Editor’s note: This is part two of a two-part column discussing the world of being a freelance journalist.
This week, I’ll continue my journey of steps and missteps in my writing career:
Last week I mentioned that I had a four-month stint as a miserable blackjack dealer in downtown Las Vegas. The one positive I took from that job is that I used my dealing experience to sell a few freelance articles about it in the late 1970s.
The two jobs that best prepared me to break free and scribble full time were a city magazine editing gig and teaching English classes at UNLV. With both I was engaging in language and storytelling on a daily basis. Yet while after all my years of education I may have thought I had a good understanding of grammar and punctuation, it only took a few weeks in front of inquisitive college freshmen to realize I was deficient.
Do colons go inside or outside of quotation marks? What exactly is the past perfect tense? How do you define a conjunctive adverb? What’s wrong with changing the person of pronouns randomly in an essay? When exactly do you use a semicolon? When should you use a long dash rather than a comma? What is the difference between parentheses and brackets?
These and dozens of other questions came at me like machine-gun fire in my first weeks of teaching English 101. I discovered I better be ready to answer them quickly and surely to retain any credibility in front of my students.
So I studied the rules by the hour and soon found that the same principles I was teaching were subtly finding their way into my own writing and thus enhancing my ability to communicate effectively to an audience of strangers.
Just as a carpenter who knows how to use a saw and leveler and pound nails straight may have the mechanics to build a house, the question remains whether he can build a castle. Can this carpenter make the walls sing and cause a visitor to stand back in a meadow and revel in the beauty of the architecture and the way the afternoon sun plays off the beveled windowpanes?
There are long bridges separating technically correct writing… and poetry. Take this sentence from author Ken Kesey, describing a character in his modern-day epic, Sometimes a Great Notion, as he peers out a window:
“Careless with victory, the moon leaned too far and fell into the cream. It swam there like a golden macaroon, tempting me until I brought it to my lips. I opened my body to that fabled milk and that enchanted cookie. Like Alice I would expand, my life would now be changed.”
We know volumes about this character without having been told much of anything. Such are the touches that elevate this piece of writing from rote description to art.
I acknowledged early in the game that my talent for fiction was limited, and that I didn’t need to write make-believe stories to scratch my itch. I labored over a couple original short stories, was unhappy with both efforts, and moved on.
In time, I realized that the trump card I could play over and over again, one that wasn’t held by any other freelance writer in any other city, was the locale of my stories. Unlike with Spokane or St. Paul or Cincinnati, nearly everyone in America and beyond our shores is intrigued with Las Vegas.
Readers will believe most anything they read about our city because our stock in trade is the unbelievable, the hallucinogenic, and the magical.
That is not to suggest that I made up stories about our town and sold them as non-fiction, because embellishment is unnecessary in a city that packages overstatement and fantasy like Boise bags potatoes.
Knowing that an editor has a fascination with our city going in was a tremendous advantage for me. No matter the length or breadth of an assignment, I have always tried to wrap a little neon around it.
A writer in Las Vegas has a buffet of topics to choose from, assuming he or she doesn’t get pigeonholed as a sports writer or an entertainment scribe or an expert on cats or desert tortoises. So whenever an assignment came my way, no matter the subject, I crossed my fingers behind my back and professed to have some knowledge of it.
In the days well before the Internet and the miracle of Google, I did a piece on the proper way to carry out a Jewish wedding, even though I’d never been to one. I also pretended to be an expert on bass fishing at Lake Mead years before I hooked a small-mouth and cooked it on the grill.
Perhaps the biggest bluff of all was my authorship a decade ago of Skin City, a book that portrays me as something of an authority on sex. When I was introduced by a talk-show host on a promotional tour as “The Dr. Ruth of Las Vegas, a man who knows everything there is to know about sex in Nevada,” my wife doubled over in laughter.
Little lies you can sometimes pull off. Whoppers are trickier.
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