I’m double dipping this morning. This was posted a day ago on my second blog, pickupyourpath.com.
This lengthy lead in to pending changes to pickupyourpath.com deals with the lasting impact of three editors – okay, two editors and one editorial consultant – who have been very influential on me. They’ve been harsh at times but that’s what writers sign on for. Criticism makes you better at what you do.
Ellen and Reid know little of my background as a writer. I began in the news game and have always considered it the most fun, most fulfilling work I’ve ever done. Sure, you get paid writer’s wages, but there’s high value to job satisfaction, too. This gives them some context. (They need to know their grandfather, Ralph Bradley, was also an enormous influence on me. He was editor in chief of the Sun newspaper chain in Omaha, and he did the groundwork that began a story about fiscal malfeasance at Boys Town that eventually won the paper a Pulitzer Prize for Local Investigative Specialized Reporting in 1973. But that’s a separate tale altogether.)
I’m not sure if this lengthy diatribe will be included in today’s letter – likely not – but I will steer them toward this post.
In 1971, I became the news intern at KOLN/KGIN, a TV station in Lincoln, Nebraska. With an unheard of market share of more than 90%, it was the #1 rated CBS affiliate in the U.S. We crunched other stations throughout Nebraska and the northern tier of Kansas counties. (At roughly the same time, my good friend Mort valiantly played ratings catch-up in the newsroom of a competing NBC station in Hastings, Nebraska. He knew all too well of our unchallenged broadcast strength and dominance.)
The internship was a plum job for an uppity know-it-all kid from the School of Journalism at the University of Nebraska who rode his heavy steel-framed Schwin Continental bike two miles down Vine Street every day to the station since he didn’t have the pockets for even a junker car. To this day, I have absolutely no recollection how I landed such a good gig. It could be that, like Mort, I loved the news biz.
My job at first was to write the noon news, listen to police scanners, do assorted odd jobs (and there were plenty of those), and keep the Assoc. Press, United Press International and Reuters teletype wire machines stocked with yellow unlined paper and fresh purple ink carbon ribbons as well as ‘rip the wire.’ That meant using the sharp edge of a plexiglas plate to literally rip separate stories apart and sort them by local, state, regional or national and world topics. Anyone who worked in a newsroom back in the day likely, and very fondly, remembers the non-stop clackety-clack of those machines. It was one of the most glorious sounds a news woman/guy could ever hear. It meant you were in a real, honest-to-God newsroom.
My boss was the News Director and one of only two anchors the station had ever had since it went on the air in the late 1940s. He was Bob Taylor, a fixture in news broadcasting and a true dyed in the wool news guy. He was the trusted Walter Cronkite for Nebraskans. Bob was a short, thin, chain smoker. He was incredibly handsome and had coifed hair before it became the norm. His co-anchor at the time before happy talk wrongly took over newscasts was Mel Mains, who sported jet black hair (combed back in Elvis style) that perfectly fit his narrow, gaunt face. Mel’s penchant for thin lapel black suits and his unemotional baritone teleprompter-less news delivery, sans mannerisms or gestures, reminded me of an undertaker moonlighting as a news reader.
I loved that job in nearly every conceivable way. Except for one thing.
Every day – not every other day or every third day – every single day, Bob would emerge from the studio after he read what I had written for the noon newscast and he would say, “Bradley, come here.” He would always – always – hurriedly make edits during commercial breaks. I knew damn well what was coming. The hammer.
He would sit me down and, using the thick gray editing pencils so common in those days, go over each story line-by-agonizing line. He’d make swift marks, deletions and corrections right before my unbelieving eyes. And this wasn’t just a couple of tortuous moments. It seemed an eternity of 15 – 20 minutes. Every stinking day.
I hated him for the daily bludgeoning. After all, I wanted to be on the air, too, and he knew it. How dare he keep dumping on what I considered pure news prose?
Like most snot-nosed students, I thought I had the whole shebang figured out. One day, after two years of Bob’s unceasing criticism, I jumped at the chance to be the on air presenter/personality at one of those stations Bob and Mel routinely smashed into the low single-digit market share. The station was, quite literally and without exaggeration, a small building of brick situated in a cattle pasture outside Superior, an isolated burg in the hinterlands of south central Nebraska.
I told Bob of my good fortune after yet another of our sit down bashings. I still remember his facial expression as he looked at me. It was a mixture of incredulity and simply being aghast. I assumed he’d be glad to be rid of me but what he said to me will stick with me to my end of days.
He said he was sorry to see me go and that I had a solid future in news – with him and the station. He planned to bump me to assistant news director later in 1972 since he liked my news judgment and attitude. He had warmed to my writing and saw improvement. That stunned me. He told me too, in his blunt style, that I didn’t have the voice or presence to be on air (true that) and that the news business needed news junkies like me to be in all-important background editor positions. Then came the soul-crushing kicker: Bob knew I chafed at the constant barrage of criticism. “I was just trying to make you better,” he said.
He asked me to reconsider since he knew what lay ahead for me. But youthful pride (read: stupidity) got the best of me. I left the station and never saw Bob – Mr. Taylor – again, except on air.
