When I was a young, I had a dream of becoming a newspaper columnist or reporter, but like those in the old movies. I imagined myself in a smoke-filled room, surrounded by a sea of eager journalists, clacking away at our old manual Underwood typewriters, making judicious use of carbon paper and Wite-Out Tape.
I’d be wearing a felt fedora with a press card stuck in the brim. The editor, whom we’d call Chief, would stride around the room, chewing on a cigar and spewing obscenities. In my dream, the soles of my shoes vibrated with the rhythmic rumble and thump of the massive presses in the basement. Then a reporter would dash into the room waving a length of tape fresh from the Teletype and yell, “Stop the presses!” I’d be assigned to write that world-changing piece and then win the Pulitzer Prize and become a millionaire.
When I was in my 30s, I got a job writing a weekly column for the local newspaper. I may be inflating its importance by calling it a job, since in the beginning it was unpaid and offered no benefits. I was supposed to be reporting on local items of interest in my small town. As was common in those days, my columns usually revealed “news” such as who was on vacation, who had a family reunion this week, who was celebrating an anniversary, etc.
Because I was a stay-at-home mom in a semirural area, I didn’t have much contact with “the outside world.” This was way before social media existed. I sometimes had trouble finding enough gossipy “news” to fill the column space allotted to me. I began filling the emptiness with personal observations and humor. When the editor didn’t complain, I gradually dropped the “newsy” items and just wrote about whatever struck me funny that week. Eventually the editor told me that the column was popular with readers and advertisers and he gave me permission to write whatever I wanted.
Even though it started as a volunteer position, I took the responsibily seriously. The newspaper was holding a specified amount of column inches and I was expected to deliver the goods. In twelve years I never missed a deadline, even though there were many nights when I sat at the typewriter until the wee hours of the morning, agonizing over a severe case of writer’s block.
Being a columnist was nothing like my dream. There was no newsroom, no co-workers, just me in a crowded corner of the spare bedroom, stressing over the approaching deadline. My word processor (this was before personal computers) did not clickety-clack. Google didn’t exist yet, so next to my typewriter were two huge reference books; a dictionary and a thesaurus. They still sit by my desk, although they’re now covered with dust and cobwebs. Nobody in my household smokes cigars or curses. Because there were no giant presses in my basement, the only time the soles of my shoes vibrated was when the nearest electrical outlet shorted out when I plugged in the boom box (I told you it was a long time ago).
That job led me to many other writing “gigs” and to the acquaintance of hundreds of other aspiring writers and humorists. You don’t know what fun is until you’ve attended the University of Dayton’s bi-annual Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop and shared stories with dozens of knowledgeable presenters and over 300 funny writers.
My writing never made me a millionaire. It’s barely made me a hundred-aire, but I wouldn’t trade those years for anything.