Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Freedom of a Deadline (Sometimes)

I don't miss writing on deadline. Newsrooms, to me, are ulcer farms. I still shudder when I remember being the interim editor of the weekend Escape section at The Signal, Santa Clarita, California's exclusive newspaper. I was ultimately in charge of five issues for five weeks.

I generally began planning each issue on Friday, the day that each one before was published, thinking of ideas for articles I could write in-house (without outside research, since I didn't have a car), starting my next From My Netflix Queue column (reviewing whatever I watched that came from my Netflix queue), studying the AP newswires for entertainment, travel, and other categories, looking for articles interesting enough to me to put on the pages. I'm proud of the work I did for those five weeks, and the extensive work I did as an intern at the paper and then associate editor of the Escape section that led up to that. But if I was offered a chance to do all that again, I would much prefer to spend my days reorganizing thousands of fallen books in a library hit by an earthquake. It's easier.

However, I do miss the atmosphere in which such writing takes place, writing a column or a story on the fly, figuring out right then and there different angles for each just in case you feel like your original idea isn't working. And then, when you're done, adding and taking out and putting back in as you're editing. Would you believe that there's greater freedom in that than how I write right now?

When I took journalism classes at College of the Canyons in Valencia, California (also part of the Santa Clarita Valley) in 2004 or 2005, one of the first classes required was taught by Paul Bond, a reporter for The Hollywood Reporter. Up to that point, I had been an intern at the satellite office of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in Weston, and had written countless movie reviews for the Teentime pages in the back of the Sentinel's now-defunct weekend Showtime section. In this class, I loved being taught by someone who, when he was done with the class, dashed off to The Hollywood Reporter offices to get started on his work. What he taught, he lived, side by side.

We sat at banks of computers, the monitors and keyboards under glass tabletops. And he would give us sample news stories to write up, usually set on our campus. One assignment was about a suspicious package found in the M building, the media building, our building. Police were called in. The building was locked down. Write about it.

We were taught the inverted pyramid and the general length of a news article of that kind. It was up to us to determine what details the reader should know first. I don't remember all that I wrote, but I think the article started off with someone like, "A suspicious package found on the third floor of the M building yesterday prompted school officials to..."

Dare I say it, I enjoyed writing that article, taking the facts given to us and incorporating them into a hard news piece. No time for flourishes, or overly descriptive reactions to the scene. Just tell the reader what happened, what they need to know.

These days, I'm burdened with what I want to write. Good burdens, but laced with indecision about what to focus on, the result being that not much gets done. But it will. The ideas keep coming, and I've got to focus on one soon and see it through, for my own continued attempted sanity.

Despite the company of such luminaries as the great John Boston, the soul of The Signal, when I was there, my favorite newsroom was at College of the Canyons, for the Canyon Call newspaper, where I was a staff writer. You were allowed to make mistakes, as long as they were cleaned up by deadline.

To this day, I'm still trying to figure out what "News Feature Story" won me the second place 2006 SoCal Conference Mail-In Award from the Journalism Association of Community Colleges. For a time, the award hung on the wall next to the entrance to the newsroom, but some time after leaving the paper, I decided that it was mine, despite being part of the history of the paper, and took it down and took it away with me. It sits in my closet, where a few issues of the Canyon Call may also sit, but I think that bag mainly has the issues of the Escape section I oversaw.

My favorite article that I wrote was a feature on the men's golf team led by Gary Peterson, also the cinema teacher at College of the Canyons. I walked clear across campus, to where they were practicing, interviewed Peterson (who was also my cinema teacher at the time), and a few members of the team. I think I touched upon their dedication, what they hoped to achieve this season, what they looked to improve upon from last season, you know, your typical sports article. It remains the first and only sports article I wrote. But I liked going out there, taking in that atmosphere, watching their furrowed concentration, and just the peacefulness surrounding them. I wanted to write about nothing but that! Only that! If I could have made a career writing about the peacefulness of certain places, I would have stayed in journalism.

In that newsroom, I had space to explore. I had time to think. Lots of it if I wanted. Oh, I have that today, but it's a different feeling. It's easier when you're in your 20s, mulling over this or that, thinking about how to write something, all the while the sun begins to set through the windows and you realize it's time to get home, but just a few more minutes. Just a few minutes to explore this line of thinking, see where it takes me, see if it works for me, and change it if it doesn't. And then go down that path.

The innocence of writing back then. I didn't know as much as I do now, and even so, it's still not that much. But I know more of who I am as a writer, who I want to be, and it's intimidating. Less so when you're younger. Long before What If They Lived?, my first book, was published, a few fellow writers in the newsroom asked me if I was going to write any books. I told them that I didn't think so. I didn't have any ideas. Well look at me now.

Maybe I should try to recapture that writerly innocence. Not to forget what I already know, but approach it how I did back then, with endless possibilities to explore, and new ways to go if I don't like how it's going. Not to be so intimidated by what I'm writing, but see it as an opportunity to learn more about myself, what I can possibly do. Something like that.

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