The dream is always the same. I’m writing a screenplay about a teenager fantasizing about his babysitter when my wife flings open the bedroom door. Writing is risky business. Or is it dreaming? I do more than my share of both, and The News-Letter, where I first let my imagination run wild on the printed page, must bear some of the blame.
I arrived at Hopkins in 1983, set on becoming nothing less than — that’s right — the next great American novelist. I had been the news editor for the newspaper at my New Jersey high school and would’ve been given the journalism award there if I hadn’t told my journalism teacher that I didn’t plan on a career in newspapers.
As a freshman on Homewood Campus, I knew a lot of big words but had a poor grasp of grammar and punctuation. In an introductory Writing Seminars course with John Barth, many of my stories came back with a rash of red marks. When I concluded one story with the cringeworthy “it was all a dream,” the great man of letters gave me a written thrashing I’ve never forgotten.
By my sophomore year, I recognized nonfiction as a creative avenue and potential route to employment. Jonathan Yardley’s journalism class buoyed me. When we were asked to review a primetime action show, the majority of my erudite classmates mercilessly panned it. My mostly positive take got an A, though. Yardley, editor of the Washington Post’s Book World section, reminded us to judge works according to what they are designed to achieve, not some lofty universal ideal.
I was a writer for The News-Letter my junior year, 1985 to ‘86. I don’t remember how, but maybe Features Editor Sujata Banerjee unintentionally goaded me into it. A successful novelist these days under her married name Massey, Sujata had penned a vivid, tongue-in-cheek screed against “tragic hipsters” smoking clove cigarettes in the Gilman Hall café. Not getting the joke, I wrote a scathing Letter to the Editor, defending the University’s counterculture. I was both embarrassed and amused when she good-naturedly let me in on the joke.
In those years, The News-Letter rightly focused on the issue of the day, globally and locally, apartheid South Africa and efforts to pressure the regime out of its subjugation of the majority-Black population. Those student journalists also went for humor, maybe sometimes too far. The Sports Editor, a friend of mine, headlined an article about a rout of Messiah College “Blue Jays crucify Messiah.”
My proudest moment as a News-Letter writer was an account of a January Intersession trip to the Soviet Union. I really let myself go, recounting circuses, ice cream carts in zero-degree weather and KGB agents shadowing us at a beer hall. The joy of expressing myself and capturing something in writing for a wide audience inspired me to seek a career in journalism.
After graduation, I worked as a relief stringer for the Associated Press in Baltimore for about a year. I was then a reporter for a weekly newspaper in Ocean City, Md. before moving across the country in 1989 and taking a job with The Daily World in Aberdeen, Wash. I enjoyed the deadline rush and sharing people’s colorful stories, but when I wasn’t able to make the jump to a metro daily after five years, I turned in my press card.
Since then, I’ve been an article editor for Microsoft’s Encarta encyclopedia, before Wikipedia made professional scholarship a niche market, and a government and nonprofit communicator. At the City of Bellevue, Wash., Seattle’s largest suburb and Amazon’s booming second home, I’ve been writing or editing everything from lengthy newsletter articles to pithy tweets nearly every day since 2006.
The itch to write fiction also continues to bedevil me, no matter how often I scratch. In my spare time, I’ve had short stories and pieces about music and sports published in blogs and magazines with some regularity. I wrote a screenplay with friends, a parody of Planet of the Apes about temps, which we made into an amateur (in every way) film. I wrote a sequel to the Odyssey, which was never published — go figure. I’m now writing a screenplay for a TV series about a Mexican soccer player trying to make it in the States.
“What are you doing?” my wife demands to know, as she stands in the doorway in judgment.
“Oh, just working on the screenplay some more. Nothing to see here,” I say. “I’ll be finishing up soon. Do you need me to take out the garbage?”
“No,” she says, coming closer while I try to shield the monitor. With apologies to Mr. Barth and gratitude to The News-Letter, I’m still dreaming.