My first paying writing job – a two-year stint, starting, age 24 – I wrote a weekly column in a major Toronto newspaper, The Toronto Telegram. The assignment was somewhat less impressive than it sounds. Assuming it seemed impressive to you in the first place. Which, if you are from a larger metropolis – or the United States – you probably didn’t. (“What was it written on, birch bark?” Ignoramical “chortle, chortle.”)
My regular column – entitled “Where It’s Near” because I would not dare to suggest I knew “Where It’s At” – appeared in what was branded the “After Four” section of the newspaper, “After Four” referring to the period after school, when, provided a weekly “Insert” tailored specifically to their interests, school children would be encouraged to read the paper when they got home. (The Toronto “Tely” being a now vistigial afternoon publication.)
My column had nothing to do with school. Or school children. As I do here, I just wrote what came to my mind. The reason it appeared in “After Four” is that a friend of mine knew “After Four’s” editor, who, having enjoyed my sample submissions, included my column in the only section of the paper over which she had editorial control. (Although the “Tely’s” overseeing “Managing Editor” did write her an approving memo (I was later shown), on which the words “He writes well” had been hastily scrawled. I felt relievedly flattered. The man could just as easily have scrawled, “No!”)
We are talking about the late sixties here, when people of all ages were finding their voices and feeling their oats. After a year-and-a-half-or-so’s tenure, I was summoned to attend an arranged meeting down at the Head Office. Which I rarely visited. I wrote at home, and I mailed my work in. That’s right. Envelopes and a stamp. Delivered by the Pony Express. (Just kidding. But that, I am defensively thinking, is how it sounds.)
It turned out the arranged meeting was about me. More specifically, about firing me. (My only job at the time, and the only reflection that I was a writer.)
The newly empowered students had come to angrily protest, not about civil rights or the Viet Nam war – not “our issues”, but still. How ‘bout a sense of proportion? Their fulminating concern involved an interloping adult, writing a column that had nothing to do with them in the “After School” section of the newspaper.
The irate adolescents demanded I be immediately dismissed. (Although not horsewhipped. For which I was demonstrably appreciative. Though I was unable to stop sweating.)
Well, as President Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929) purportedly said,
“When there are ten problems headed your way, it’s a cinch seven of them will fall in a ditch before they get to you.”
Fortunately, bloodthirsty children calling for my head turned out to be thankfully one of the “seven.” The “After Four” editor listened patiently to the fiery high schoolers’ complaints, thanked to committee/slash/lynch mob for its valuable input, and then proceeded to do nothing.
Shortly thereafter, however, the Toronto Telegram went bankrupt and I lost my job anyway. (That’s the practical loophole in Coolidge’s instructive “Words of Wisdom.” When there are ten problems headed your way, it is difficult to distinguish the innocuous “Seven” from the demolishing “Three.” You can only “not worry” in retrospect.)
Understandably traumatized by being summarily placed “on the dock”, charged with egregious “Malfeasance of Content”, the specifics of this bloodthirsty “Kiddie Inquisition” have been expunged from my then quivering consciousness. It seems reasonable, however, that during those perilous proceedings I was asked if I could alter my approach, writing more appropriately for “After Four’s” intended readership.
To which I likely whisperingly – fear of immediate dismissal having drained me of vocal energy – replied in response,
“I can try. The thing is, what comes out is what comes out.”
(By the way, a “commenter” asked about “word count” in my columns. I literally counted them, with a meticulously moving finger.)
So, why this and why today?
In response to a recent post, occasional reader “Anonymous”, deciding to check me out that day, commented, “I thought, ‘I like his stuff but they tend to be kind of long.’ And that’s when your page popped up and you were talking about your overlong blogs. Ha.”
Though I could have done happily without the pejorative “overlong”, “Anonymous’s” concluding, “Personally, don’t change a thing” more than made up for the momentary umbrage.
Thanks for the encouragement, “Anonymous.” I suppose I could try to write shorter. Although how would anyone who stopped reading because I wrote longer find out about it? Ask MSNBC. It’s crazy hard to persuade people who are not watching.
When you get down to it, however – making this an unprecedented “Three ‘however’ post” – it’s like I told those menacing schoolchildren back in 1969:
What comes out?
That’s what comes out.
And there is not much I can do about it.
I like how it comes out.
(827 words. A concessionary improvement. Spread the word.)