My Stint As A Journalist

22 Oct

For the past several weeks I have been filling in at my local newspaper, the Daily Globe. They’ve been a little short handed so they called in their second string. I’m okay with this moniker. I don’t want to be first string. First string would mean that I have to get up and go to work every day and, as I told my husband, bringing home a paycheck is hard work!

Ah, but it is rather nice to get paid for one’s writing.

On the other hand, I’ve had zero time to work on my book. Which to this point is showing no signs of generating a paycheck whatsoever. So I guess I’m okay with the occasional stint as a journalist.

I started out at the University of Oregon (GO DUCKS!) as a Journalism major. I planned to study Russian as well, and then go to Moscow as a foreign correspondent and uncover fabulous spy stories of the Cold War.

Only the Cold War pretty much ended before my career started. But, really, that’s not what ended my journalism career. It was J101 which did that. Grammar For Journalists – the class that every journalism major had to take – and pass with a “B” – in order to be accepted into the J School.

And so fall term of my freshman year began. I leaped into J101 and Russian 101 full of confidence, a smile firmly upon my face.

Four months later I waved goodbye to my dream. I didn’t pass that stupid grammar class – oh, I passed…as far as the University was concerned – but not as far as the precious J School was concerned. It was, in fact, the worst grade I ever got in my entire educational life: K-12, college and graduate school combined.

I could have taken it again. But I’d discovered something else during that term. I hated journalism.

I wanted to write creatively, free as a bird, with no strings attached, no rules, no horrid grammar police breathing down my neck.

Plus, I stunk at Russian, which, after failing to enter the coveted J School, seemed kind of like a waste of time anyway.

“I’m not competitive enough to be a journalist,” I told people when they asked me why I’d switched majors from Journalism to English.

Which possibly was true. But, the real truth is, I’ve learned a thing or two since then. One thing is that a major which actually provides a job when you graduate is a nice thing. Another is that forcing oneself to do something difficult in order to reach a goal is actually a good thing in the long run – and maybe, just maybe, majoring in English was a cop out. I tell people it’s a good thing I married an engineer ‘cause otherwise I’d be the proverbial starving artist living in a drafty garret somewhere.

Mostly what I’ve learned, though, is that I don’t actually hate journalism. Especially when I’m filling in and the expectations upon me don’t include me knowing when to say, “He said” or, “He says”. I have frequently heard writers thank their editors…now I totally understand why.

Over the past month I have learned more about insulation than I ever hoped to know. I have learned that not everyone will return a phone call, and not everyone wants attention brought to themselves or their situation. I have also learned that people are eager to thank others in print – which is lovely – and that they’re eager to share their story if it’s something they think others will benefit from. I have smiled during interviews, and shuddered (to myself) and marveled at the human spirit.

And I have to say, I really liked it when a person who makes his living off of speaking in front of vast crowds said to me, “You’re the writer. I trust you to make me sound good.”

“I’m a writer?” I thought to myself as I hung up the phone. “I’m a writer!”

The next day I introduced myself in a meeting as a writer. And my lovely friends in the crowd smiled and patted me on the back, and whispered, “Yes, you are.”

That was actually a rather marvelous moment in this flunked-out-of-J-School student’s life.

I have learned one other thing. I have learned that just as I tend to talk too much, I tend to write too much. There is beauty in brevity.

I’m still working on that one.

PS – Yesterday I posted this same basic post over on my other blog The View From My Window, which is connected with the Daily Globe, and is more local in focus. Audrey over at Minnesota Prairie Roots – who is a lovely friend and encourager – commented on it and said, “I find it difficult to believe that you would not do well in a grammar class when you went on to major in English. That’s pretty contradictory.”

This made me think (I love that about Audrey) and here was my response: I think that my problem with that grammar class was that it was so technical – it took the joy out of writing and made it stressful. I think I truly am a bit Bohemian in my approach to writing and all the rules and regulations were horrid. I have never liked or known the technicalities of grammar – I just use it properly and don’t care what it’s called! Taking apart sentences to name all the different parts just seemed – still seems! – sacreligious! But as an English major I just had to read and write – all of the technical stuff was left behind!

