Tuesday, October 18, 2005

All Night ...

One of my daily blog checks takes me to Opinionistas, a lawyer in Manhattan who writes about the absurdity of life in a law firm.

This morning's post was written this morning - early - after pulling an all-nighter in her office and it got me to thinking about my former work life.

Early in my tenure at the Trib, I worked crummy hours. Sports and news. A typical work day would end about 1:30 in the morning, but if you were scheduled on the bulldog - the Sunday paper that comes out on Saturday - you could count on being in front of your terminal until at least 4 a.m., usually later.

I've always liked being in places late at night or on weekends. Like empty school hallways. There's something about them that I love, the life of a space that I don't normally get to see, stripped of the bustle of the week, lights off. When I was in high school and would work on the plays on the weekends, the school was like that: quiet, dim.

A newsroom, though, is fully lit 'round the clock. There may be few people working - a couple of us putting out the paper, a few cleaning staff - but aside from the blackness outside the windows, it's no different than day.

Unless ...

Reading O's post this morning, the one night I spent the whole night at the paper by choice came flooding back. I had an article due for Tempo the next day, which I was writing over and above my daily duties. I had time to work on it during the day - I never did understand how my predecessors managed to make that job take up an 8-hour day; I was usually done in about 3 - but as my high school classmate Kevin Frommer said one day in our junior-year English class, "You can't be creative on cue."

Just because you have to write something doesn't mean the words will come.

So I was struggling. Ledes are the worst. You can spend hours agonizing over the perfect opening sentence. Seasoned writers will tell you - and they told me - to write past the lede. Get into the body of the story. Write the lede last if you have to. Just start writing. The lede will come.

But I don't write that way. Maybe I'm a masochist, but I have to have my lede. It's as though the struggle to write the lede is my uphill climb, but once I have it, the rest of the story flows. It's all downhill from there.

So I stayed. I didn't plan on staying all night, but with a deadline looming, it made no sense to go home. I knew I wouldn't be able to sleep knowing the story wasn't finished, so I decided to stay until it was done.

One could argue - and that one would be me - that no one has their best writing in them at 3 a.m. But a deadline is a deadline, so I wrote.

Words filled the screen. Not great words, but words. I'd have something to file. The sky began to lighten. I waited until the Starbucks across the street opened then headed over to caffeinate.

My friend Rick always got to work pretty early, and that morning, he saw me in the hallway.

"What'd you do, stay here all night?" he said, joking.

And then he realized I was wearing the same clothes I was wearing the day before.

I told him why I stayed. He asked if I was finished.

"Yeah, such as it is," I said. I put the story in a common queue so he could read it before I turned it in. I walked over to his desk and sat on the edge, berating it.

Rick said, "Will you stop, so I can read it? Do you want my pass to the club? You can go take a shower or a steam."

I retreated to my desk and my coffee.

Rick came by.

"I don't know what story you're talking about, but the one I read is good," he said.

I put in a short day. Got my work done and the headed home to sleep.

Two days later, the story ran in Tempo. Above the fold. Good placement. And it ran almost exactly as I had written it, my lede intact.

I really am my own worst critic. To this day. I still submit stories, sure my editors will hate them, and they call and they can't stop raving.

Why is it that what I consider a C effort is an A in everyone else's world? Why do I insist on setting the bar so high? And if I turned in what I'd consider to be an A effort, what would they think?

When I was in grade school, my mom went to a parent-teacher conference. I remember the day. I remember where we were, in the car, what street we were crossing, when she told me what the teacher had said.

"She said you're a perfectionist," my mom told me. I didn't know "perfectionist," but I recognized the root word.

"What's wrong with being perfect?" I asked.

"Oh, honey," my mom said. "Being a perfectionist doesn't mean you're perfect. It means you want everything to be perfect. But nobody's perfect." In my memory, she added, "So you're going to be disappointed a lot." But I'm not 100 percent sure that she said it.

Maybe I just heard it.

In any event, it's true.

But that night at the Tribune was worth it in the end.

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