Tuesday, July 27, 2010

"Three Little Words"

His name was Andy. He wasn’t family. He wasn’t a friend. He wasn’t even Jewish. He was a total stranger. And with three words, he initiated my career.

Thank you, Andy.

Back in the late sixties, when I was twenty-three, I was eating lunch with some people, and I was telling a story, and the people were laughing really hard. Then, one of them said, “If you write that story up, I think I can get it published in the newspaper.”

Back in the late sixties, I wasn’t doing anything. I had recently returned from a sixteen-month sojourn in London, where, other than taking jobs to survive, I also didn’t do anything. At that point, that looked like my future. I’d be a person who did nothing at all.

Doing nothing has one positive component to it: You have a lot of time on your hands. Time, for example, to dust off the yellow-green Olivetti portable typewriter my Uncle Irving had given me for my Bar Mitzvah, roll in a blank sheet of paper, and type up the story that had convulsed people with laughter around a lunch table. When I completed the written version, I passed it along to the person who said he could get it published in the newspaper.

A couple of days later, I was instructed to call this woman, who was the editor of a weekly insert in the paper directed at high schoolers. The woman informed me that she really liked my story, indicating that there was a strong possibility that it would be published.

Two weeks went by – no story in the paper. Disappointed, I decided to submit another story, to remind the editor about the first story.

Two more weeks passed – no story in the paper. Did I give up? No. I submitted a third story, to remind the editor about the other two. Did I mention I had a lot of time on my hands?

My strategy did not seem to be working. Then, two months after I’d begun my series of submissions, I got a call from the editor. The paper had decided to publish my first story. And they were paying me twenty dollars. This was a landmark moment. It was the first time anyone had paid me for something I had written.

With this announcement came an invitation to write a weekly column. The proposal felt less daunting, since I was already two columns ahead. I was also assured that it was unnecessary to limit my column to the concerns of high schoolers; I could write anything I wanted.

I accepted the invitation, and away I went.

I’ve retained a file of Xeroxed copies of these columns. Looking them over, I am amazed as well as pleased to find that the subject matter and writing style of material written over forty years ago differ surprisingly little from the posts I am offering up today.

“Could a Dwarf Ever Be Elected President of the United States?” “Sadie Schwartz – Making Telephone History By Originating The Word ‘Hello.’”

Commentary and silliness – the buttressing pillars of my comedic infrastructure.

After two years and over a hundred columns, I was unexpectedly terminated. I was shocked and confused. Why had they let me go? A month later, the newspaper, whose publishing history spanned from 1876 to 1971, went entirely out of business. That cleared up the picture. Apparently, the publishers had believed they could remain financial viable if they eliminated my salary. It hadn’t worked out.

The day the paper folded, I went down to say goodbye and thanks for the opportunity. It was then that the editor handed me some pages, saying, “I thought you might want to have this.”

What she’d given me was a sheet of paper, paper-clipped to my original submission; I recognized the font from my Olivetti portable. The sheet of paper had three words scribbled on it in green ink, followed by a one-name signature:


Andy was the paper’s Managing Editor. When I submitted that first story, it was his job, among loftier chores, to decide whether or not to offer me a job. My future was in his hands. Would I be in, or would I be out?

The three words, scribbled on the sheet of paper accompanying my submission said this:

“He writes well.”

Those words meant a lot. They got it all started.

More importantly, they told me something I didn’t know.

I wrote well.


januaryfire said...

I would be interested to read some of those early columns--reprinted here for all perpetuity. It's amazing that you still have copies. I believe my first stories are strewn somewhere between the midwest and the southwestern states, long returned to organic matter following multiple moves.

Max Clarke said...

Great story. Productive when you were just 23, a hundred columns in two years.

Maybe for some, the secret of life is "He writes well."