Literary late bloomers: a club I’d like to join, Part 1 — My shallow youth

Portrait of a blogger as a non-prodigy

I had never been accused of being a prodigy-of-letters, blazing across the literary firmament, my brilliant prose eliciting gasps of wonder and awe from critics and the public at large. Mmmmmno..

There were days back in my shallow youth, though, when I actually thought I had a shot at modest success, if not the pinnacle of Pulitzer-crowned fame. After all, wasn’t I covering all the right career bases? For starters, as a journalism major in college, I had worked my way up the ranks of the campus newspaper from photographer to photo chief to editor-in-chief. I was running a weekly newspaper! I wrote the editorials! Fraternities actually courted me to join!

Russell Baker, a journalist's journalist

Besides that, I was reading the columns of Russell Baker, a journalist’s journalist, a writer with a keen eye, a sharp wit, and a pen that could make any politician’s political sword fall limp and useless. I wanted to be like him, and so I read his words and tried on his wry, witty and wise writing style as if it were a warm and well-worn tweed jacket that would give me magical writing powers. Success-by-osmosis: I was certain that was possible.

And like all journalism students of my generation, I also wanted to be like Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford in  All the President’s Men. Dashing, determined, brash, principled. Saving the world by slaying one corrupt administration at a time. No, wait: that was Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

Hoffman and Redford: journalistic role-models for a generation

Anyway, my early success in college had led to a paid summer internship at the local daily, The Orlando Sentinel. I admit that this exciting opportunity did not get off to a sterling start. On my first day, an editor sat me down at the Metro desk, in front of a computer I did not know how to operate, and told me to transcribe the story (on deadline!) of a reporter speaking on the phone. Did I mention that my typing speed was about 18 words per minute? I was petrified. But I hunted and pecked my way through this trial-by-fire as best as I could, filling the article with so many typos it looked more like Hungarian than English. I thought that once the by-now-exasperated reporter was done dictating, I could clean up my copy and my first-day reputation could remain unsullied. But no.

“I need that story now!” the editor ordered. I was mortified. After looking at my horrible typing job, I was sure there would be snickering, sighing, and tut-tutting behind my back. And perhaps my journalistic career would come to a quick and merciful end. But the editors were generous and kind and understanding. They gave the skinny college kid a second chance. And a third. And a fourth. By the ninth chance, I was doing all right. I even ended up on the front page! It was a story about a woman who gave birth in a car on the way to the hospital. I was there at the Metro desk when one of the editors took the tip for the story over the phone. “Interns awaaay!” she said.

At summer’s end, I returned to UCF to complete my studies. By this time I had finished my requirements for a journalism degree, and was taking all history courses, so I could also have a major in that subject. Why? I wanted to study history in grad school, to challenge myself intellectually, to make myself better qualified to write about the world.

As my graduation approached, I heard from the editor who had supervised my internship. She and her colleagues had thought enough of my work to offer me a job at one of the Sentinel’s exotic, far-flung bureaus — in Volusia County.  I was flattered, and feeling somewhat vindicated after my shaky start. But by that time I had already been accepted at Georgetown, where I would study Middle East history. So I walked away from my chance to start out as a cub reporter and end up who-knows-where?

But I had my sights set on bigger assignments than New Smyrna Beach City Council meetings. With my MA in hand, I thought there would be nothing between me and a bright future as Time magazine’s Cairo bureau chief. Or so I thought.

I had begun to write this blog entry after reading an obituary a couple of days ago. It was the life of a woman who was herself a late bloomer, and her life reminded me a bit of mine. But as you can see, I got sidetracked. I’ll get back on track tomorrow. Or the day after..