How I never became a writer
It wasn’t easy — not becoming a writer. I worked at it most of my life.
It started back in high school. One of my English teachers thought I showed some talent with a couple of short stories, and encouraged me to write. As it happened, she was also the sponsor of the school paper, but I managed to duck that class by concentrating on subjects required for college admission. Besides, I didn’t have the personality or courage to go around poking into people’s business and asking pushy, nosy questions. Nope, a reporter I could never be. The stories I wrote were more for personal amusement, my imaginings and dreams on paper. The same was true of the poems and the endless journals. And they were a way to “talk” to the paper when I was too shy and introverted to talk to anyone else.
I managed to duck typing class, too. That was a big step toward not becoming a writer. I knew I wouldn’t get college credit for typing and besides, I thought, I would have a secretary to do my typing. Actually, a neighbor taught a little class in her basement one summer, and I learned the basics of the bottom three rows — just barely — on a little portable manual typewriter. If you don’t want to become a writer, it helps a lot to handicap yourself; don’t learn to type.
I headed off to the University of Colorado, well prepared for advanced placement in several areas, which turned out to be a big disadvantage to a kid struggling with her first experience away from home. By the end of the year, I’d decided to transfer back to the University of Oklahoma. I leave it to you to decide whether it was because OU had a School of Journalism and CU didn’t, or because my boyfriend went to OU.
So there I was at the OU J-school, still working hard at not becoming a writer. One of their curricula was creative writing, supposedly one of the best in the country at that time. But looking into it, I learned that the “method” involved learning to write and sell pulp fiction — either romances or Westerns. Yuck. I wasn’t interested in writing either. I wanted to write serious books of some kind. Besides, I thought, I’d better study something that will provide a steady income after I graduate. Creative writing, unless you hit it big, is a very iffy way to make a living. So I opted instead for the “advertising business” curriculum, a serious career-oriented course of study that combined my two biggest interests, art and writing.
I did well in my studies, although by the time I was ready to graduate, I’d decided advertising wasn’t “honest” writing and I wasn’t eager to get into it. And in a further effort to ensure I didn’t become a writer, when the recruiters came around for interviews, I skipped the Hallmark recruiter. He actually called me to ask why I hadn’t come in; they wanted to talk to me. I didn’t want to move to Kansas City, I told him. I didn’t mention that I was to be married that summer to my high school sweetheart. But I certainly eliminated that chance to write.
Well on my way now to not becoming a writer, I was offered a job in the advertising department of the local newspaper. It was a good fit and was the local job I needed while the hubby went to law school. It was fun, too, working right there where I could run across the hall to the editorial department, or downstairs to typesetting and the press room. Printing. A fascinating process from start to finish. I had to write the TV highlights column every week, but that was as close as I got to actual writing.
In weak moments, I took a few writing classes here and there — evening freebies and cheapos at local churches. Some were even taught by published writers. The most useful thing I learned in that pre-computer age was to always carry a steno pad and use those for writing whenever inspiration struck. Filling eight of them front and back equaled a novel. But I also learned that my stories couldn’t hold a candle to what some of my classmates wrote, and that it was acutely embarrassing to have my stuff read aloud and critiqued in front of others.
I opted for the so-called mommy track a few years later, quitting to have a baby and then follow my spouse through several moves and job changes. I was still keeping journals, sporadically, and trying my hand at some short stories and articles. I’d even collected a few rejection slips by the time I started looking for my next job — in Atlanta. The huz had been fired and we needed income ASAP.
Based on my most recent experience, I landed a spot as secretary to the director of advertising at the Atlanta Journal. I couldn’t believe I’d landed a job with a big-time newspaper, but remember, I’m the one who barely knew her way around three rows of the keyboard. Having all the ad sales staff drop their copy on my desk to type up as they were leaving for the day was a nightmare. So a month later I bailed on what might eventually have become a path into writing.
I already had an idea for another job. A local printing company produced a beautiful 4-color magazine of photos and articles about Georgia, rather like Arizona Highways, but it was marred by numerous typos and poor copy editing. I read through and marked up a copy and went to see the printer. “You need help,” says I. And they agreed.
So there I was working for one of Atlanta’s largest commercial printers. They plopped me down in the art department and called me “quality control.” Actually, it was a lot of proofreading — normally a union job — but everyone was cool about it and I had a blast. I learned printing operations from top to bottom. I worked on magazines, books, flyers, posters. I worked with artists, ad sales reps, customers, printers, typesetters, bindery workers, shipping. Later on I moved downstairs to become a production assistant, doing pretty much the same things. But note, with all the different things I was doing, I wasn’t writing.
Privately, I still struggled with the writing demon. I kept writing journals, although intermittently. I slipped in occasional free adult writing classes and wrote for them. But I managed not to become a writer; I managed not to get paid to write.
Life being what it is, I ended up back in Oklahoma City a couple of years later, continuing on the mommy track and looking for part-time and free-lance work. I found it as a proofreader for a local educational publisher. That evolved to full-time in-house work as a copy editor, telling the writers how to write and not write and learning about book publishing instead of magazine and newspaper publishing. That lasted a few years, until some cut-backs and a lack of seniority left me pounding the pavement again. A bunch of the senior employees moved back east to work for McGraw. Maybe I could have pursued that, begged a lot, and ended up working in big-time publishing. But again I opted for home and family.
I spent the next year working for a typesetting operation that had been one of our suppliers. It was a dreary little rat-hole of a place, but I learned all about the mechanics of the earliest computerized typesetting. And I got to do some pre-press work. It was income, at a time (oil crash of ’82) when even PhDs were wandering in looking for work.
And then came the medical association and its journal. Fifteen years of applying everything I knew to producing a monthly publication. I had suppliers who helped me, printers, graphic artists, photographers, and even writers. But no one in house. No one to handle the clerical stuff so I could finally, maybe, write. I saw what we paid others to write. I knew I could do as well, or better. It was not “creative writing”; it was journalistic. And I knew the territory. I knew the material. I knew, if I ever had the time, if I was ever given the opportunity, I could do it. But it never happened. I don’t think I realized until some years after I was fired that they never considered me anything more than a glorified secretary. I did write little filler stories or rewrite items picked up from other sources. Stuff like that. But I can’t even point to those as examples of my skills. My name was on the masthead as the managing editor; I didn’t get bylines.
Then suddenly, that was that. It was over. I was 55 and out of work. I never found another job. And I quit looking three years later when a medical editing company in Syracuse dismissed my application and test with a condescending form letter saying I “showed potential” to become a medical editor. After 15 years of medical editing, I was finally “showing potential”!
There was that one newspaper story I wrote when I lived in upstate New York. Front page, above-the-fold feature for the Oswego, NY, paper. I labored over that story for three days. I was pleased with the result. The editor-in-chief was thrilled. He offered me a whopping $40 a story to keep writing for him. I was not thrilled. But I should have known. Most of his employees were students from the local college. He didn’t have to pay anything. And I decided I didn’t have to write anything. Not at those rates. Not in that obscure little market.
And that’s the story of how I never became a writer. I’ve come dangerously close, but I’ve managed to avoid it. So far.