The Funnest Thing Ever
By Michael Heaton
People will tell you journalism is about doing good, fighting for the oppressed, seeking truth, justice and changing the world.
Many brave, souls have given their lives in search of “The Story” for the good of others and the world. But even those heroes were initially drawn in by the DNA-driven desire to see things, ask questions, write about and explain the world – to the world.
Sometimes what’s lost in all that tragic ink and personal sacrifice is that this business is so much excruciating, frustrating and thrilling fun.
Talk these days of the death of old-fashioned journalism on paper abounds. Guess where? But check the stories here. Six will surely be Major Motion Pictures. Why? Because newspaper journalism still counts, still gets big stories in a way that other mediums don’t. On the ground, in the first person. Internet content doesn’t appear by magic..Most often the magic starts with ink-stained, flat footed, note-taking guys and gals like well. . . us.
Personally, I did it all wrong, and backwards. New York, San Francisco, Cleveland. According to high-priced career counselors, it should have been the other way around. But no complaints. I made stops in El Salvador, Paris and Bali along the way. The truth is I had more fun than any honest working person should ever admit. I’d like to believe my writing is important. That some of my work changed the world. Some lives? Even a little? Maybe?
There is no immortality in daily journalism. Or weekly. If you can’t find the ephemeral buzz in every day’s deadline you should stick with translating Epic Poetry. If you like the big NOW there is no gig more fun than being a journalist. You’re a cop without the uniform and gun, a private detective with endless cases, a mid-list poet with a steady paycheck and endless opportunities to improve your vocabulary and sentence structure..
If something “good” happens along the way, well then mazel tov. This profession/craft allows a person to have a daily, active, if minor role, in what Ambrose Bierce called The Passing Show. Being able to splash in this public pond provides one with continuous amusement and amazement.
Is there any other line of work where being an impertinent, inquisitive self-involved son of a bitch is considered a virtue? In this business, if you do it right, you get close enough to smell people. I’m talking a big whiff. You get below the shampoo and cologne. You meet the politicians, soldiers, cops, criminals, artists, musicians, actors doctors, lawyers, scientists, priests, prophets and kings on a molecular level. That stew gives off some heady scent.
Most importantly, this job puts some lucky schmoe like me next to the proverbial one-legged man pushing a three-wheeled shopping cart full of empty diet Dr. Whooper cans who swears you owe his ex-wife, the Eskimo, twelve bucks.
The best part of that scenario is that the man is not deranged or lying. The Eskimo woman did in fact give you that money “for a waiting cab” the night the crystal-nosed gang bangers at the club thought you were asking way too many questions. Even though you explained earlier in the evening that’s exactly what you were there to do. Crystal champagne and home-rocked crack can bring on sudden, potentially lethal mood changes in certain down market subsets. There are things you don’t learn in most accredited colleges. Which explains my oft-questioned, ongoing employment in this business.
The two things which most prepared me for journalism were hitchhiking and sneaking into rock concerts. Both misdemeanors. I’m a little criminal. I ask forgiveness every day. I hitchhiked to high school and around colleges for eight years. It teaches you how to talk to complete strangers. There was no training like getting in a car with someone and starting a conversation from road tar.
I had rides that lasted eight minutes and eight hours. I met scary saints and sweet sinners. I studied at the school of Highway Karma before I read Kerouac’s On The Road. Most importantly I learned that everyone has a story and they are all aching to tell it. This single fact keeps all newspapers and magazines in business today.
Sneaking into concerts in the 1970’s was a hobby that became a skill. When told “Press” isn’t invited to some public event, I make it my business to not only get in, but bring six of my friends, and then get backstage for an exclusive interview and dried-out turkey sandwiches from the deli tray. Obtaining access at all cost is everything.
That’s a huge part of the Big Fun. That’s how you get your story on A-1. It’s always fun on A-1. I made that up.
My rules of journalism are as follows: 1. ABC, Always Be Curious. 2. Read everything. 3. Always ask questions. 4. Never take no for an answer. 5. Don’t talk, LISTEN. 6. Pray, there’s no luck. 7. Think of the re-write as a second chance. Everybody deserves one. 8. A good editor is a gift from God. 9. Live to write another day- if you can. 10. Be kind. It’s the gift you leave your colleagues.
I didn’t get into this business to change the world. I got into it to discover it. With a corporate credit card. And man, I know how lucky I am to be doing this: rocking around the big, wide world with a notebook and a pen getting paid for writing about it. Almost 30 year in, I still got the glee. Still trying to make it right with all the Eskimo bartenders in the world. These are my stories. If the Lord is willing and illiteracy don’t rise, I hope to keep writing them.
– Michael Heaton