To that I add this: ever since 9th grade English class, when we had to diagram sentences and suddenly my “A” in English was threatened, I have found grammar to be irritating and suffocating. Yes, it’s vital that the basic rules of grammar are followed…but why do I have to know what a gerund is when I can use it properly without knowing the proper definition?!! (I know, I know, it’s an “ing” word…I do actually remember that one!) Here’s the deal: as a kid I read and read and read…and that taught me my grammar. Not Mr. L in 9th grade, and not professor whoeverhewas in college. If you want to be a writer, read, read, read. It’s that’s simple.

One more thought: I am NOT advocating not teaching grammar in our schools. American’s are bad enough with grammar already and it IS being taught. (If I see one more person on Facebook write, “I like that to,” for example, I am going to scream!!) I guess I’m just venting. Can you tell that I really, really, have issues with grammar?!!

Oh, and also this: I know that I use too many commas.  And also that I’m not perfect, grammatically speaking.  I figure, that’s what editors are for.  🙂


26 Responses to “My Stint As A Journalist”

  1. Beth Ann October 22, 2013 at 7:27 am #

    I need brevity, to. Hahahha! Seriously—I get you. I totally do. You are a superb writer and definitely not a flunkie in my book. Write on!

    • Gretchen O'Donnell October 22, 2013 at 7:39 am #

      🙂 Thank you! “to” ha ha. For a second there I thought I’d read it wrong because BETH ANN WOULD KNOW – and then I got the joke. I’m to sensitive about it. (ha ha!!)

  2. Sheryl Kucker October 22, 2013 at 7:31 am #

    Sounds like my French major!! I was going to live in France and become bilingual and work in the embassy and I ended up being a full-time Mom. That was the best job of all. You really do know grammar but a LOT of people desperately need help!!

    • Gretchen O'Donnell October 22, 2013 at 7:40 am #

      I didn’t know that about you, Sheryl! So much for dreams. Ha. God has a way of working everything out, doesn’t He?!

  3. Minnesota Prairie Roots October 22, 2013 at 7:44 am #

    Gretchen, I never thought of myself in that way, that I would cause you to “think” more deeply on a topic. But I’m happy to oblige in my own way. Thanks for the shout out.

    You are correct on so many counts with this post. It’s really knowing grammar on a practical level that counts for a writer. Heck, I didn’t even remember the definition of a gerund.

    I agree that reading, just reading, teaches us so much.

    Having a wonderful teacher or two along the way certainly can help, too. That was my junior high English teacher, Mrs. Sales. Best teacher I ever had. (Sentence fragment there.) My junior high math teacher, worst I ever had and one of the reasons I hate math.

    Grammar is evolving and is certainly not as formal as in the past. I find myself writing incomplete sentences now and breaking other grammar rules. Several years ago I never would have done that. Writing is always evolving.

    And now, because this comment is getting incredibly long, I must conclude by saying how delighted I am that you introduced yourself as a writer. Yes, Gretchen, you are a writer and a darned good one.

    • Gretchen O'Donnell October 22, 2013 at 9:10 am #

      Yes, grammar is indeed evolving – and that’s a good thing as long as we don’t throw out the baby with the bath water! The whole texting thing – and even twitter – makes me a little worried for the future of the English language!

      I could not stand my 9th grade English teacher – which never helped my opinion of grammar.

  4. Beth Rickers Namanny October 22, 2013 at 8:35 am #

    The deal with journalism is that it’s not just grammar — there is proper journalistic style, too, which is a whole other ballgame to learn.
    Your stories have been a delight, Gretchen, and we are so happy that you have been able to help us out during our shortage and hope you will continue to do so when the timing is right.
    BTW: I, too, was an English major and had no intentions of going into journalism or becoming a teacher. Not sure what I was going to do with that! Next week will mark 25 years here. Egad. How did that happen?

    • Gretchen O'Donnell October 22, 2013 at 9:15 am #

      I laughed out loud at your comments, Beth! We just never know where life will lead us, do we? It’s been great to be involved at the Globe – and I’m so glad to be able to do it. And yes, you’re right: there is a difference in basic grammar and the journalistic style. I’m not great at the journalistic style…but thankfully, Ryan is! Thank you for your nice remarks!

