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Monday, January 5, 2015

Paid by the Inch

by Michael K. Brantley

            I remember exactly where I was sitting — the next to last seat, last row, just in front of the door — when the Bantam rooster who taught our journalism class perched on the corner of his desk and began to squawk about his disappointment with our efforts on the forthcoming first issue of the student newspaper.
            What a load of garbage, he said. Did anybody listen to directions? Do you want to be the class who kills The Phoenix? Mr. Transou was new to the school, and I think he even compared the pieces on his desk to dog turds.
Then Transou did the unthinkable. He said let’s read some of this crap. And he started reaching for manuscripts from his pile. There were grumbles as he shot down one piece after the other, mostly making the point that no one had put any effort into the assignment. I waited for my turn. People were doodling on notebooks, looking at the clock, hoping for a fire drill or bomb threat or something that would save us all.
I felt alone in my first year at the senior high school. Sporting a bowl haircut, a disproportioned body I was trying to grow into and Coke bottle glasses, I knew just one person in class — a girl I’d had a crush on since seventh grade. Everyone else was a junior or senior, mostly popular students. We had a couple of blonde cheerleaders, a couple of athletes, a handful of slackers, and some “popular girls.” Naïve as one could get in the mid-1980s, I didn’t realize that Journalism was a crip course. I thought it was a calling.
Now, Transou said, after about seven or eight pieces, listen to this one. “So, you think you know sports, huh?” As he rolled the first line of my story off his lips, I looked down and cringed. What does that make you think, he asked. No one answered.
I’ll tell you what it makes me think, he said. It makes me want to read more. That’s a lead. And the worst part is, he continued, is I’ve got a roomful of seniors in here and you let a dad-blame sophomore show you all up. That guy right there, he said. I looked up just in time to see him point my paper back at me.
Deep down, I was excited. I had spent some time on the work, banging away on a typewriter, not really knowing what I was doing. I felt the laser-like burn of eyes cast my way, eyes showing resentment and scorn. I saw what I would later come to appreciate and know as Mr. Transou’s devilish grin — a sort of sideways, sarcastic twist of the mouth, like a poker tell, which preceded wrath, a smart aleck comeback or a slash to cut someone down to size. He pushed his glasses up on his nose, flipped his black mop of hair and said it: Brantley’s going to be our sports editor. The teacher had hung a bull’s-eye on me, giving a bottom-feeding underclassman an editorial position.
The girl I had the crush on reached across the aisle and touched my arm. Good job, Mikey, she said.  I no longer cared who else in the room hated me.
•           •           •
Maybe it’s therapeutic, maybe it’s egotistical, maybe it is just angst. Dylan Thomas gave it a good turn in “In My Craft or Sullen Art,” where he compares writing to two frustrated lovers, mentions that he doesn’t write for money or fame or ambition or for a certain class. He writes for the people who won’t even read his work: “…But for the lovers, their arms/Round the griefs of the ages/Who pay no praise or wages/Nor heed my craft or art.”
A colleague once asked me if all writers were damaged. Maybe. I think my story is more about “labour by singing light,” only in my version, I’m more like a clumsy plumber in a jumbled crawl space trying to use McKenna’s left-handed monkey wrench — I keep banging my knuckles against all the pipes.
            There is deep satisfaction to making something where nothing existed, not even raw material. It is no different than the feeling a maker of fine guitars has when he puts that last coat of varnish over the headstock adorned with his name; the pride of the furniture maker who burns his mark into the underside of a cherry dinette; or the artist as he stands back and admires his work before at last blessing it with a signature. Artists don’t make a career choice, they respond to a calling, sometimes with only a byline and two contributor’s copies to serve as compensation.
•           •           •
            Within a couple of weeks of being named sports editor and getting my first two articles published in the high school newspaper, I became a professional writer. The Nashville Graphic needed a part time sportswriter — stringers, they were called — to cover my high school. The publisher had seen my stories and she had a paying job for me if I wanted it. The job paid by the inch, she said. Stringers started at 50 cents per column inch of copy published. I wasn’t sure how much money this would amount to, but I knew being paid to watch sports beat shoveling manure for the $2 an hour I was making on my brother’s hog farm. There was just one hitch. I hadn’t yet become eligible for driver’s ed. I asked the publisher if I could call her back, once I checked with my folks about transportation.
            There was a pause on the other end of the phone. “Michael, are you telling me you aren’t old enough to drive?” the publisher asked.
“Yes ma’am.”
She laughed. “You talk to your folks and call me back.”
So, for six months, Mama dropped me off at basketball and baseball games, and later at town hall meetings, county commissioner meetings, election nights and other events important to community newspapers.
I had great editors at the Graphic. The first one was straight-laced, by the book, and taught me all the rules. He taught me how to “write tight,” and take notes in a way that would allow the stories to be quickly constructed. He toughened my skin, sharpened my writing (the fewer words the better) and insisted on unbiased reporting.
My next editor at the paper was more of the artistic type. He taught me to add color, to appeal to the senses, to think beyond the plays, to put the reader in the scene.
Between them I got an education, eventually working in every department at the newspaper, and earning enough money to buy a wrecked ’84 Chevette. I was soaked deeply in printer’s ink.
•           •           •
My experience got me freelance work in college covering sports for the Raleigh News & Observer. It was good work. I got plum assignments in the eastern half of North Carolina, especially during football season, and it kept me in gas money and books. There was something wonderful about working a game, and just six hours later picking up a copy of the paper and seeing my story in the sports section. It was akin to seeing a black and white print come to life in a darkroom developing tray. In the early 1990s, there were no laptops and no smartphones, so I had to call my stories in from the nearest pay phone I could find after a game. Some nights, there was no time to write out copy. The night editor, an old school reporter I had grown up reading, had me compose my pieces verbally, straight from the notes, encouraging me as I rattled off paragraphs from phone booths in the parking lots of country stores and gas stations.
