FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 44
takes a reader to help you write
[EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is a response to a reader email congratulating Positive Feedback Online's Mike Rodman regarding his recent critique of Facebook and similar "social networking" websites (to be found elsewhere in PFO Issue 44, right about here). When Mike sat down to write a quick thank-you to the reader at 11:00 p.m., however, the "five-minute task" lasted until 7:00 a.m. But Rodman says it was worth the 4000 words and a night's sleep given it allowed him to exorcise some "writer's block" demons, which was something he had never experienced in a professional writing career that started in 1975—and it likewise allowed him to write publicly for the first time about the death of his friend and former PFO writer John Potis. It is presented here in the exact letter format received by the reader, whose identity and original letter has been kept as the private communication he intended.]
No bullshit: Letters like yours are why I continue to write to the best of what my abilities will allow. The story behind this particular story—and what makes me especially grateful to you for taking the time to contact me—is that my experience at Facebook helped me break the only writer's block of my life (seven months). ...So I'm going to ramble a bit here, because in addition to letters like yours being gratifying, they can also inspire and motivate. As such, let me see what I've got for us here—just spit-balling, if you're game.
I retired from newspapers about ten years ago, and believe me, saying "writer's block" in a newsroom is akin to a baseball player telling his pitcher that he's really enjoyed the first eight innings of no-hit ball he's pitched. The only remedy editors consider for a reporter who claims he is "blocked" is sending him to either the obit desk or the unemployment line. Newspaper editors are of generally two categories: a) decent writers who just couldn't handle another news conference and remember what it was like; and b) people so devoid of a soul they not only lack empathy, but get pissed off when somebody else displays it. The percentage? I'd say the first describes, umm, well, one newspaper editor I've met in my lifetime. All the rest are some degree of the latter, so a decent reporter doesn't even entertain the possibility "writer's block" could be real. Hell, I know I didn't.
And my first nine years removed from daily deadlines were great from a writing-satisfaction standpoint, finally coming to enjoy the process after years of not being able to take the time to actually appreciate my own efforts. First it was a book (basically written for me and my short list of friends), and I continued to write regularly thereafter. Every writer likes to see his work in print and I'm no exception, but I had reached a point in life where writing for my friends, my wife, or even just for myself, was gratifying. And then, in a flash of mediocre intelligence, I reasoned that maybe I could put my two main, former occupations together (having also worked a dozen years in the electronics world) and write for the burgeoning world of audio websites—and by "burgeoning" I mean to say: "Holy shit, I can't believe working people have this much time to spend worrying about the quality of their electrical outlets!"—or something like that. My first stop was at 6moons.com, and I got lucky with the idea of picking popular songs and weaving the lyrics into my own similar, if rather strange, life experiences that I have somehow managed to survive. My first few efforts at such story construction can be found in their archives, if you so desire.
So what changed? Well, after several months at 6moons, I noticed there was an equipment reviewer who not only knew the English language as well as he knew slew rate, but could also make the jump from stenographer to writer in the only way it counts: He knew how to tell a story. His name was John Potis, and after a particularly good job by him on a story, I dropped him an informal line, something like: "I sincerely don't recommend it, but if you ever want to write for a living, you're good enough to do so." I didn't expect it to garner anything more than a thank you, but from that developed one of these Internet-age friendships that are hard to describe. I mean, I never had a friend I hadn't met in person. But our regular barrage of emails and phone calls got me to take the gig more seriously. I guess my being able to call myself a writer—with a straight face—was like a gold-mine of aspiration for John. You certainly sound worldly enough, Donald, to understand the thrill of a quality individual constantly seeking and valuing your opinion. And are you ready for the kicker? John was a professional chef (quite reputable, from what I understand), who had a passion for trying to better his writing, a passion I've rarely seen in the newspaper business in recent decades. Meanwhile, you know my passion? Yep, you guessed right (I know these things): I love to cook more than virtually anything else. Maybe if I could run down a football field as part of kick-off coverage just one more time before I leave this world, that would be a slightly greater passion (and yes-sir, John was an avid sports fan and ex-jock too).
