Thursday, October 15, 2009

Goat Hill at the Guardian

“You don’t have to know what it’s about when you start, but you sure as hell better know what it’s about when you finish,” says an English reporter in an ambiguous accent, “or you’re in deep shit.” Although I can hardly understand a word this woman is saying – she sounds like a nasally, European Oompa-Loompa – she may have just given me the best darned advice of my professional life.

Ah-ha! My brain-wheels start spinning.

She’s talking about a story. About how journalists and writers don’t always need to know how their stories will end when they start writing. For instance, someone might begin a draft about a man and his dog, or an astronaut and the possibility of life on Venus, and conclude with a witty editorial on tomato soup. (For all we know, most stories about tomato soup originally weren’t supposed to be about soup.) Get it?

If you’re an aspiring journalist, you understand why this is the most fantastic news of my existence. It means I’m done pulling all-nighters drafting outlines. Done spending summer days inside, dreaming up the perfect beginnings, middles and ends to unimportant, 500-word department pieces. Never again will I sit in front of a laptop beady eyed and peevish, second-guessing each reluctant sentence I type, making sure every word flows seamlessly with the next and meshes perfectly with the overall picture I’m trying to portray in my last halfhearted paragraph. This 50-year-old city journalist was telling me to scrawl whatever comes to mind in my ratty notebook until – viola! – a decent story emerges. And, since I started writing this way? It always does. (Take this blog, for starters.)

During our intern orientation at The San Francisco Bay Guardian, we were told we’d have workshops like these once a week. When the paper laid off nearly every one of its staff members the first month we were there (but told us unpaid trainees, “Don’t worry, your jobs are safe”), we realized there wouldn’t be many workshops, since most reporters and editors were forced to work twice as hard for half as much money (although they still arrived no earlier than 10 am). They didn’t have time to better their interns.

They did, however, have plenty of time to order Goat Hill Pizza every Friday and stuff their faces in the break room for a good hour. I would stay late just to get a greasy slice of pepperoni – and I got in early on Mondays for the leftovers.


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