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These Are My Words

vintage-writingI wasn’t always a writer. I was a reader, a lover of language and words, and a straight A student in English all through high school, but I didn’t start writing until I became a reporter for a local newspaper at the very young age of 50.

Newly single and ready to start the second half of my life, I decided to follow my dream of someday working for a magazine or newspaper as a copy editor. It’s important while fantasizing about a glamorous career as a magazine editor to keep in mind that you should have some experience and/or education in that field, and since I was an accredited bookkeeper working for a CPA for the past 16 years,  I did what any smart woman my age would do and registered at the local community college for a journalism class.  Do I know something about how to get your foot in the door or what?

I grew up in the suburbs of Long Island, New York, and moved out to California when I was 19, after graduating high school and attending our local junior college for a year. My dad was an engineer at Grumman Aerospace, and in the summer of 1974 was told he needed to move to Southern California for a one year subcontractor job at North American Rockwell. I was an avid follower of all things related to movies, television, gossip magazines and celebrities, so I was singing “California Here I Come” as soon as I heard the news. I believed all I had to do was walk down Sunset Boulevard and I’d be sure to run into the likes of Burt Reynolds or whatever other stud muffin happened to be People’s Sexiest Man Alive at the time.

We moved into an awesome rental house in Irvine, and I enrolled at Orange Coast College (OCC from now on) to continue my undergraduate education. Lost my accent as quick as I could, and knew in my heart that no matter what happened with Dad’s job, I wasn’t leaving the sun and the surf.  Telling my parents was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, but when my family moved back to NY in the summer of 1975, I stayed. I found a roommate, moved into an apartment in Huntington Beach, started working at Bank of America, and eventually got my AA degree at Golden West College. I got married, had a couple of kids, went back to OCC for my accounting degree, got hired as the bookkeeper and office manager for aforementioned CPA and fast forwarding to January 2006, divorced and wanting a change, found myself once again at OCC in a night class full of mostly young students. Which was incredibly interesting, and fun.

I sat in the first row the first night, you know, so the teacher could see how serious I was, and couldn’t wait to get started. It was a great class, and by week two I had discovered that the eminent professor was none other than the editor of the Daily Pilot, a local newspaper covering Newport Beach and Costa Mesa that was distributed daily as an insert in the Los Angeles Times. Bingo! I joked about whether he needed anyone to make him coffee or pick up his dry cleaning, but lo and behold he told me they had unpaid internships and if I was interested he would see what he could do.

I was interested, and in March of that year I began what would be a 4-month copy editing internship. Oh, and before I forget, I got an A in the class. My final assignment was to interview and write about someone famous, so I chose best-selling author Jodi Piccoult. I had met her several times, seen her speak, got an A on that paper and with my one class in journalism under my belt, figured I was on my way to being the next Helen Gurley Brown. I had made sure both feet were in the door. Along with an official-looking press credential that you swiped in order to gain entrance to the great and powerful LA Times building in Costa Mesa.

For the most part, copy editors work at night. Sometimes late at night. They wait until all the stories are in, and then they start reading and editing. And editing and printing. Stacks of printed pages, with tiny print, that you read over and over again, looking for errors. Checking grammar, spelling, content, facts, words or phrases that could spell trouble, and whether or not the story needs to be cut for SPACE. That’s right, all those nice columns in a newspaper can only hold so many words, and sometimes, some of those words just have to go. And that’s hard. Reporters are telling a story, a story they wrote, and it’s hard when you have to cut sentences, quotes, eloquent descriptions and powerful verbiage because there just isn’t enough room. Preserving the voice of the writer, their unique style, and let’s be honest, their ego, is a challenge. For the lucky reporter with a team of copy editors who respect the process, it’s a gift.

I was taught by one of the best. He was a young one too, a 20-something genius who could edit a story and write a headline like nothing I’ve ever seen.  Most people don’t realize that copy editors write the headlines for every story a reporter writes, and it’s challenging.  The reporter can have input, make suggestions and hope for the best, but in the end, it’s the copy editor who creates those big, black headlines that spark a reader’s interest and draws them in. That was the hardest part of being a copy editor for me, and there were many nights I sat there banging my head on the table in hopes that I’d come up with something that would do the story justice. That’s about the time the other “kids” would tell me to go grab a sheet and proofread. There were deadlines to meet, and getting the final cuts to the big printer in the sky by midnight was mandatory.

I was always taught to respect my elders, but I had more respect for my younger colleagues at The Daily Pilot than for many of the more experienced, and supposedly mature people I ever encountered in my daily life.  They were an energetic, brilliant, PATIENT, hard-working group of kids I was proud to be associated with. I learned more there than I can tell you about, especially once I became a reporter myself.

I was hired as a News Assistant in July of 2006 (no copy editing positions available at the time) and I went kicking and screaming into the world of writing. It was the scariest thing I’ve ever done, and the most exhilarating. I did a lot of different things at first, like the daily calendar of events, a weekly column where I’d go to the local movie theater and interview people after the screening, a monthly feature about taking a day trip to a local attraction, and the required daily news brief or two. I started writing more as time went on, and in September 2007 was promoted to the Features and Entertainment reporter when one of my closest friends left to take another job at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. Jessie was a formidable talent, and she had big shoes to fill. Many years my junior, I’ve always thought of her as my soul mate (still do)  so it was a relief for me that she was still available for me when I needed help. Plus, we got to work on a lot of stories together since I covered many of the events there. It was a stressful, deadline-driven job, but I loved the people I got to meet and interview. Some of them were even those celebrity types I dreamed about meeting all those years ago.  I interviewed authors, athletes, actors and singers. In truth though, it was the average, everyday hero, doing incredibly good deeds or overcoming adversity that touched me the most. I was humbled by the trust people placed in me to tell their story accurately, with honesty and integrity, and over time, I became more and more protective of my subjects. And my words.