My time running what passed as a lousy, one man newsroom was a complete disaster. When Bob told me he felt I wasn’t cut out to be on air, in my own mind I knew he was right. His forecast was validated in spades. But Bob’s larger lesson dawned on me in succeeding years in the heaviest of terms: that a veteran newsman would take me under his editorial wing and browbeat me was the highest of compliments, the highest and best service he could provide a young punk. His was giving me the best of all possible gifts: his time and his inestimable talents as a writer and editor. But I was too dense and too self absorbed to recognize it.
Bob’s chain smoking eventually caught up to him, and I recall reading his obituary some years later. I called around to old sources in Lincoln and found where his widow lived. I dashed off a long letter with the details you’ve just patiently read. At the end of the note – and how I wish I still had that hand written page – she learned of what her late husband had meant to me, my career and my outlook toward the news business.
For a long while, the national newsroom of the Associated Press in New York entrusted a weekly national housing column to me. With total carte blanche to write on whatever housing topic I chose, it was the most satisfying job I ever had as a writer. The 500 – 1,000 word pieces were paraded every week in front of tens of millions of newspaper readers. The AP also let me run the business that was the goofy housing plans you’d see in the weekend real estate sections. God, it was so much fun.
My editor was a literal ink stained ragamuffin and news lifer, a great man named Norm Goldstein. He ran AP Weekly Newsfeatures, the umbrella division for columns like mine as well as those on food, science, puzzles, fashion, etc. that were staple content for thousands of newspapers in the AP cooperative. But Norm’s greatest claim to fame was his long stint as the father/protector of the Associated Press Stylebook, quite literally the bible of the print world for writers of any ilk. Norm had the final say on virtually all things of style, punctuation and grammar. When he edited my columns, he knew he’d have his hands full. Actually, he went gentle on me. The lessons of Mr. Taylor had finally penetrated my thick noggin.
But Norm’s greatest editing job with me wasn’t on my weekly columns. As some of you know, I’ve written a weekly single page letter to my children, Ellen and Reid, for nearly 15 years. Each letter is mailed in an envelope. (There is a companion blog about the endeavor on letters at weightofasinglepage.wordpress.com. Indeed, I talk about Norm’s editing in a Dec. 15 post, ‘Pride goeth before the fall.’)
Some time ago, eight years to be precise, I hatched a plan to write The Great American book about letters, and for many evenings I slaved to wordsmith the perfect pages. Since book reviews were under Norm’s news features purview, I told him to expect a draft for his review.
With great pride and self assurance, the draft was tucked in a bubble wrap envelope to Norm’s New York address. I couldn’t wait to get his views – and praise and encouragement.
I should have been careful about what I wished for. Sooner than later his review came to me in return mail. Norm is a quiet, studious type and he had done his homework. He went Bob Taylor on me but in his own kind and gracious way. He asked simply if the draft was complete. This was his way of panning not just the writing, but the concept and the execution. He was letting me down softly. That draft, with his markings, sits gathering dust (I mean, gathering real dust) on a shelf below my TV.
Rather than get upset and defensive about his edits as many of my students do in my writing classes, I could not thank Norm enough for his valuable service. If he had merely offered idle platitudes on the ‘potential’ for the book, he would have done me the worst of favors. His soft knocks were exactly what I needed to hear. When writers get huffy about criticisms and critiques, they will never be the writer they could be. Only the Hemingways, Cormac McCarthys and Stephen Kings warrant such a free pass from the prying eyes of editors. As I tell my students after my version of the Bob Taylor hammer falls upon them, editors ought to be viewed as tutors and well-meaning interpreters of what readers really ought to see. Editors help writers and their writing.
I have a close friend in Des Moines, Bob Furstenau, who is a former art director for major magazines, including Better Homes and Gardens. Bob is a creative genius. His creative mind never stops. Never. He knows what I will call creative or graphic cadence. He has the learned sense to know what will pass muster with readers and viewers.
I’m a very committed environmentalist. I blog about the tawdry topic of litter because it’s something I can do something about.
Bob is a faithful reader of this blog. And he’s a faithful ‘suggester’ if you catch my drift. He’s always dripping on me with this or that ‘suggestion.’ Last week, he forwarded a blog from the Los Angeles Times that he thought might be useful to me.
His suggestions amount to this: they will make my writing, my visual approach, my content and context that much more valuable to those who invest the time to put up with my meanderings. His style might differ from Bob Taylor’s or Norm Goldstein’s, but it is valued criticism nonetheless.
It’s this most recent ‘suggestion’ that blasted a hole through my lame, staid status quo for Pick Up Your Path.
Rather than keep down the same road, Bob’s thought is to break up the blog into shorter, more digestible and nuggety content. He’s spot on about that. I’d traipsed down my merry way and his thoughtful, and thought provoking, ideas will make this blog better for those who, again, invest the time in me and my topic.
So before another (pickupyourpath.com) post is made – yeah, I’ll still include the sordid pics of trashy messes – I’ll devise a better approach that will make reading this blog (hopefully) more palatable for you with a broader environmental/factoid scope.
And as my three heroes have done, your criticisms are welcome, too. It’s not that I have a thick skin, it’s that I have a hard-won acceptance of the role of honest editing in not only this blog, but writing of any sort.