That wasn't the easiest thing to admit, for ego reasons, but sometime after I stopped getting paid to do it, I finally admitted that I hadn't been great at it. Sometimes I was good, sometimes I was mediocre. And when I talk about that job — the Hermiston Herald, Sept. 1997-Aug. 2000 — I say I was a writer-reporter, because I'm a better writer than I was a reporter.
(I did plenty of non-reporter things at that job, too: covering the main phone line on the receptionist's breaks, proofing and copy-editing each issue, making the Entertainment pages (often with film reviews) for the Scene & Heard section, sometimes assembling the paper in the back room or delivering papers when a delivery person wasn't available.)
The grunt work of reporting, it turns out, didn't come naturally to me. I could do it, but it wasn't the most satisfying part of the job. Making my articles clear and informative: that felt better. I was very good at that. You can't write Faulkner prose at a newspaper: you need to get to the point so readers learned stuff. For my three years at that job, I kept my Strunk & White handy.
I found ways to amuse myself and add flair, like quoting or paraphrasing lyrics into my features or reviews. (I successfully did this with Tori Amos, Danny Elfman, the Beastie Boys and the Beatles.) Not news articles, though: that would have been tacky.
And no matter what, I took the work seriously. Getting a fact wrong could be disastrous. I won't tell the story here, but I did get one particular news story very wrong, so wrong my editor ran a column the next week explaining how I'd screwed up. THAT was a hit to my ego. And, luckily, an aberration. Being Massively Wrong in public can be a harrowing, sobering experience. I learned from it, and didn't lose my job.
Sometimes it was difficult to be neutral. Humans aren't neutral. We're gonna have feelings on X, Y, and Z. Plus I knew that certain readers were primed to assume I was biased, as a member of the Evil Liberal Media; I knew as neutral as I worked to be, I was unlikely to convince them otherwise. Some people simply wouldn't care.
But I got one particular small victory because I'd stayed neutral. A businessman/area city councilor advocated for a large copper sculpture to be built as a veterans' memorial, at a major Hermiston intersection. I saw mock-ups and concepts for that sculpture. I thought it looked awful. I found it conceptually weird and off-putting, and annoyingly rah-rah about war. But it was on my beat, so I wrote about the sculpture and the efforts to commission a full-size version — and the revisions the artist made after the city government said "no" to the initial concept, though the revisions, in my opinion, made the art more muddled.
The small victory was later: once it was clear the sculpture wouldn't be built, the councilor who'd pushed it thanked me sincerely for my coverage. He added that he'd figured out I hadn't liked the art; he said he saw that I hadn't let that get in the way of being informative and fair.
A lot of people would not have observed that. I appreciate that he did.
So. Journalism wasn't my best fit. I'd thought it was, but in late 2000 after I'd left Hermiston and staged out of my parents' Dundee, Oregon home, I applied for a reporter position at a Portland-area newspaper. The editor was willing to give me a try, and gave me an assignment; I did the work; I turned it in; the editor turned me down for the job because (paraphrased) "This piece isn't really about anything." That editor was right. What I'd written didn't say much. That was likely to be true if I kept trying to be a journalist.
And while I interviewed at other papers in town around then, that editor's assessment was apt. I would have been a bad fit at any paper, unless I were there as a proofreader. I am honestly good at that; I'm proud of that skill. And publications did employ proofreaders, at least more then than now.
But, at least, I can write.