"Sunflowers at VDOT Welcome Center, Hartford, Vermont, September 29, 2022," . By Howard Fielding. Offered under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Budding Writer, 1979: Shifting gears

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"Sunflowers at VDOT Welcome Center, Hartford, Vermont, September 29, 2022," . By Howard Fielding. Offered under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.
“Sunflowers at VDOT Welcome Center, Hartford, Vermont, September 29, 2022,” By Howard Fielding. Offered under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

About this series: I revisited my journals from my first year as a freelance writer and found they told a story of their own. In this series I get the rare opportunity to give myself and other writers career advice with nearly 50 years of hindsight. Enjoy!

Even while starting my main job at a weekly newspaper, I kept shifting gears back into my life as a fiction writer. Two days, two posts, show what life was like wearing two hats:

A wonderful, fun, and productive day! In addition to shit work like doing laundry, I finished the draft of “Bartle, B.” and started in on “Disco Tex.” I also sent out the Eng. 54 comment to Reader’s Digest.

I was going to push on into “Disco Tex” today, but I kept dozing off in the afternoon. And it was such a beautiful day out. So I took Dr. Orland’s advice and took some time for myself: I rode my bike up to Haverhill and back down through Newbury. Ouch! My gear shifting is still sloppy — clatter, and once I lost the chain altogether. Fortunately, that was on the front gear, so it was relatively easy to put back in place.

The stories I’m writing — and copying — sound pretty bad when I tell about them (as I did at the House tonight). I’ll have to learn to let them speak for themselves. They rarely gum; they don’t really suck. They pucker a bit at times, but that’s to be expected when the tongue is firmly planted in the other cheek.

Journal, Volume II
26 September 1979

A few days earlier, I celebrated the new job by buying my first touring bicycle. Only weeks before it was a luxury I could not afford. Now it was in my hallway. Time to put it to work.

In a sense, I was cross-training. The 40-mile ride through the countryside gave me a different view of the newspaper’s coverage area. It also gave me time to think about the stories I wanted to tell.

The lesson I learned back then still holds true today: Don’t talk about your work. Let it speak for itself. A work in progress is likely to change with time, even as you’re telling the story. And chances are, you’ll tell it badly.

In those days, to say “it doesn’t suck” was condemning with weak praise. But that wasn’t enough, so I developed a sliding scale. “Gum” meant toothless. “Pucker” is harder to put into words, so I’ll leave it to your imagination.

Oh, boy, do I ache from yesterday! Not a bad day, though, all told. The weather was warm and sunny. I cycled in for my second shift at work. I met with Frank Ludwig, who yesterday was irate at my mentioning him in the Fairlee selectmen story but today was contrite and helpful. I also did a gruntload of editing and went to two meetings: Brad. Selectmen and Orange East Sup. Union. Good thing I have contacts; I would have missed it if Vernon Clogston hadn’t called. A good day but LONG —

Journal, Volume II
27 September 1979

Contacts are invaluable to creative writers, but especially to journalists. If you watch out for them and treat them fairly, they’ll do the same for you. Frank Ludwig (who had the same name as my high school English teacher) and Vernon Clogston were two examples. Many others would show up in these journals in coming months.

Note to the Novice: Howard, when you wrote you were writing and “copying” stories, you really meant you were transcribing your original drafts into manuscripts. Word choice is important; someone (even you) might someday think you were plagiarizing. You weren’t.

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