Writing in a circle, from surprise start to ironic finish

For as long as I can remember, I knew that I would be a writer. I just did not think early on that I would ever make a living at it. I thought it was something that I would do on the side, for myself and no one else.

And, now after 22 years as a professional writer and editor, I may never write and edit for a living ever again simply because of the economic atmosphere in which we live.

Such are the circles of life, I suppose.

As a youngster, I wrote stories in a form that most resembles storyboards, sort of a cartoon or graphic representation of a tale. Storyboards are used to outline television commercials, TV shows, movies or other video presentations. My fictional stories – which included plots and characters plucked from the latest adventure television programming – were for fun and to pass away the time during long, cold winters in the North Words of Maine or long, rainy days during summer vacation.

Later on, my high school English teacher, Janice Webster, occasionally encouraged me to write beyond the journal entries she assigned. But a high school boy more interested in sports and girls was embarrassed by the recognition and I mentally shoved aside the idea of writing beyond regular English assignments. Continuing a private journal was one thing, but being a professional writer on any level was out of the question.

Besides, there were far more practical pursuits on which to concentrate – studying for a profession or vocation – but writing was not one of them.

But college professors at the University of Southern Maine where I attended from 1980 to 1983 also were encouraging in critiquing my written work for courses in various areas of study, including English. It was comforting, but it still was not enough to spur me to write more than what my college courses required or what I cared to jot down in my personal journal.

I still have some of those early journals and marvel at how utterly terrible some of my writing was then. There are times I have considered finding an open spot and torching a pile of those journals so that they do not fall in the hands of even mildly intelligent people who will recognize the writing for what it is – dung.

Going west

While I loved the University of Southern Maine and Southern Maine in general, I felt a bit adrift there after three academic years. I was not sure what I wanted to be when I grew up, let alone what I wanted to study to get there.

So, almost reluctantly, I took the advice of several fellow USM students just returning from the National Student Exchange program. The program allowed students to attend courses for either a semester or complete academic year at other universities throughout the country, and then return to the home university. I picked California State University at Chico in Northern California.

Chico is north of Sacramento, but still well within the state’s prime agricultural area. Besides agriculture, the economy was centered on the university, a nearby community college, a major regional medical center, retail outlets, and, because Chico is the county seat for Butte County, social services.

Modern-day Chico was founded by Capt. John Bidwell, who in 1841 travelled to the West and for a time worked for John Sutter. After the discovery of gold, Bidwell tried a hand at gold prospecting. He eventually bought and sold a couple of land grants, eventually buying the Rancho Chico, the basis for modern-day Chico. He became one of the state’s largest landowners and wielded his political influence running for several offices, including for president of the United States.

Bidwell’s mansion is a state historic park on the edge of the campus. He also gave the city land for what was then – and very probably now, as well – the third largest municipal park in the country. Bidwell Park is a lush sanctuary that starts near downtown Chico and meanders along either side of the Big Chico Creek into the lava-formed foothills. Bidwell Park has a couple of swimming holes, bike and running paths, horse trails, ball fields, a fairy tale-themed children’s playground, nude beaches, hiking trails and more. The city’s municipal golf course is in Upper Bidwell Park.

I have not been to Chico in years and that is a shame since it is a fantastic place.

I originally planned to attend Chico State for a semester and then return to USM to finish out my college career. But, as such stories go, I fell in love with a woman. The problem was, of course, she was not interested in me. So, I arranged to stay for the entire academic year, I suppose in the hope of winning her heart.

I did not win her heart, but Chico won mine. I fell in love with the university, the city, and the outdoor activities in and around Chico. So, I settled in and became a wildland firefighter for the summer following my first academic year at Chico State. I was a wildland firefighter for two more summers while attending Chico State, rising from firefighter/sawyer/swamper to squad leader to crew leader my third year.

I very nearly made firefighting my career and still occasionally feel regret that I did not give the idea more thought. By now I would have nearly 30 years in the fire service and would be planning my retirement, whether as a transition into another career or as a transition onto a tropical beach. That – and the fact that I did not really pick a major until they forced me to – might indicate how conflicted I was in trying to pick a career.

Picking a path

Yes, they forced me into picking a major. They forced me because I could not seem to do the deed.

My academic adviser John Sutthoff, a professor in the school of communications, finally put down his foot and insisted that I pick a major. He asked what I enjoyed doing. I thought about and said I enjoyed writing, because I did enjoy writing in my personal journal and enjoyed the positive feedback from professors when it came to writing for my coursework.

He said that the school had public relations and journalism majors and both required much writing. Not wanting to be a public relations practitioner, I said I would try journalism.

I was not sure even then that I would end up being a professional writer.

With several of the basic news writing and editing courses down, I ended up on the staff of The Orion, the campus newspaper. There was only a part-time staff writer position available, but I was able to get full credit because I also became an assistant to the production manager. That meant that I was able to learn a bit about being a reporter and a bit about physically putting together the newspaper, which was much different than it is done today.

