaps, if I am a truth-teller, from what falsehood does that emanate?

None of this mumbling and grumbling did me much good when I was a reporter. You had fifteen minutes to write a news story and your personal problems were your problems. Your sensitivities could go piss up a rope. As my mother used to say of writing, "Don't get it right. Get it written."

Anyway, I took a job reporting and purely could not believe that anyone would pay me to be nosy. Imagine that!!! For five years I wallowed in it, high-brow and low ... and loved it, even as I tried to iron out the wrinkles and searing flame of what it might be to be myself. Eventually, the question may have pressed too hard and I slip-slid into Zen Buddhist practice and a job painting apartments back in New York. Zen is not for everyone, but it put wind in my sails. Zen didn't fuck around: You want to know who you are? Seriously? Then find out and let nothing deter you.

Or, as my Zen teacher's teacher laughingly commented when he learned I painted apartments: "Wonderful! Each stroke of the brush is IT."  Did I get it? Nope, but it's grown on me.

It's a craft, not an art.
Be yourself.

Strange how advice given over there turns out to be advice given here. It's all water over the dam -- no one reads newspapers any more.

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