The lifeblood of any budding journalist is their clips – evidence of stories they’ve written and had published. That’s why it’s almost easier to be a writer in the 21st century than in the 20th century, when I started – you can post blogs and create your own clips. In my day (he said curmudgeonly), we had to submit queries, have them accepted, write stories, have them accepted, and only then would we have something to prove that we were bona fide writers.
There are three stages to being a freelance writer: unpublished, unpaid, and unknown. It took me a while, but I’ve finally worked through all of those stages, and am lucky enough that most of my work today comes through referrals and recommendations. I am finally known.
This musing comes about because I spent last weekend going through my clips. Almost no one asks me for clips these days. And if someone does, they want something recent, which means it’s a PDF or a hyperlink, not black ink on increasingly brittle newsprint. Ostensibly, I was culling material to put into scrapbooks. But frankly, what I found was a little depressing.
Item: I found multiple copies of a satirical story I’d written when I was a freshman at the University of California at Irvine, about cruising downtown Irvine. The original joke was that there was no downtown Irvine, and there still isn’t. The subsequent joke was that I had toted these pages in my files for … gulp … 41 years. And it wasn’t even that funny.
Item: There was a whole section in my files devoted to my life at the movies – dozens of reviews from both university and daily papers; a letter from the late Walter Matthau about the one movie he’d directed; a copy of the Remington Steele script I contributed to; and even the rejection letters from other studios for other scripts. The movie reviews brought back particularly pungent reminiscences, such as the time an attendee at a fraternity rush party revealed that he read my reviews avidly, and then did the opposite of whatever I’d recommended.
Item: Going through my clips was a walk down bad-memory lane in other ways. It reminded me of all the times I’d been laid off and then freelanced in the interim. And even when I was departing for greener pastures, there were reminders of bitter feelings. As I left one magazine, one co-worker asked others to submit their favorite memories of my time there. There were heartfelt remembrances, except from my boss, whose sole adieu read, “Please remember to send source lists for your current stories. Good luck in your future endeavors.”
It was not all depressing, of course. There were heartfelt thank-you notes from editors at defunct publications; warm memos about difficult stories finally wrestled into submission; memories of editors, some with whom I’d initially clashed with but eventually become friends (and some where the relationships traveled the opposite path).
As I edge closer to retirement, it was daunting to look at my career in toto. Sure, it’s great that it’s tapering to an end on a high, successful note. But staring 40 years in the face – and fitting it into a dozen scrapbooks that I know my heirs are going to toss unceremoniously – that’s a little depressing. I’m happy to be able to tangibly hold what I did. I’m glad that the crushing moments of firings and closures and layoffs have faded into dust. I’m happy that I’m closer to the end of my career than the beginning.
But did it all have to go by so quickly?