Then, the story was reported, written, edited and outputted on a strip of photographic paper. That paper as developed, trimmed to the width of a newspaper column, waxed and then put onto a blue-line grid sheet matching the newspaper page. Headline, cutlines, photos and ads were done separately, waxed and then attached to the grid sheet in the appropriate places. A photo of the page was then taken by a large camera, the negative transferred to a metal plate that was processed and then placed onto the drums of the printing press. Pressmen, who to this day keep secret the exact manner for placing plates on the press and for weaving the web – the rolled paper magically threaded through the press that will become the newspaper – then run a section of the paper. That was taken by conveyor belt to the circulation department where the various sections were combined – either by hand or by machine – to form the complete newspaper.

Now, software allows for stories, complete with headlines, subheds, cutlines, photos and ads, to be placed on an electronic page and output to plating as a single page before converted into a plate, saving much time and effort on the editorial side of the production.

First big story

Even as a part-time staff writer, I ended up with some exciting stories. I was interviewing the campus police chief one day about crime stats or something as banal, when a campus police sergeant came in to update him on an upcoming operation. The chief introduced me and the sergeant asked if I was coming along.

I was stunned, really, because they had been talking in police-speak and I was not clear on what they were talking about. The chief told me a bit about what was going on and said it would be OK if I wanted to come along with a photographer.

As it turned out, there was a ring of Chico State and Butte Community College students who were going onto the Chico State campus and elsewhere to steal coins from vending machines. They also were stealing other property, as it turned out, including stereo equipment and bicycles. (Chico is a big bike town, especially for college students. There used to be an annual road trip to Davis, another bike-friendly college town, to, um, borrow bicycles from University of California, Davis, students. Davis students would return the favor, of course.)

One of the members of the ring, Chico State football player Steven Crittenden, was nabbed doing something else and he pretty much gave up his crew. Officers went to the apartment of the gang and found a pile of coins, bicycles, stereos and other stolen property.

That was my first big story. Front-page of The Orion with photos. It was fun, especially since I believe we beat the local newspaper, The Chico Enterprise-Record. I sort of caught the bug then.

[But the story goes on a bit. Crittenden, the guy who tipped off police about the vending machine thefts, later was arrested in a rape. And then charged, tried and found guilty in the January 1987 double torture homicides of a prominent Chico physician and his wife, Joseph and Katherine Chiapella, in their Chico home. Crittenden’s trial was moved to Placer County, where he was convicted and sentenced to death. He remains on California’s death row. Here’s a link to a U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals response to a filing for an appeal in the case with a description of the homicides. WARNING: The descriptions and other factual information are fairly graphic.]

I was the editor of The Orion the next two semesters. I wrote columns and editorials, mostly, and made sure we had enough stories to fill the pages. It was an eventful two semesters, but I think I would have been better served if I had been a writer for a full semester instead of being the editor. Some of the other writers from that time went onto great things, from working in journalism to writing and producing television dramas.

The Real World

After graduation, I hung around Chico for about a month before getting a job as the editor of The Mendocino Beacon. That began my professional career as a writer and editor.

From Mendocino, I went on to be a staff writer at The Ukiah Daily Journal, The Woodland Daily Democrat, and The Reporter in Vacaville. I stayed more than 13 years in Vacaville, moving up to copy editor, assistant news editor in charge of special sections, columnist, and opinion page editor. In a desire to make more money, I moved onto The Record in Stockton to take a job as an assistant city editor.

I stayed with that a couple of years until a newsroom reorganization resulted in me being reassigned to being a staff writer on the newspaper’s website. I was disappointed. There was no other way to look at the reassignment except as a demotion, a demotion not because of my work, but because of someone else’s inability to lead.

However, the year or so I spent working on the website was very beneficial. My main duty was to update content on the newspaper’s website, send out news alerts to mobile subscribers, and write breaking news. It gave me many new skills and helped me refresh old skills.

It was going well – or so I thought – until I was laid off March 5, 2009.

As past readers will know, I have been looking for work ever since. I have been looking for employment in conventional newsroom settings and online news services, and writing and editing opportunities for the federal government, nonprofits, and green industries. So far, a couple of interviews, but no offers.

I know I will find a job – eventually. I just wish it would happen already, especially since I’m quickly running out of unemployment insurance benefits. For that reason, I may have to take any job, whether it is in writing and editing or not.

And that is why I feel that I may not write as a professional ever again. It just may not be in the cards for me.

Epilogue

Irony is wonderful, isn’t it? I wrote this mostly string-of-consciousness blog entry after starting to re-read Rene J. “Jack” Cappon’s 1991 version of “The Associated Press Guide to News Writing,” a manual on how to best write clear, concise news stories. The irony is, of course, that I wrote an entry that is more than 2,000 words; there is nothing clear or concise about that.

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