Friday, December 7, 2007

The Hack Grows Up: Chapter Four

i happened to answer the city desk phone. a funeral home was calling, with an obituary. this happened eight or ten times a day; we all took obits. with so many old finns on the Range, the joke around the newsroom was that every other obit was for toivo maki.

i cradled the phone between my ear and my neck, and started typing.

this dead person was not toivo maki. this dead person was a homeless man, and his funeral was the next day at the Union Gospel Mission downtown.

hmmm, i thought. that's pretty interesting. i'd never heard of a funeral at the mission before, and i thought it would be a good story. so i pitched the idea to my editors, and off i went.

somewhere, deep in a cardboard box in a far back closet of my basement, there is a newpaper clipping of this story. i will not look for it. i will not find it for you. the reason is, i liked this story. i do not want my happy memory of it to be marred by reality. i was very young when i wrote it. it almost certainly sucks.

but i love that story because it was the first one that showed me what a good day at the paper could be: finding a good story on my own--not an assignment, not something that had already run in one of the Iron Range weeklies, not a breaking news fire or flood or car wreck. but a story that bubbled up out of my own curiosity, a story that poked me and said, "i want to know more about this. why is this so?"

here's what i remember about the funeral:

i remember rows of orange plastic chairs. i remember a neon cross. i remember someone plugging in the coffee pot, and the aroma of brewing coffee wafting through the room.

i remember the down-and-out friends of the homeless man, scrubbed up and sad. i remember one of them, a man who was just the wrong side of plump, earnestly giving an impromptu sermon, and another man playing a small electric organ.

i remember that it was snowing.

i remember that in their eulogies, the friends of the man did not shy away from mentioning his hard life, or his drinking, or his lost family. but they mentioned these things in a matter of fact way, with respect, as though these details were part of anyone's life. as they are.

all of those details made it into the story.

there was action in the story. movement. people milling about, sipping coffee. coughing. praying. singing. hoisting up the coffin, and carrying it out into the january snow.

finding and writing that story taught me about the power--the heady power--of owning a story.

it also taught me about the power of good editing.

my original lede, which i no longer remember, was bad. but it had been a difficult story to write, and i was on deadline, so i sent it on to be edited.

the city editor promptly sent it back. the top doesn't work, he said.

grrrr. i knew it didn't, but i thought i could slip it by. i rewrote it.

he sent the second version back, too. take another stab, he said.

by now i was deeply frustrated. this is too hard! i wanted to say. it's good enough, dammit! tell me what you want! but i didn't say those things, and he didn't tell me how to write it, and i dug deep and came up with it myself.

my third lede was just right. i knew it when i sent it, and the editor knew it, too. he glanced up briefly from the screen. you nailed it, he said. have a good night.

that was all the praise i needed. i floated on out the door and on home.

and that, my friends, is good editing. and a very good day in the newsroom.

a note on the photo: it has absolutely nothing to do with the funeral story. i am interviewing the city clerk of a small town in wisconsin. the photographer took the picture because he thought it amusing that i, at 5'2", towered over the guy.

the clerk was later convicted of shooting his estranged wife in the head in a bowling alley. she did not die, and i interviewed her later for a column about what it's like to survive a gunshot wound.

she told me that doctors inserted a plastic plate in her head where the bullet had gone in.

every time she turned over in bed, she told me, it crackles.

to be continued next TUESDAY, after fun monday. have a fabulous weekend