Writing was far more than a conduit to hear new gear for John. He was particularly interested in writing ethics and how far the law allows a guy like him to go. Well, I'm not a lawyer (thank goodness), but even a run-of-the-mill reporter knows the boundaries—if for no other reason than if he crosses them enough, he might have to change professions forever. I remember one of our exchanges, in particular, because we had the kinship long enough to put advice between the eyes (ladies: It's a guy thing). John was just chomping at the bit to slice-and-dice somebody on one of the audio forums to which he belonged (never had the, ahem, pleasure myself... I just ramble endlessly to people whose name I learned for the first time about an hour ago). When John explained his concern about libel, I wanted to leave no doubt about the huge patch of safe legal ground on which he was standing. I will try to repeat my actual advice, to the best of my recollection:
"John, you're on a frickin' Internet forum," I said, comfortable with the direct approach he always seemed to favor. "Did you dislike this guy before you ever met him; did you have a predisposition to discredit him? Assuming you didn't, anything you say is 'absent-malice,' and—in addition to recommending the movie with Paul Newman and Sally Field in which the phrase was the central theme—therefore not capable of being litigated. Any lawyer who actually went to class will tell you a libel case is likely the hardest civil case to win in all of jurisprudence. And if this jerk you're after is considered a public figure within the narrow scope of the audio world, then you can scream even false shit from Macy's window without incurring legal wrath of any kind. That's why there has never been a notable judgment against a bona-fide newspaper in this country's history. A few radio and small-time TV stations might've had to pony-up a couple of times in the past few hundred years, but shit, they're radio and TV stations. It's not like they understand the news business.
"So from how you've described this jackass, I'm going to hop on that board and wait for you to tear him a new asshole," I said. "Because if you don't, I'll tear yours—and you know damn-well that's one of the very few things at which I'm still pretty decent (when so moved). So I absolutely insist as both a friend and colleague you unleash the fury without worry. Because if nothing I said about legal impossibilities makes enough of an impression on you, then maybe you can flash back to the beginning of this conversation, which, adding emphasis, went something like, 'John, IT'S A FRICKIN' INTERNET FORUM'—by which I meant: It's public domain by law already settled, despite the youth of the medium. So if you don't tell him something along the lines of how funny it was to see his two-inch, red dog's dick at a next-door urinal during the last CES, I'll ride you more mercilessly than I have any friend since my closest one made the mistake of telling me he was going to Gloria Estefan concert about 15 years ago. Believe it or not, I can still manage fresh material to throw in his face whenever I think he needs just a bit of humility in his life... or not. So go get the mother-fucker and get him now."
A guy like John could only sound so tough, regardless of the inner-strength he had in spades. But when I saw what he posted and heard his relief on the phone later, well, I guess you could call me a proud papa for the first time in my life ("first time" because, as I understand it, you actually have to have kids to be a papa—or at least, a date). Hell, we'd elect George Bush president again before you'll see me waiving at some drooling, infant bobble-head of Winston Churchill when it's fast asleep in the maternity ward. ...Umm, hold it. This is the country that has embraced both reality shows and social networking websites, so maybe that wasn't the most effective analogy. But I'm sure you get the drift. I never wanted a child myself—even though I absolutely loved coaching youth sports for many years, all-too-many years ago. My stock line to the parents thereof was a paraphrase of Dr. Seuss: "You have 'em, I'll teach 'em how to hit a baseball."
But back to John, when he had a disagreement with 6moons and jumped to Positive Feedback Online, I went with him. How did I justify it? I didn't. I was and am working this niche gratis, so I don't think the federal Dept. of Labor would put a breach-of-contract complaint too near the top of their in-boxes because—again, as I understand it—an employer would have to actually offer remuneration for a verbal contract to have any legal might. And although I'm not exactly Bob Woodward, I don't think there are too many audio websites that can afford my free-lance rate; not a brag, because it's not like I get what the worst doctor from any graduating medical class gets. Fortunately for me, though, PFO Publisher David Robinson combines decency, honesty and intelligence in a Trifecta that's so unusual, I don't know if I've ever communicated similarly with anyone for whom I've written—and certainly not one who should ever think of a career change to newsroom supervisory roles. He'd be drummed out of the Insider's Club by fellow editors within hours of his first day on the job, given his willingness to understand why an individual is having a problem with production.
Considering the above compliments, I suppose you'll have to trust me on this one, Donald: I didn't kiss ass when it would've been highly lucrative to do so (and I still have the old résumés to prove it). Further, this is a no-guilt platform from both ends because I don't do reviews and won't. My idea of reviewing the sound of a stereo would likely be confined to "Good" or "Not good." So I'm not expecting a $20,000 amplifier from UPS, in hopes that writing a positive review will lead to a better deal than the CEO's wife could get.
