I’m not a neurolinguist, but as the expression goes, “some of my best friends are.” They like to remind us that the human brain is an organizer. As marvelous as the brain is, it cannot manage random, disassociated data; therefore, our brains are crafted to sort, classify, categorize, and relate. “STORIES” exist in all human cultures because human brains use this format to organize the events of our existence, and give structure and meaning to our lives. For each of us, our lives become stories linking and defining who and why we are. With no particular organizational structure, I share a collection of my stories:
On the 29 day of May in the 15-year of my life, I asked Miss Katherine Gilespie for a summer job working on my hometown, weekly newspaper. Miss Gilespie (known to all the adults in town as Kat) wore, what in the 1950’s was considered “manish” clothing, spoke in a gruff, raspy voice, and had a heart of gold. She asked me what I could do? And I asked what she needed done? She hired me for the generous salary (considering my vast experience) of $15.00 a week, and told me I could ride with her 4 days a week to Mansfield (20 miles from Logansport) where the paper was actually published.
I had just completed my 9th year of formal education, knew I wanted to be a writer, and believed I should get started. The following Monday, I met the first, and the best professional journalist I would be privileged to know. His name was James “Jim” Sasser, and he was the editor/publisher of two small-town weekly newspapers, the Logansport Interstate Progress and the Mansfield Enterprise.
The production of the two papers had been joined for two years, with the print equipment located in Mansfield. Print was set from melted lead by a deaf typesetter, and laid-out in wooden galleys. We proofread the galleys before printing galley proofs for final proofing. I still have a lead slug of my name that the printer produced as a gift when my first by-line ran.
The printing press occupied the largest space in the back of the building. When it operated, the clank and creak and smash reverberated. The ink had a special acidic odor, which combined with the sharp chemical stench of the paper to create a fragrance I came to think of as “press day perfume.” It took us four days to compile the content of the paper and lay out the pages; and on the fifth day we went to press. As the printed pages literally rolled off the press, we folded, rolled, applied mailing labels, and counted and sorted the papers. On press day, we wore old clothes, which grew black from smeared ink, and worked until the job was done, regardless of the hour.
At our first “sit-down” conference, Mr. Sasser explained to me that there were writers and there were editors. A few people could do both jobs; but they were different jobs. He expected me to learn both. He said, edit these, and handed me four letters from the newspaper’ “correspondents,” ladies who wrote weekly columns about the “happenings” in their communities. Their news included, who was sick or under the weather, what the preacher’s sermon was about, who sang the special, who had out-of-town visitors, or who had a birthday. A party was big news, and a funeral could constitute a whole column. He gave me two rules; make each article literate and grammatically correct, but keep the column in the “voice” of the writer. He said, “An editor’s job is to make a writer better; not take over the writing.”
In our second meeting he placed a galley between us, and told me to read it and find all the errors. Sounds easy? Unless you consider that a galley is a mirror image of the printed page. While reading galleys differs from reading normal text upside down, the two skills are apparently closely related. Mr. Sasser later made me proof my own work by turning the typed pages upside down. He said that reading that way forced me to see what I had actually written; not what I meant to write. Like reading lips, being able to read upside down can prove a bit embarrassing. Standing across a cluttered desk, you inadvertently read what’s lying there, and learn things people don’t think you know or don’t mean to share.
In our third meeting, my editor went over the edited version of my first article. In our fourth, fifth, and sixth meetings we went over the second, third, and fourth versions of the same article. By the time the article was published, I hadn’t learned to write, but I knew most of the cryptic code of strange symbols used for copy editing and proofreading. I remember Mr. Sassser telling me; “We don’t know how to teach anyone to write; the best we can do is teach someone to write better.”
Over the ensuing weeks, Mr. Sasser found time to give a 10th grader a short-course in journalism. His global advice was simple – “Visualize your reader, and write for him. Use simple, straightforward sentences, never convoluted or complex. If the reader has to pause to figure out what a sentence means, you failed. Use the simplest word that will accurately convey your meaning. If you use a $5 word, embed it in context, so the reader can infer the meaning. That makes your reader feel smart, not dumb.”
He taught me to write a “lead” sentence that conveyed the “who,” “what,” “when,” and “where” of the story. Then the “body” of the piece, which elaborated on the lead sentence and covered “how” and “why” when appropriate. Then finally he showed me how to write the final paragraph(s) as “filler.”
The sequence of the story was really critical in the days of lead type. The typesetter generally set the entire piece, then the editor set the galleys. The editor made the content fit the available space by removing final sentences or paragraphs (physical lines of lead type). If the story was written wrong, important information could be cut from the end of the article, and Mrs. Jones would be really angry that her name was omitted.
Beyond these basics, Mr. Sasser taught me about “embedded” or “implied” messages. He told me not to write a story about how English teachers are good people, but rather to write about English Teacher, Jane Doe, and the good things she was accomplishing. Specific messages about real people are generalized by readers and convey broader, more global messages. This simple principle became the foundation for my later work in public relations.
One memorable lesson took place at my desk in the front office. I was working from notes submitted by the funeral home about a pending funeral. He frowned as I wrote out the piece in long hand before beginning to type on the old Underwood. “ No,” he said, and covered my longhand copy. “Compose at the typewriter. It will feel awkward for awhile,” he said, “but then your words will flow through the keys.” I looked doubtful. “Trust me,” he said. I sit here today, feeling the words flow through the keys, and am glad I trusted all of his advice.
After that summer the world moved on for me and for Mr. Jim Sasser. I continued to write for the paper, but not as an employee. I knew he sold the papers and moved away, but I totally lost track. Twenty years after that memorable summer, I was sitting in bed in our apartment in Port Washington, Long Island, watching the evening news on the NYC, NBC affiliate. The anchor, in a somber voice, launched into an extended obituary of their senior news Editor, whom they called “Gentleman Jim Sasser.” As I sat open-mouthed, he recounted how Mr. Sasser left his home in the South for a job at the New York Times where he rose to the position of City Editor before taking a job with the local NBC affiliate. The world turns most strangely sometimes.