Last winter, I emailed a relative with the following comment: “Largely because of having had professional experience, I know I’m not fooling myself when I say my stuff is good, unlike a lot of people who fancy themselves writers or poets.”
A few months later, we were having a discussion about various matters, including my blog. I came from a very literate family and have three siblings, all of them gifted writers (as were my parents). I emailed my relative again, saying: “I am ahead of the rest of our family in one key respect: I have had professional writing experience (plus a journalism degree) and have written for publication in scholarly journals, reference books, major newspapers.”
My relative seemed to think I was bragging, was guilty of puffery, for no reason, and, besides, what was the point of making the comparison, which it appeared to my relative was an invidious one, but which I thought was worth mentioning. “I am not questioning your writing credentials, which are very strong and give you more knowledge of and experience in writing than anyone in our family,” the relative wrote back. “But I do not understand why you are comparing yourself to your family in this regard. There is no family writing competition.”
I did not intend, did not mean, to disparage anyone, or to exalt myself. I merely wished to make a point. To wit: that professional experience is crucial for anyone who wants to master a craft.
I was thinking when I made the observation to my relative, and have often thought in the past, about my father in this regard. My father was professional musician: a pianist, church organist, and piano teacher. He was born with musical talent. His mother was a church organist and attended a music school in Boston for a couple of years (of which she was very proud). It was said that her mother (my father’s maternal grandmother) played and/or conducted choir music in a church in Dorchester, Massachusetts, where my grandmother grew up.
My grandmother recognized my father’s talent and encouraged him. He began piano lessons at a very early age. By the time he was a teenager, he was moonlighting as a musician with bands in the Boston area. At a young age, he was hired as a piano teacher in a studio in Boston, where he worked for several years before becoming an independent piano teacher. He appeared on radio programs in the 1930’s, playing and discussing music.
His experience was extensive. After serving in the Army in World War II, he went back to college and got an A.B. degree from Harvard College in music. In his senior year, he took five music courses. One was a course in composition with the renowned composer Irving Fine. He told us children that on the final exam, Fine said: “You have been studying composition all semester. Your requirement for the final is to write a four-part piece.”
My former therapist, discussing my versatility in writing, once brought up the actor James Cagney during a session with me. He quoted Cagney as once having said, “I could always play any part, any type of character, they asked me to.” He said that this was a significant statement. My father was the same way. He played in nightclubs, on a pleasure boat making daily cruises, at ice skating shows, briefly in a burlesque house orchestra, with back up Big Bands, as an accompanist to singers such as Dinah Shore (who was making a demo record early in her career), at functions such as wedding receptions and bar mitzvahs, as a church organist, and for many years as the entertainment in a restaurant/lounge. He played the accordion when required (e.g., on the excursion boat) and the organ in a Unitarian church. He told me, “I never mastered the organ,” explaining that to really do so required mastering the pedals and stops. This admission by him was not a sign of weakness. It showed the kind of awareness that professionals have of what their true strengths are, as well as their limitations. Similarly to my father’s case, I know that I excel as an essayist and writer of scholarly articles, and have reportorial and research skills. At the same time, I know that I can’t write fiction or poetry.
My father once had a revealing talk with me, which I never forgot, about his technical skills and expertise as a pianist. It wasn’t braggadocio, it was a matter of actual fact.
For years, my father was the pianist at the Chart Room, a restaurant bar in Cataumet, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. He would play there six nights a week for around six hours each night. People came to hear him play.
My father told me something that might have seemed trivial or not worth noting, but that I found quite significant for what it said about him, and his self-awareness when it came to professional capabilities. He would take a 15 to 20 minute break after a set. During the break (when he was probably enjoying a drink at the bar and would be chatting with customers), someone, it seemed, would always get up, sit down on the empty piano stool, and start playing. My father had no problem with this.
As my father told me, they would play simple tunes and enjoy emulating him, encouraging customers to sing along. My father pointed out to me — this was significant — that they would always play in the key of C. To my father, this distinguished the amateurs from him. He could play in any key that was required and was proficient at accompanying vocalists and singers because of this. And, by the way, my father had perfect pitch. One of my siblings would be practicing piano in the living room when my father was in the dining room. If they hit a wrong key, he would say, without leaving his chair, “E flat!” or “G sharp!”
Like my father with the advantages of not only being born with musical talent but also of having had professional experience — where he honed his skills and kept developing and refining them — professional experience in writing has been invaluable to me. One learns certain lessons as a professional that are crucial to one’s development. And, then, as was true in my father’s case, and was also true in mine, there is formal education.