I guess I have to reel myself in again, so please accept my only excuse: Although I've come to love the challenge of concisely telling a compelling story, the construction I'm using in this email reply is new ground even for me. Kind words from a reader are always acknowledged, but no self-respecting newsman I know doesn't care more about his hate mail than nice words from a reader who'd like to have a friend at his or her local newspaper. I mean, most people who enjoy a story, won't usually take the time to contact the writer of something he liked. And if they do, these days it's usually stated as though a Twitter word-limit had been implemented.
Quick aside here: Hasn't life in America gone just a wee bit beyond the unwritten Rules of Life Engagement? Personally, my definition of freedom is the right to screw-up your own life—and I sincerely don't need legislators with agendas telling me my state will get screwed on highway funding if I don't buckle my seat belt. Huh? What jackass pushed that one through? I swear to you on a stack of John Havlicek 8 x 10 glossies (nothing stands for more bygone good than a pic of ol' Hondo) that I have not one, but two friends who would likely be dead today if they had their seat belt on during accidents years ago, in which deadly debris flew through the front, driver's side windshield and would've impaled them right in the eye as though the telephone pole and tree were lobotomists with really good aim. I know that's not with the odds, but who the hell is a legislator to tell me what risks I prefer to take? And do the majority of our country's citizens really want to pay $30,000/year (or more) to incarcerate some guy who wanted to get high in his own house? I covered politics and government for a good stretch; there isn't a U.S. representative, senator, president, keeper of the East Wing China-Room, or anybody else in that town for whom "Agenda" wouldn't be an appropriate middle name. What the hell is my long-winded point? With fan mail not as specific or well-written as yours, there may be an agenda. But a guy who goes to the trouble of threatening your continued employment—and does so in writing—is validating the most important attribute any reporter can hope to attain and keep: relevance. The opposite of "fan-mail" is not "hate-mail." No, the opposite of fan-mail is "no-mail."
It may appear as though I've again drifted from what you and most folks likely thought was the main point here: to finally discuss—in whatever writing style this constitutes (if it's a "style" at all)—how pissed off I am that John Potis died before I could even shake his hand.
Well, John would've loved that graph about fan-mail vs. hate-mail; he would've eaten up that inside-baseball stuff with a spoon. If I were to have raised the subject with him during a telephone conversation, the call would've lasted two hours by the time he was done with his Spongeman routine of making the most of having developed a friend who might be able to reduce the learning curve of him making the next step. And I guess that's what I liked most about John: his irresistible and unstoppable drive to forge ahead into whatever territory held the next answer. If you know or learn nothing else about the best friend I never met, please take it from a writer that he cared about learning the right way—and the right angles, if necessary. I've learned through a life filled with bad choices that I can't expect the moon and the stars to carry my signature. For instance, I've come to accept that the most I can really hope for from a president is that he be smarter than me—and as you should have surmised by now, Donald, that's not a real high bar to clear. But our last president who led this country into what I believe is now at the intersection of Caesar and Nero? He wasn't smarter than me; he would've copied off my paper in high school.
A few thousand words ago—and please cut me some slack here—with a few days I could craft this into one smooth and concise honey of a tear-jerker, but I'm not going to do that because there's something good about this rough, free-form style that has snowballed so. For instance, you may recall me saying how happy I became with the writing process in retirement. A bit ironic, perhaps, but I take whatever good I can, whenever I can get it. Retirement (not age, but disability... several of them) was good.
Best yet, I seemed to enjoy the audio website world. In fact, as I was trying to think of how a writer like me—not a reviewer, but just a simple old news junkie—might be able to make the global world of all audio websites better. I actually had an idea about self-policing that would encourage better working relationships between the sites and their readers. It was an idea that would be a considerable challenge, but pure in motive (that would've been my job to prove). It was the kind of thing newspapers would never do—unless a $100,000 marketing study proved it could increase ad revenues.
