Finding your niche can be matter of luck
February 27, 2019 3:00 AM
by Jack Sheehan
I’m occasionally asked how I chose scribbling as my career profession.
Actually, it wasn’t like I had a lot of choices because when I was in my early twenties and started jotting down a list of “Things I Do Fairly Well,” the list stopped at three. They included golf, telling stories and writing papers in college.
But when I drew up a list of “Things I Truly Suck At,” or to avoid ending the phrase with a preposition I reworded to: “Things At Which I Truly Suck,” I realized on page seven that I better go back to the first list and get real with my bad self.
By the time I was forced to look in that proverbial mirror regarding my future, I had attained a master’s degree in English. But unlike students with a real purpose, I hadn’t gone to six years of college to prepare myself for a career as a future architect or lawyer would have done. I had lingered in the halls of academe precisely because I enjoyed reading great literature and wasn’t ready to face the cold hard fact that it was time to make a living.
I was offered exactly one job with my graduate degree: selling school textbooks in Montana. The pay was around a thousand dollars a month with a small commission structure. My territory would be the tiny rural towns in the vicinity of where Unabomber Ted Kaczynski holed up in his Tuff Shed and wrote manifestos predicting the end of the world and mailing out explosive devices to facilitate that purpose.
I took a pass on the textbook offer and jumped instead at an unexpected chance to caddy for a college golf teammate on the PGA Tour.
That odd choice led to an offer to write about the experience, because most vagrants who looped back then didn’t have much more to say than, “We got one sixty-four, Boss, with a hurtin’ breeze and a false front. I like six-iron.”
A golf editor I met in North Carolina was surprised that I could discuss Dostoevsky and divots with equal aplomb, and when I accepted his writing proposal and cashed that first measly check from a national magazine, I was hooked.
Upon discovering that stringing words together could earn a paycheck rather than merely an A-minus in Modern Russian Literature, I was ecstatic. Two years later, after I left a newspaper reporting job in Washington state and came to Las Vegas on a lark, I made another important realization: in writing about a wide range of topics, the setting of stories is critical.
What better setting could a scribbler find than a place known for excitement, intrigue, unlimited growth potential, and where the mere mention of a city’s name causes curiosity to peak and eyebrows to raise.
I soon discovered that national magazine editors were willing to believe almost anything about Las Vegas, because bizarre and barely believable events occur here on a daily basis.
Here is a sampling of stories I put to paper:
• I found a guy who claimed he was close friends with the real D.B. Cooper and that he had returned with the skyjacker to the site where he leaped into a thunderstorm in 1971 to help him find the ransom money. We wrote 15,000 words about it and appeared on several national radio and TV shows to discuss his tale.
• I listened to former college football star Art Schlichter, who claimed he was cured of his gambling addiction, give a tearful speech to a gathering of problem gamblers in Las Vegas. Art’s sincerity and remorse were palpable, but I learned days later that the night before his speech Schlichter had forged a signature on a casino credit report and lost over $10,000 of someone else’s money at Caesars Palace.
• A bartender I knew introduced me to a woman with a highly unusual life: she was a single mother serving as her daughter’s Girl Scout den mother and her son’s Little League baseball coach.
That all sounded fairly conventional until I learned that the woman found the extra time for these commitments by earning about a grand a night as a call girl. I sold a six-part series to a Japanese magazine titled, “The Double Life of a Las Vegas Housewife,” and got a nice check for selling the treatment of her story to a television network.
Today, this same woman is a highly respected general practice physician in a western state.
• Through various connections, the talented late investigative reporter Ned Day and I were able to piece together an unsolved murder, which led to the conviction of her husband.
Because at its core Las Vegas back then was still a relatively small town, it was a simple matter of connecting the dots between the district attorney, some diligent homicide cops, and friends of the victim who shared similar suspicions.
Nearly 30 books, and well over a thousand essays and articles later, I remain as curious and fascinated with Las Vegas as ever before. Enriching tales, creepy stories, once-in-a-lifetime occurrences, they occur here every day. Somebody has to record them.
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