What seems to be the case with most people (athletes are a good example) is that there has to be inborn talent — one has to have the “genes,” endowment, or makeup for achieving the highest levels of excellence in writing/verbal expression, music, or sports — but then one will never reach that level without rigorous training and professional experience. This often means formal training, such as a good writing instructor(s) or education in general, or a professional level coach. Some writers and athletes seem to be naturals who do not get that much formal training. But think of all those who do. Writers such as Thomas Wolfe and James T. Farrell come to mind. They started out as writers in college and graduate school. Similarly, my writing instruction began in the “writing workshop” (writers’ boot camp?) of my high school English teacher, Robert W. Tighe — where we wrote almost every day, and were trained to do so “on demand,” on any given topic, in class — and continued with a superb education in the humanities in college and as a postgraduate special student taking college courses in languages, editing, and translation.
My point is that some would be athletes, musicians, writers, and so forth never progress beyond the amateur stage. In the playgrounds and parks of New York, there is a plethora of amateur athletes who exhibit great talent — basketball players, say — but who, at some point, never progressed beyond achieving distinction on sandlots and in playgrounds.
From professional experience, which means writing for pay and actual publication, I have learned:
— to become less fearful of criticism and failure as a writer
— to be able to write to specs, adhering to a specific word limit (not to be exceeded under any circumstances; I found out that 600 words means 600 words, not 625 or 650; your editor does not want to have to do the work of cutting your submission to achieve the right length); and how to “shoehorn” in ideas and information that you want to include in a piece — within, so to speak, a tight space
— becoming hyper attuned to the actual editor who you turn your work into, and to the “editor in the sky,” and thereby to become more vigilant and careful in trying to avoid errors, having the final, published piece and how it will look always very much in one’s consciousness (a rule of thumb I learned when working as a freelancer for a daily newspaper: if your pieces go into the paper virtually unedited, that means you are meeting expectations and can consider yourself a success)
— continually engaging in fact checking as one writes (the way a copy editor does) and not relying on someone else to do it for you — in short, having a hyper sense of responsibility when it comes to accuracy. (A good writer knows that when one is sloppy about facts — as well as about grammar, for that matter — the whole piece is likely to be called into question.)
— being very alert to one’s audience — that is, readers — and cautious about making assertions or stating facts that might be ambiguous or questionable.
Regarding the “inner editor,” I notice that nonprofessional writers — good ones, well-educated ones — frequently make the same mistakes repeatedly because they lack professional experience. For example, a professional writer working in a newsroom or for a publishing firm knows where a period or comma goes: inside or outside closing quotation marks. Some basic style points have never been learned by amateurs who are otherwise excellent writers. The same thing with spelling. I never really learned to spell until I wrote professionally. An instructor I had in journalism school (a longtime New York Times reporter) told the class that there was zero tolerance in the newsroom for stories submitted with any errors whatsoever, including typos. Another way of putting this is that any professional (including writers) learns at the outset of his or her career some common mistakes to avoid. But you can spot the amateurs because of the obvious errors (small but nevertheless “impermissible” ones) they make.
I worked for four years in the publishing industry before getting my first freelance writing assignments. My job was writing advertising copy for scholarly/technical books and textbooks. The job and subsequent ones enabled me to acquire an essential skill: how to process and digest information for rendering, so to speak, in publishable form.
Someone hands you a prospectus — often no more — of a book about to be published. One of the first I ever wrote advertising copy for was a textbook on neurology. From a professor’s dry summary of a few paragraphs (often leaving out key points that would be relevant from a sales point of view), I would come up with a cogent, readable advertising brochure. I faced similar challenges early on as a freelance writer for reference book publishers and as a freelance reporter for a daily metropolitan newspaper and a business magazine. One has to dig for information and quotes, weigh them, verify them, then do the best one can with what one has by way of facts/information and quotes. Until one has worked for a daily newspaper, I doubt anyone realizes how difficult it can be to get good quotes. To get an interview. To dig out information and verify its accuracy. I once wrote a routine article having to do with an elementary school. I was at my cubicle in the newsroom for a good part of the evening calling a source again and again to make sure I had all of the school personnel’s names spelled correctly and got other facts about the school (from the picayune to what some of the major issues were) right.
The editor of the business magazine liked my writing and had me writing a couple of stories every month, including cover stories. When you are a beginning writer, you are thrilled to get any sort of assignment.
The editor asked me to write an article about cooling systems (e.g., fans) used in commercial buildings, which ones were most cost and energy efficient and so on. It was not a topic of interest to me, but it was to businesspeople in the area, and that was what mattered to the editor. Needless to say, I had zero knowledge, but I interviewed building managers, asking them not only which systems they preferred but also to educate and bring me up to speed on the subject.
I pulled it off a la James Cagney.
— Roger W. Smith