Grind out copy
This month marks the 20th year of writing this weekly column, “Irrelativity.” You’ll be hearing more about this in the weeks that follow.
If you fudge the math a bit — overlooking revisited themes, rehashed jokes, overused ellipses and the occasional “updated” rerun — that’s still 1,000 columns that I’ve written in 20 years.
You’d think just based on the impressive number of zeros in that tally, that I would have learned a few things over the years. And you’d be wrong. I’ve not learned a few things, but exactly one thing. It’s this:
You just gotta grind out copy.
Now then, let’s use one of my favorite recurring column special effects: let’s back up a bit …
Way back in the fourth grade I started writing poems. Silly, sing-songy, rhyming poems. They just popped into my head, and I wrote them down. I had never heard of the concept of the muse or pondered where ideas came from — this was stuff I’d spend time mulling later in life, sometimes in lieu of doing any actual creating. In those days, words would just appear, and I’d write them down.
Then something happened. Nine-year-old me was going about my day when some little ditty popped into my noodle. Instead of writing it down right then, I decided to get to it later. When I finally sat down to write it, later that day, it was nowhere to be found. I squinched my face up hard to try to make it come back, but no luck. It was gone. Gone! But it was in my head, where could it have gone? Why would — how come — what about — wah!
That’s when I concluded that waiting for inspiration was how writing worked. At some point the silliness will appear and you better get your booty to some crayon and paper and scribble it down. And if it isn’t “there,” don’t even bother, because all the temple-pounding in the world won’t make it come back.
Getting through the rest of school, with the occasional research-paper writing, was challenging.
Let’s move along to 1992, where I’m working as the darkroom technician for the Snowmass Sun newspaper. I’m also an audio-visual guy at the Snowmass Conference Center. One of the conferences that came through was a school-lunch trade show, where people who make public-school lunches bring in samples for potential buyers. As with all food-centric events, the Conference Center staff was offered leftovers. This was the only time I’d ever seen leftovers rejected by the staff. Even the audio-visual guys wouldn’t touch it.
My muse kicked in for the first time in a while and I quickly wrote a (hilarious) expose on how bad the new wave of public-school food was. Ha! I gave it to my editor at the Sun and he published it. And, now realizing that I could (sort of) write, he gave me a job as a cub reporter. He really was a very nice man who went out of his way to give me a cool opportunity. Too bad for him.
One of my first assignments was to rewrite a press release about the seasonal opening of Independence Pass. This was probably the easiest assignment imaginable, but I just couldn’t muster it up. I kept thinking, “Oh, you know what would be funny, if I were to just add a part about …” Nope. Not the assignment. Just do the work. Just. Do. The. Work.
As I sat at the keyboard, fingers frozen, stumped by the most basic task, the editor walked up and stood over my shoulder:
“You just gotta grind out copy!” he said.
“Uh, excuse me,” I thought. “I do not ‘grind out copy.’ I am not a sausage maker, I am an artist. I wait for inspiration to find me, and then, and only then, do I put ink to paper. It’s the way I’ve done it since I was a kid. My method is tried and true. This particular writing task could take weeks, or more, and certainly will involve many naps and countless hours spent daydreaming. And even then there are no guarantees. I may not be able to do justice to this press-release rewrite until a few months from now, so you’re just gonna have to be patient.”
My job as a reporter lasted six weeks, which was at least five weeks longer than it should have.
Then some stuff happened, I got my own column and now it’s 20 years later.
It wasn’t too far into writing a weekly column before I realized that what my editor grumbled over my shoulder that day was the best advice I’d ever receive. The muse doesn’t always pick up on the first ring. Inspiration isn’t always around when you need it. Sometimes you just have to sit there at the keyboard (or whatever your instrument of choice is), face squinched, fingers moving, fingers constantly moving, until something presents itself. And then, if you can keep yourself in the chair, the muse might start texting you all the things you wish you’d thought of yourself. And you only have to do one thing:
You just gotta grind out copy.
Barry Smith’s column appears Mondays