Wednesday, October 01, 2008

MISC: Rewrite!!!

Ken Levine writes a great daily blog about his past career as a writer on TV sitcoms from M*A*S*H to ones that you probably never heard of, to his current gig doing radio for the LA Dodgers. He's funny and filled with all kinds of stories and anecdotes from his career. Plus, he hands out free advice like anxiety pills at a Congressional vote on economic bailouts.

Today's entry struck a cord. He writes about a mentor that treated him with tough love back in the day when he was just starting to learn how to write things, other than Ohio State 21, Northwestern 7. He got 'edited' by his mentor, thereby starting him on the path towards learning to be a great communicator.

For me, I had several mentors, not the least of which was Ken Giles. 'Scoop' or 'Chuck,' he answered to both when people purposely didn't use his name, was my editor for the first 12 years of my professional life. I get my love of alliterative descriptions from him. He once strung together seven adjectives in a row starting with S. I can't remember it all, but it ended up with soggy sod. I invite you to try to match him.

At any rate, The Boss (which is what I have called him all of my adult life) always corrected me in the least embarrassing way possible. When I got it into my dumb skull that optician was spelled optition for a couple of weeks, he corrected all the mistakes the first week, and then asked me gently the second week to spell the work out loud. I did. Correctly. "Then why are you typing optition instead?" He was curious. Wanted to know. I didn't know. And that was the end of the problem.

For more than a decade, he edited my sports stuff. I had other editors for my computer and bridge columns. And still more when I started the trivia column. (I tried, unsuccessfully, to fill up half the paper each week. But I came close!!) Each of them frequently had a problem with my column style. It was like this blog. Lots of short non-sentences, broken up occasionally by an attempt to break the world's longest sentence record. Most of the editors at The Guardian and then later with other papers, treated me as the tempermental wordsmith that I was. In other words, with kid gloves. Still, they would be bemused at my attempts to create literature rather than newspaper work, which was supposed be squarely aimed at the grade 8 reader. In later years, when I'd learned better, I had to deal with a junior sports reporter who fancied himself a writer. He was wrong. My revenge today is that he's an editor. Heh, heh, heh.

As I got older, I did branch out, once again, to writing for the major Toronto dailies. I had extensive dealings with them while in high school as a high school sports correspondent. Later, I did lots of work with The Star. But the most interesting experience was my one and only trip into the offices of the Toronto Globe and Mail, to do up a story on the Brampton Canadettes Hockey Tournament.

I'd been doing odd stuff for the Globe for years, going back to the time just after high school. But it was an all-phone affair. This time, I had to go to the office to file the story. I got a friend, Arvid Yorkman, to accompany me to the place. I'd never been there and I tend to get lost. So he drove me from the tournament site in Mississauga (yeah, I know, a different town. But this was billed as the world's largest women's hockey tournament and one city was not big enough to hold it. Still isn't to this day). We got lost, but finally trundled up to the editorial floor and sat down at the desk where my 'editor' at the Globe sat during the day.

For reasons that will become obvious, I won't name said editor. A LOT of his proteges are in the business to this day and are my friends. That said, our mentor at the Globe had a drinking problem. That hit home when I opened a drawer looking for a pencil and found an open bottle of some spirits, the cap off. If there was any more cliched caricature of a hard-drinking reporter than my mentor, I have yet to meet him or her.

We used newsprint, carbons and typewriters back in those days. That's carbon paper for making copies, not carbon-dating. I quickly typed up five half-sheets, did a little hand-editing of my own, and then walked the result over to the night sports editor. I was feeling pretty good. In fact, I was going to ask for my own by-line, rather than the ubiquitous 'Special to the Globe and Mail' that appeared under all of my previous stories.

The Editor harrumphed as he scanned through the writing. The first line, a perfect pearl of reportage, got left unchanged. EVERY OTHER LINE on five pages got changed with a swipe of red grease pencil. I am not kidding. EVERY LINE! Even the one with a score in it got changed...well deleted. But that's the same thing. EVERY LINE!

Where once I stood waiting to have my name attached in triumph, I now looked hopefully for cracks in the floor to flow through. Gawd, it was embarassing.

The crushing appraisal done, the editor stuck his hand in the air, clutching the sheets of crap, and yelled "Re-write!!!" If you want the complete comical graphic image, he was chawing a big cigar while doing it and that cigar seemed to jump with each syllable of "re-write!" I turned to leave, never to set foot in the place again. In fact, I was thinking maybe this sports-reporting gig wasn't for me. I HAD majored in math and a computer career beckoned.

But the editor saved my reporter career, at least for a decade or so, with the next words out of his mouth. "Good job kid."

And so I went back to work perfecting my reporting craft. I got better. Editors like The Boss and the unnamed Globe night man saw to that. Love and Tough Love. I needed both.

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