Working on leaving the living (1)

As I’m nearing my 500th post, and re-entering the job market as a writer after a 20+ year detour, I’m sharing a few stories of working for small publications in the early 90s, on the east coast. Blog title HT to Modest Mouse.

It was my first time pitching a story to an editor and I didn’t know what I was doing. The editor was cranky and dressed Carter-era still, pit stains and thick glasses. He was kneading his forehead, rubbing it, wincing, shaking his head No, no, No.

My mom worked at the newspaper and convinced him to meet me, fresh out of college. I’d spent the summer screwing around at the beach with my friends Dan and Richard. A test case to see if we could live together in Boulder. It failed.

I described the story: a dilapidated castle, right here in southeastern Pennsylvania! Out by Huff’s Church, up Keim road. Spooky: cult possibilities, eccentric old man with idiot brother. Old man has a way of rolling his eyes back in his head when he talks, they go all white. No electricity. Offers us a beer he keeps out in the stable with the goats, not altogether cold.

Enter another figure, Bob Thorn (real name I swear): slicked back hair and pewter rings on every finger, with faces. Flies a helicopter, lands it at the castle. References to bonfires and parties.

There’s something about the earth even, it’s giving something off or sucking something in.

The editor tells me to leave and mumbles something about my mom. I have a feeling it didn’t go well — he just gave me the story back and said good luck.

I’m staying at my mom’s in the basement, trying to find an apartment. I get a call from an editor at another paper who says she has an assignment for me and can I be there at 7 PM?

It’s my first paid writing gig, for the East Penn Press. I think the cranky editor called the other editor (who’s like a librarian or my grandma, she’s so nice) and set me up with work.

I put the Beastie Boys on as loud as it will go and jump up and down.

I cover stories every week for about a year, small government stories. Very small. There are developers wanting to put in a KFC/Taco Bell/Arby’s combo at the intersection of 100 and old 22. That’s the biggest story.

The Pennsylvania Dutch farmers are there in protest but the well-groomed politicians are smirking and making eye exchanges with one another and very polite as I interview them, coiffed beards, cologne.

Melanie (my editor) suggests I find ways to make more stories out of the story, that’s what you do. But I don’t understand, there’s nothing more to say. I was bored from the get-go, just glad to be done with it.

Loren and I talk about Keim Road, in Portland, OR. The time he went there with Gene and Ted’s sister, Eve. They had the headlights off and the windows rolled down, summer. There were small, gravelly country sounds in the middle of nowhere, with long wild grass and threatening trees. All at once a blast of voices like a scattering of birds, then silence. The voices, from speakers hanging in the trees.

Categories: writing

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11 replies

  1. Making a story out of a story, like a matryoshka doll with a cologned politician, harried editor and some dude whose eyes roll white in his head. The goat might be the tiniest one that doesn’t open. This castle was a real place? I want to go to there. (Though probably just on paper.)


    • I always forget the name of those dolls! Thanks. Yes, the castle is a real place. Just the foundation remaining after a mysterious fire, then inhabited by some unusual guys who claimed to be descendants of the original owner, an eccentric German painter who immigrated there. I might take my wife there for a visit when we’re back that way in April, if she’s up for it. No kids of course. I went once with my mom and step-dad and we pretended like we were interested in buying the property. And then I have friends who made a film of the guys etc. with the camera running at hip-level (like, concealed) which was very odd to watch for many reasons. And we can’t find the VCR tape now, of course…can’t remember who had it last.


      • How amazing would that be? A follow up interview, maybe some photos? I hope it works out. There’s a place near here (chester county) with a dilapidated barn and house, old cars in the middle of expansive fields with cows roaming free. Fear of getting shot outweighs adventurous spirit, which makes this story so intriguing.


      • Thanks Kristen. Yeah, I don’t know about the interview. The place is truly creepy, but I’ll go out there and let my imagination work on it a bit. Chester County, familiar places…you got me thinking lots about Allentown too, with your recent description of being there, deserted. I wrote for a small free art rag there and think I’ll post on that soon.


  2. So, if I may ask, how are you going about this re-entering the job market as a writer thing? Asking because my wife is leaving. She’s not leaving me, she’s just leaving. She can’t stand Ohio anymore. I can’t either, so I’m going too, but probably not at the same time as her. But I have to find a new job. I know that’s a big question to ask. I’m not asking for a big answer. Just curious.


  3. I was never reall bored with the small stories because everyone thinks their small story is incredibly important. It’s just a matter of capturing their disproportionate passion. I used to cover giant pumpkin festivals and ploughing matches.


    • Yes, and that’s what’s necessary of course (to think your small story is terribly important). I was able to for about a year, and then I just got sick and hacked it up. Moved across the state to Pittsburgh.

      Saw the movie “Bird Man” last night, didn’t know there was a Raymond Carver theme running through it and had talked about the same story prior, with Dawn — she took a writing class where they compared the unedited version of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” against the edited, and wow…interesting exercise. Carver’s editor whacked about 25% of it and it didn’t matter. It did, in that it improved it.


      • I need to track down that story, because I don’t think I’ve ever read it.


      • It’s really cool to see the side-by-side comparison of Carver’s original, against the strikethroughs by his editor Gordon Lish. Especially since Lish slashed about 50% of the original Carver story; took like four pages down to one line. Really remarkable. Like that satisfaction you get from pruning and realizing it still blooms.


  4. i love the small stories and look forward to seeing you in your next stage of life as a writer –


  5. Thank you Beth!


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