Some writers construct symphonies with words, mastering semantics, cadence, and rhythm. Flowing poetry, seamless and succinct. Displaying a copious vocabulary, a knack for wordplay and nailing everything perfectly.
I have yet to do this.
They construct mansions with their words, elegant spaces with comfortable nooks, sprawling gardens and classical elements. I construct a hovel, whose cardboard walls are flimsy and in danger of collapsing. Yet I can erect the four walls, so that’s something.
With every story I write, I’m learning. With every story I read, I’m learning. The mantra they teach you about writing is: Read. Write. Repeat. Read different genres, write something out of your comfort zone and continue doing this until you’re dead.
Writing should not be a dilettante hobby. It’s a lifelong commitment. It’s the monkey on your shoulder flinging its poop at you whenever you get complacent, whenever you feel sorry for yourself and want to sit on the couch, eat Cheetos and watch “2 Broke Girls”.
That’s especially sad.
The monkey smacks you on your head, urging you to continue, forcing you back into Word City, driving you forward. It pries your mouth open with its little monkey fingers and pours coffee down your gullet. It chants eek eek ook ook and gets you to regroup and write.
You are not a human being with free will. You are that monkey’s bitch. Mistress Monkey with the 9-inch stiletto heels and bullwhip, smacking you around, forcing you to meet deadlines.
You’re a writer. You’re weird. Get used to it.
Twenty years ago I came down to Cape May County to work in newspapers. I started out editing obituaries, because 23-year olds find typing and proofreading death notices mentally stimulating and fun. From there came a plethora of mundane assignments; covering the freeholder board, local zoning boards, school boards and town councils.
Journalism doesn’t have a monkey muse on your shoulder. It has a gorilla on your shoulder, crushing your spine, wearing you out and thrashing you about like a suitcase in a 1972 American Tourister commercial.
It’s brutal, the hours and pay suck and as far as respect, Congress has a higher approval rating. The print media is a dinosaur going extinct. In 2013, the Wall Street Journal named newspaper reporters as the worst job in America. That means the guy who cleans the elephant shit in the zoo has more job satisfaction than newspaper reporters.
I dedicated my adult life to a sinking ship. Cynicism, gloomy prognostications and hand-wringing fill newsrooms. The once idealistic and gullible writer I was became squashed under the gorilla’s fist. The hot breath from the monster’s nostrils down my neck. A stressful, thankless parade of writing on deadline, getting a paper out and doing it all again. Not allowing myself time to relax. Not laughing. Letting the corrupt system running the world chip away at the writer I was.
No wonder why so many reporters are alcoholics.
It’s taken me years to ignore the false doomsayers in the media and politics and refocus my energies on writing. Only on the cusp of middle age do I grasp the importance of words, of this bizarre gift and curse.
When you’re north of 40, you’ve lived half your life. You assess yourself, where you’ve been, where you’d like to go. I didn’t want my remaining years consumed with further regret. I refuse to be a washed-up hack, toiling in front of a computer screen. If I’m going to further commit to this, I’m doing it my way.
Full throttle, balls deep, in the zone.
This career is not just another way to pay bills. It’s not just about competing with other newspapers and websites for readers. Since editorial doesn’t generate revenue, as one editor told me, I am not as important as the advertising department. I disagree. The pen is mightier than the sword. It’s mightier than an F-16 fighter jet carrying a 100-megaton nuclear warhead. Words can do more than entertain and amuse. They can change the world. They can send the forces of corruption and evil running for the hills. They can topple careers, expose abuse and neglect and burrow right into your gut like pinworms with super powers.
Words inflame your passions and raise the dead. Lazarus frantically typing away, cursing the darkness and shining the Fresnel lens of truth. Your Mighty Word Beacon illuminates the night, scattering ugliness across the land, like the deformed demonic critters from a Hieronymus Bosch triptych. With your skill and perseverance, you squash every one of those corrupt buggers.
Every. Single. One.
Maybe there’s a tiny bit of the idealistic young man inside me, even though I’m old and petulant most days. Perhaps keeping a sense of humor, a need for satire and a reputation for honesty and truth helps.
Especially in a small town like this, where truth is often swept under the rug for expediency’s sake, and superficiality replaces substance.
But I wouldn’t know anything about that.
I’m just a writer.