  5. Gwen Stephens October 22, 2013 at 9:01 am #

    Ugh, I’m right there with you on the flashback to junior high English classes, and diagramming sentences! I never understood the point! I agree that too much focus on grammar takes the joy out of writing. Like you, I think it’s important to have the basics (my pet peeve is there/their/they’re) but grammar should be more of a guideline than a series of hard and fast rules. I couldn’t imagine reading a suspenseful novel without fragments — a huge grammatical no-no!

    Sounds like you have the best of both worlds going with your on-again-off-again job with the paper – great post!

    • Gretchen O'Donnell October 22, 2013 at 9:17 am #

      As I logged on just now I was thinking, “Got to go to Gwen’s blog” – and here you are at mine! I agree about sentence fragments – I like them. 🙂 But only if a person understands that they’re using them and are doing so on purpose! Thank you for your comments!

      • Gwen Stephens October 22, 2013 at 9:18 am #

        Awww, what a nice compliment, that you were thinking of my blog! Thank you!! The post I published yesterday was partly inspired by yours last week.

        • Gretchen O'Donnell October 22, 2013 at 9:23 am #

          I JUST now commented and I forgot to ask that, but I did wonder! I truly am glad that you had that experience! 🙂 Even though I grew up in a small town, we had no animals, nor were we farmers – just gardeners. So this farming lifestyle is still kinda new to me…but I love seeing the seasons play out around me. I am going to post about that next week!

  6. Victor Tribunsky October 22, 2013 at 1:28 pm #

    Grammar is my main opponent now. I struggle with it to learn to write correctly.

    • Gretchen O'Donnell October 22, 2013 at 5:37 pm #

      I think it takes a certain type of person to like grammar. I am not that type!

      • Victor Tribunsky October 22, 2013 at 8:54 pm #

        Tell me please, Gretchen, if some writer doesn’t like grammar and doesn’t pay attention to it, will he has readers?

        • Gretchen O'Donnell October 22, 2013 at 9:20 pm #

          Good point. Bad grammar makes for impossible reading. We definitely need to follow the rules in as much as it makes our writing smooth and readable. Though a broken rule now and then to make a point is ok by me!

  7. gardenfreshtomatoes October 23, 2013 at 5:31 am #

    Not just read, but speak to our kids (grands, now for me) with proper grammar. There were only a few rules committed to memory in my school days, because My Mother the Teacher made sure we spoke properly at home…those little English Book exercises were a snap, just by ‘listening’ to the different examples.

    How do you comfort a Grammar Nazi?

    Pat them on the back and say, “There, Their, They’re…” 🙂

    • Gretchen O'Donnell October 23, 2013 at 11:06 am #

      Ha!!! Love it! And yes, I totally agree – we have to speak properly. One of my kids said, “I seen” a couple of years back. I about had a heart attack. They had heard it from friends and it just came out naturally – but I assured them that it NEVER WOULD AGAIN! It hasn’t.

  8. Hotly Spiced October 23, 2013 at 3:06 pm #

    How exciting to be working as a journalist! I would love that. I can’t believe you wanted to tackle Russian! I have friends who went to start a church in St Petersburg and they of course, had to learn Russian – not easy at all!

    • Gretchen O'Donnell October 23, 2013 at 5:06 pm #

      No, not at all – you have to learn the whole new alphabet and new sounds and oy, it’s tough! I was terrible at it. 🙂 But yes, I’m having fun with the journalism now – 25 years later!

  9. Sartenada October 26, 2013 at 5:04 am #

    Great post. My wife loves grammar, but I do not. I am inspired to read and speak, not worrying so much about grammar. I learned Spanish in Spain by speaking, but now when blogging I have to check grammar. I know that I make mistakes, but I try and maybe someday, my writings are better. This autumn I started to learn Portuguese. Written it is easy to me to understand, but pronouncing very difficult.

    • Gretchen O'Donnell October 26, 2013 at 11:25 am #

      Good for you to even attempt such things! I am truly terrible with languages. I think that some people are gifted that way and some are not. Thanks for stopping by!

  10. prairiewisdom October 27, 2013 at 1:41 pm #

    What a delightful story. For everything there is a season. Your season of writing is in full swing!

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