It's pretty difficult for writers to write about themselves. I know, I've been there and tried to do that. My friend Hart is no exception, she found it a little difficult, too. But her love of writing shows through her words; her love of her job is evident. And isn't it great to have spent your work life doing something you love? I asked Hart to tell us about her work, and in doing so, she told us a lot about herself. Let's join her as she gives us glimpses of her life as a reporter.
What inspired me to be a writer? I would say it was more inevitable than inspiration. I think some brains are wired to respond to the written word and so become writers and others are wired to be very good with spoken words and become salesmen or preachers and others are wired to see things visually that us verbal types never see and become artists. And so on.
But I guess it starts with the fact that I always loved reading from I think the minute I learned to read. And maybe that comes from the fact that Mom tucked us all up on her lap and read to us every day, wonderful stories and poems from the set of Childcraft books Daddy had bought from a door-to-door salesman along with a set of encyclopedias.
Those orange books were pretty much falling apart from wear and tear by the time all three of us grew out of them. Then I moved on to the set of great classics of literature that came with the same books. And anything and everything I could gobble down from the little local library. I always, as my mom said, had my "nose in a book." She would take my books away and make me go outside and play.
When I was seven I told the librarian, who saw me totter out of there with a stack of books up to my eyeballs every week, I was going to grow up to be a writer. I guess it's nice to have your career all planned out early.
How I ended up in news writing was pure happenstance, although all that early reading meant I read a lot of news too. My parents got two newspapers every day - the old Washington Times Herald and later the Post after the Herald went belly up as well as the tabloid-sized Washington Daily News. I read those every day from the time I could read well enough to read them, about second grade. For some reason, maybe the comics were in the back, I read the Daily News every day from back to front then front to back again on the stories that jumped.
But back to happenstance. When I left home to go to college, I only knew a couple of kids from my hometown who were attending the same school. One of them was a very geeky guy who had been a ham radio buff. He was working as a station engineer at the campus radio station and I wandered in there one day to see him. Next thing I knew, the overworked station news director had signed me up to cover stories. I'd never been involved in the high school paper. I was in band, which left very little time for any other activities.
This was in 1968. This Virginia college wasn't exactly a hotbed of campus unrest, but most of what I covered involved the anti-Viet Nam war movement. Not a bad beat for a baby reporter.
I spent some time as a stringer for the news department of a local radio station. Stringers are part time and are paid by the story. My first real radio job was as a copywriter, or continuity director, which involves writing all the commercial spots as well as promos and so on and taking care of the logs the announcers use to essentially tell them the time slots of those ads and promos.
Why on earth copywriting? This was the early '70s and there was a lot of prejudice against women in broadcasting. In fact, the manager of this station, whose voice was probably higher pitched than mine, was convinced that women's voices were annoying. This led to some pretty ridiculous scenarios, such as our production guy having to do both the men's and women's voices when I wrote a spot using both. Believe me, this was hilarious. I never quite figured out why a man speaking in a falsetto was not annoying but a woman speaking in her normal voice was. Maybe women's ears aren't capable of the fine tuned hearing that allows perception of this.
Meanwhile, I had married the news director of a competing station. I spent the next several years staying home with my daughter. After she entered school, I had the writer's mishmash of oddball jobs here and there - a bit of copyediting for a science fiction magazine, ad director for a local department store, substitute teaching. Unfortunately, I never quite managed to be a merchant marine or bartender, leaving gaping holes in my writerly resume.
The shift to newspaper work was by chance as well. After hearing my mother and aunt tell tales of their first years in my hometown during World War II, I interviewed a number of locals about those years and wrote a lengthy story. When I took it to the editor of the local paper to see if they would like to buy it, she offered me a job.
I started on the city government beat, then covered state government, including the General Assembly, local interest bills on Capitol Hill, elections for the state and U.S. House and Senate, presidential candidates when they came in the area, interviewing former presidential candidates and politicos who happened to live here. James Carville was always good for a quote and George McGovern was a wise analyst of political events.
One of my favorites was U.S. Sen. John Warner, a charming Southern gentleman with a great sense of fun. He loved my sports car and once sent his staff into a tizzy when he tried to insist on riding with me instead of the stuffy old Cadillac he'd arrived in. I don't know what they thought he was going to do - poke his head out the window and howl? Suggest that I use his legislative immunity to burn rubber on I-66?
Another time he was in the area campaigning for George Allen when Allen was running for the U.S. House. The flap du jour in those pre-makaka, pre-governor's mansion, pre-U.S. Senate days was an ad Allen had been running painting his Democratic opponent as a warmonger. Yes, I know - the whimsy of political ad writers. I asked Allen if his next ad would feature daisies falling down out of the sky, referring to a TV spot aimed at Goldwater in the 1964 presidential race. Warner's eyes lit up and he said, "There's a lady who knows her political history!"
"Ask me the tough questions!" he'd boom whenever I came to his Hill office for an interview.
I felt like B'rer Rabbit being thrown in the briar patch. Call me crazy. I like politicians. Yes, they have egos the size of Utah and some have ethics that flex with the latest polling trends. But most care pretty passionately about doing public good. And, yes, as Bismark said, laws, like sausage, are best not being seen made. But I enjoyed, as one politico described me, being the old alligator, looking slit eyed and half asleep, waiting for hours through deadly dull proceedings until I could snap my toothy jaws on the one tidbit worth reporting.
And covering political campaigns - now that's more fun than anyone deserves. The issues, the rallies, the striving. The dirt on that past vote that's exactly opposite to current positions/the questionable business dealings/the secret party meeting detailing a plan to paint the other party as Nazis.
"Uh, oh. She's cackling maniacally again. She's found out something somebody doesn't want her to know." Heh.
I'll tell you two secrets. First is the secret to being a good political reporter. Besides bulldog tenacity, it's the art of schmoozing. Of teasing, wheedling, whining, begging, charming that source into giving you the juicy tidbit no one else has.
Second is the real reason reporters love news. We're all adrenalin junkies. This isn't original to me but a fact discovered by an editor friend. Much of what you do is tedious - hours and hours of meetings or hearings or trials or interviews of mind numbing dullness. But then, the pinball chings into the slot and bells ring, lights flash and the chase is on to get the story, get it first and get it fast on deadline.
I spent some time as a managing editor. "Stuffing three-year-olds into snowsuits for a living," was my husband's dead on description of managing a room full of reporters. I went back to reporting because I missed it. I missed the people and the excitement, maybe even some of the tedium. I missed the chase.
Eventually I left news. I think I ran out of adrenalin. I worked on the other side of the notebook, as press secretary to a statewide race, a lobbyist and grant writer. All of those appealed to my inside Crusader Rabbit. And I missed news. But I missed most, I think, having a job where my talent for tweaking noses was an asset.
And so it goes, ching and flash and chase! I think I missed out on a fun thing. But I don't know if I could have schmoozed or teased or wheedled my way to a juicy tidbit. I might have been able to charm somebody, though. Maybe.
Hart, I'm sure your work was much more difficult than the picture you painted with your words. I'm also sure you did it well and with the same flair that you used in telling us your story. Exciting? I know it was, but it takes a well grounded person to write under pressure and to meet daily deadlines. I have great admiration for you and for your work.
Hart, my friend, thank you so much for allowing us to peek into your world. It's the kind of rewarding work that most of us will never realize. I like your words, the way you play with them. I think you might have done some very creative reporting while you were tweaking noses and chasing stories. Wishing you a very happy retirement; thank you again.
And thank you, readers, for joining us. Be sure to scroll over the photos for a description and click on them to enlarge. Join us again next week to see who Nancy brings to the Spotlight.