Don’t get me wrong, I was open to constructive criticism, suggestions, and that wonderful exchange of ideas tossed back-and-forth that many times produced a better story. “This would flow better moved up here,” “What about using this phrase instead,” ~ all of that was welcomed and more often than not, appreciated.  A good editor knows how to share their opinions, their perspective, and their experience without taking anything away from you, the writer. That’s called collaboration, and I did work with some really good ones.

I was at the Pilot for two years. I have four portfolio books full of the articles I wrote, and I’m still awed when I see my byline at the top. I can’t tell you how many times over the years someone mentions a person, place or thing and I’ve remarked that I think I wrote a story about them once, when I was a reporter.  Not only do I have the print articles, I kept all the original drafts of the stories before they were edited. I liked being able to look back and compare, especially when there was a cut I didn’t feel was necessary.  Being reminded of my words when I felt the end product was more a reflection of what the editor would have said than what I had written was gratifying.

I interviewed Valerie Harper when I was at the Pilot for her role as Golda Meir in the movie “Golda’s Balcony.” Fabulous lady, and I was heartbroken to learn this week that she’d been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.  Valerie was on tour and out-of-town promoting the movie, which was due to open the following week at a local theater in Costa Mesa, so the interview was done over the phone. She was open, friendly, funny, easy to talk to and so proud of her role in the movie.  We talked about the years she spent playing the character she’s most identified with, the beloved, single, Jewish Rhoda Morgenstern and how here she was again, playing Jewish Prime Minister Golda Meir. “Everyone thinks you’re a nice Jewish girl from the Bronx, Valerie, but the truth is you’re Catholic, right?” I asked her. Her candid and heartfelt responses to my questions made it easy for me to write the opening line of my story. What we call the “lede,” and the following paragraphs. I was happy with the final draft, proud of the story and I felt confident Valerie would be okay with what I’d written if and when she read it.

I left work that night before the story was edited. Reporters had a 5:00 deadline for submission, and the first edit was always done by either the features editor, the city editor or the editor editor. The big guy. They made the major corrections they felt were necessary (if there were any) then it went to the copy desk for their review before it was submitted to print. I had a terrible relationship with the city editor. He routinely changed my work because he liked to interject his own personality and style into it, and he was notorious for delaying the editing process when there was a Cubs game on. Really.  I usually stayed late when I knew he was the one editing so I could see what it looked like when it hit the copy desk.  It was already late that night when I left, I had dinner plans (a date) and I was angry he was taking so long, so when my phone rang at 9 p.m in the restaurant, I didn’t take the call.

When I came in the next morning and grabbed the paper, which is the first thing every reporter did in the morning, the whole opening had been changed. He pulled some stuff that was almost at the end of the story, completely out of context, and made it the lede.  When I confronted him, he told me he liked what I had written, but it didn’t make sense to him because Valerie Harper was Jewish, so he had to cut the entire intro. At that point, short of strangling him, there was nothing constructive I could do or say that would change the fact that I was holding that day’s edition. The first words every reader, including Valerie, would read, was not what I had written. That was my name on the story, but those were not my words.

The printed story is in the Daily Pilot archives. I also have my original draft, and I’ll share the two versions below. All I ask is that when you remember Valerie Harper, especially after she’s gone, you remember what she told me. Here’s how my story began:

“Actress Valerie Harper may have an even harder time now convincing people she isn’t Jewish. Her claim to fame was her Emmy-award winning turn as Mary Tyler Moore’s Jewish sidekick, Rhoda Morgenstern, on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and its spin-off series, “Rhoda.” In her latest incarnation, she portrays Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in the movie “Golda’s Balcony,” which opened this month across the country. Not being Jewish matters not to Harper, who said she has “neshama” or a Jewish soul.”

The edit: “Valerie Harper believes some people might have big dreams, but aren’t able to act on their visions, while some activists can’t see the big picture. Golda Meir, though, could do both, says the actress best known for her Emmy Award-winning role as Mary Tyler Moore’s best friend, Rhoda Morgenstern. The Israeli prime minister’s success came from her ability to speak clearly, intelligently and in a down-to-earth way anyone could relate to.”

I left the Pilot in May of 2008, and didn’t write again until I started this blog a month ago. No edits. No deadlines. I’m back to doing what I love. Writing. These are my words.


7 thoughts on “These Are My Words

  1. Sue, we have to get together and share our newspaper days. Mine lasted 22 years but in advertising Great years. Coming into work, grabbing a cup of coffee and the freshly printed newspaper and reading front to back, (small community paper) was the best way to start the day. Then calling, over the file cabinets and light table, “Hey Dan, good story on the city council scandal” great days!

  2. I know, we talk about everything else Judy, but I would love to do that. You’ve had many more years in the biz than me, but it was an experience I’ll never forget.

  3. “I was open to constructive criticism, suggestions, and that wonderful exchange of ideas tossed back-and-forth that many times produced a better story. “This would flow better moved up here,” “What about using this phrase instead,” ~ all of that was welcomed and more often than not, appreciated.  A good editor knows how to share their opinions, their perspective, and their experience without taking anything away from you, the writer”

    Yep. In fact I think it’s 100% necessary to become a better writer. You just have to be OPEN to the assessments and advice.

    “I interviewed Valerie Harper when I was at the Pilot for her role as Golda Meir in the movie “Golda’s Balcony.


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