After college, I worked as editor of a local newspaper and then rejoined The Nashville Graphic. But as much as I loved the work, I started considering the future. I was newly married and we wanted to start a family at some point and have some stability. The news business is all about movement. To get ahead, you have to keep stepping up the ladder, moving and hustling and working long hours. I started to realize that very few of my colleagues in the industry stayed married, and an alarming number had drinking problems. I soon left for a job in public relations.
It didn’t take long to miss writing. I started hunting freelance work, first with a regional business magazine, then a national sports magazine, a farm publication and a bluegrass music monthly. Just as I was considering jumping into freelancing fulltime, a friend wanted to know if I was interested in purchasing his photography business. I would still be able to tell stories, just with images, not words. My notes and journals went into the bottom drawer of my desk for almost two decades. So did my calling.
•           •           •
            Books were important at my house growing up. Every night, Mama read to me — Dr. Seuss, Curious George, Sunny Books and all sorts of children’s literature anthologies. Of course, there weren’t a whole lot of alternatives after the work on the farm was done. Our tiny black and white television picked up only three channels — four if the weather was just right —and all my brothers and sisters were grown.
Though we lived on a tight, cash-only budget, my parents subscribed to the News & Observer. They read every page of it every day. There was one columnist who was a family favorite. Dennis Rogers hit every back road in the state for decades, going into towns and finding stories to fill his space five days a week. Rogers wrote about dive bars, veterans, upstanding citizens, crooks, hangings, legends, good old boys, and women down on their luck. His work was sometimes funny, sometimes gritty, but always authentic. He created vivid scenes. I learned that everyone or every place has a story, it just takes a writer to find it and make it ready to be read. My family would talk about Rogers’ pieces, and I was motivated to read so I would not be left out of the conversation.
I devoured books like a stray dog attacking a plate of table scraps. Whenever I had questions, my parents would tell me to “go look it up,” in a set of World Book Encyclopedias so old it didn’t have any mention of the Vietnam War. I read biographies of the Founding Fathers, moved on to the Hardy Boys, American history, spy novels by Ian Fleming, Ellery Queen, and To Kill A Mockingbird. I read all the Peanuts Gang collections, and every Time Life book on World War II. Today, my favorites are Hemingway, Carver, O’Connor, Fitzgerald, Moore, Rash, and Talese. Gatsby is much better at 40 than 14. I acquired a taste for poetry after discovering Collins, Makuck, Chappell, Heaney, Hayden and McKean.
Because we were so far out in the country, many miles from the nearest library, an old converted school bus known as the bookmobile made the rounds in our end of the county, with a regular stop at a country store a few miles down the road. This library-on-wheels was a treat to look forward to every week, especially in the summer. I still remember the smell that enveloped me as soon as the hiss of the doors sounded and I climbed aboard. We didn’t have air conditioning in our house, and the bookmobile had a friendly chill to it, the cold air offering a break from the stifling summer heat. It was the smell of aging paper and glue and binding and book jackets and the hands and homes that had all touched the books. It was being in the presence of words stacked floor to ceiling, higher than I could reach, that transported me to another place even though we never left the yard.
Since Mama and I were the only patrons, the library eventually made our house an official bookmobile stop, and the two ladies who drove it would load us down with an armload of new editions every two weeks. They seemed as excited to have readers as we did to have things to read.
As I got older, most of my friends started reading Sports Illustrated, but I preferred The Sporting News — it was still published on newsprint, and the writing from the venerable reporters and columnists such as Art Spander, Furman Bisher, Peter Gammons, Peter Vecsey and Dick Young had much so more style and depth. I loved stories that put me in places and ballparks and cities I dreamed of seeing one day, stories that could make me see and touch and smell the surroundings — stories that I wanted to write.
•           •           •
            In early 2012, I walked across a stage at East Carolina University and took a piece of paper that represented a Master of Arts in English. It was the end of a whirlwind year and a half that began when I decided I’d had enough of Photoshopping, crying babies, late night alcohol-fueled wedding receptions, a tanking economy and more than a few difficult customers. At 41, it seemed crazy to my family and friends for me to try to start over, especially after 17 years of running my own business. To me, it seemed long overdue. It was like the scene in “Forrest Gump” where Forrest runs across the country for years and then decides one day that he doesn’t want to run anymore, so he stops.
            I was going to back to writing, the thing I was called to do.
Two weeks after finishing my degree, I dropped my bags into a dorm room at Queens University of Charlotte to begin coursework on an MFA in Creative Writing. It is strange, but liberating when you stop denying who you are.
•           •           •
Writing is no different than sports or photography. Talent comes in handy, but really, it is sweat that makes it work. That, not talent, is how I made a living behind the camera for so long.
             Those who have known me a long time must think I’m having one hell of a midlife crisis, going to school, writing and teaching college English. I love it because the more I teach writing, the more I learn about it. Writers outgrow stories, much like clothes, as the writer gets taller and broader and the work adds maturity.
It has taken me a long time to realize a career can be enjoyed, but in the end it is just a job. A calling is a passion that may burn at different temperatures, but never flickers out.

Michael K. Brantley is a writer and Visiting Instructor of English at North Carolina Wesleyan College. His creative nonfiction, fiction, and poetry has most recently been published in The First Day, The Dunes Review, Word River, Bartleby Snopes, Revolution House, Stymie, The Smoking Poet, Crack the Spine, The Fat City Review, Short, Fast, and Deadly, The Rusty Nail, The Circa Review, The Cobalt Review and Prime Number Magazine.

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