I even thought it out enough to have an embryonic discussion with David Robinson as he put on his publisher hat and we discussed it for hours (no exaggeration). I couldn't boldly assure victory as I had done countless times in the offices of editors who talked tough about wanting me to be as aggressive as possible in chasing stories, but couldn't handle the pressure of his phone ringing with the calls of all who got teed off in the process. You know what a real newspaper publisher or editor tells a big advertiser who tries to use his ad revenue to get reporters fired and the paper to see things his way? He listens silently and when he has what may be the one moment in his life to prove his doubtless dedication to the Truth Business, he says something like this:
"Bill, you're real good at selling cars, which has made you a millionaire—but it doesn't make you H.L. Mencken. It just means you're good at something lucrative and that something has nothing to do with news judgment. So I'm going to stand up for my underpaid reporters and tell you two things. First, you're on a three-month probation during which time we will not accept your ads for publication. If after the three months you try once again to assert that your ad dollars entitle you to input on news decisions, you will be banned from advertising with this publication for as long as I can keep this job—and hopefully, forever.
And the second thing is this: Please give me your home address, so I can cancel your subscription."
That's what a real editor or publisher would say, but most of them disappeared with the DeSoto. And when corporations bought newspapers and installed personnel directors—people who would always choose the naïve kid straight out of college who could be easily influenced by the local Chamber of Commerce instead of the industry veteran whose stories put away triple-murderers and scheming executives alike—the handwriting for the long-term future of the newspaper business was solidified. And that was well before anybody in the world even knew what an email address was.
I'm confident you understand that my point is simple, Donald (and perhaps knew it several paragraphs ago; if so, please see my opening words about rambling a bit). Any big workplace project is difficult, at best; a major project in the publishing world, though, can have stakes high enough to test any publication's ability to withstand a failure, regardless of its good intentions. So during my pitch of starting a tricky and delicate industry ombudsman project here at PFO that would either strengthen this little world of ours for a long time to come, or possibly, make the reader/writer undercurrent deteriorate further, there was only one thing I was positive about: John had to be involved. David agreed.
I called John the next day—and after the perfunctory report about how his girls were doing in swimming and lacrosse (you talk about proud papas; he once read me an entire local story because it mentioned his daughter's name once in the course of 500 words)—I slowly and thoroughly went through the whole deal, A to Z. I also made sure to tell him failure was a real possibility and I couldn't predict whether such failure might make it difficult for him to write in this industry again. In a very un-John-like manner, all he seemed to care about was how fast we could start. Well, a couple of months later, I realized why his impatience was newly acquired.
I've had all-too-many friends die before. Some died from the cancer that John, too, had contracted; some died by their own hand. I don't know which is worse, because it's way above my pay-grade to say. They were friends and they died. That's it. And I would always do what writers do when faced with tragic news: I wrote about it—sometimes for publication, sometimes not. In fact, some of my proudest work came as a result of such tragic news, likely because I didn't aim for tears, but honesty.
When I sat down to write about John, I figured the words would flow as they always did. Whether it be personal writing about the tragic loss of a friend or having exactly 90 seconds to finish a news story I had started just a few minutes before because a legislative session ran late, I didn't doubt I'd do what I had always done. I didn't doubt that I would grieve the only way I knew how. But for whatever reason, the words wouldn't come. Had I written about cancer too many times? Did the fact John and I never met face-to-face create an inability to write about him? What the heck was going on?
I'm tellin' you, Donald, I tried. I really did. In fact, I've got three unfinished pieces in my word processor and I haven't liked any of them enough to finish them. I thought maybe I was through. I thought maybe I had gone as far as my middling talents would allow and it was time for me to find satisfaction elsewhere and in some other way. But what happens instead? I go to Facebook for the first time in my life, to try and find an estranged niece. But instead I find Nero's fiddle has been found. I sincerely didn't know we had so many people in this country capable of sitting at a computer for four hours to discuss... nothing.
So I go home, and finally, after seven months of not writing anything close to a complete piece, I'm able to use my considerable level of sarcasm to light-up social networking like pyrotechnics at an Aerosmith concert. And a few days later, somebody I didn't know liked it and wrote me a lengthy note that got me thinking, hey, maybe I can still do this. Maybe there's some gas left in the tank. So despite what I wrote about fan-mail vs. hate-mail, this writer wants to thank you very much for the comments and identity that will stay a private matter between us.
As for any future contributions here at PFO, I'd like to have the forum available and I'm confident that as long as David (and Dave) runs the place, I'll have a home for anything to which I'm willing to attach my name. But it's going to have to be baby-steps; no big projects at this time.
Why? Because occasionally I learn from life—not often, but sometimes. And here's what I've learned since John Potis died: I liked writing about this subject a lot more when I knew he'd be reading it.
Mike Rodman, an Associate Editor for Positive Feedback Online, is a free-lance writer and author who can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org