It was not so far past the days when newspaper reporters hunched over their desks with cigarettes dangling from their lips. When the bottom right desk drawer held a fifth of whiskey and a shot glass. On top of the desk, there would be messy piles of paper and stacks of skinny, spiral-bound Reporters’ notebooks shoved against ashtrays brimming with crushed butts. The crowning glory was a husky Underwood typewriter eating up ribbons of spooled carbon.
This was the original newsroom known to Ken Harvey, who became the Executive Editor of the Sacramento Union, where I landed a job in the late 1980s. Ken came equipped with decades of experience and a sardonic sense of humor that was at odds with the conservative newspaper where Mark Twain had once published his pieces. Of course, a lot had changed by then – offline computers were used to input stories, for example. But others hadn’t – the tension of a newsroom, the constant chatter and taunts of reporters, the drive to deadlines and competition for the front page.
It was there that I got my basic and best education as a journalist. And I remember the following experience as a breakthrough lesson delivered by Ken Harvey in just six words.
I’d burst into the newsroom smelling of smoke from the dense forest fire I’d been covering for more than a week. I rushed to my desk and threw down my gear. I was darn sure I’d end up on the coveted above-the-fold front page. The newsroom hummed like a tuned engine with dozens of reporters busy pounding on the keys, stampeding toward deadline.
I sat down, stared at my blank screen. The little white cursor blinked against a green field waiting to be populated with my story about the wildfire that burned more than 60 homes in the nearby Sierra; the forest service plane carrying retardant that crashed and killed its crew; the 1400 firefighters camped out for more than a week of exhausting, dangerous duty. I’d been there from day one, taking notes, recording voices, choking on smoke, and running from flames.
I looked at my notebook and flipped through the pages, thinking. What’s my lead? How do I grab the reader without being sensational? Do I start with the cargo plane? I’d been there only minutes after the crash …. Where to start …. The cursor continued to jump.
“Darby!” The sharp voice of Ken Harvey broke my concentration on how to begin what might be the biggest story of my blossoming career in journalism. I looked up.
“Why aren’t you writing?” Ken barked.
“I’m thinking … getting my notes organized,” I answered defensively.
“Well, stop thinking and start writing!”
“It’s just a little writer’s block; I’ll get over it!” I whined.
Ken folded his arms and loomed over my desk. “You’ve got writer’s block, and I’ve got a deadline. Choose! You can’t have both!”
I turned to the screen and started tapping the keys. The story pretty much wrote itself and, months down the road when blades of fresh green grass were pushing up through the ground of the charred Sierra where I’d spent a week covering the fires, I won a journalism award for my series.
The advice from Ken to choose between writer’s block and a deadline carried me through the rest of my life as a reporter and writer. I never missed a deadline or cogitated long on how to start. As I migrated to other, better-paying writing posts, I kept his admonition in mind each time I sat and struggled to begin yet another story. Just ‘do it’ was, and is, my mantra.
I’ve found that searching my creative conscious is generally a waste of time, an indulgent luxury that reporters can’t have because they face deadlines. This same philosophy applies to creative writing. How many people are stuck on their great idea for a book but never get past the planning phase? Plenty, I’ve discovered.
Ken Harvey taught me (and countless other reporters) that the act of writing is a living process that begins to breathe with words on a surface. That visual reality inspires like pondering never will. Ken died a few years ago, but his influence lives on. I feel him loom over my shoulder every time I find myself staring at a blank screen. And I wish that I’d let him know about the legacy he’d left to me.
Though I no longer work on tight deadlines, I still pound out words as if my ‘job’ depends on it. And, at the end of each session, I have tangible proof that a deadline can be a lifeline for working writers. Thanks, Ken Harvey, for tossing that to me.
Thanks so much for reading DownDarbyLane. I appreciate your attention and interest more than I can say! To a writer, Readers are Everything!
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Hope to be with you again next week - thanks again - Darby
(C)Darby Lee Patterson 2021