In Another Ten

Instead, I spent a lot of time coming up with clever responses to the fact that one of my classmates got to put in his byline, “Editor-in-Chief,” while I had to put “Staff Writer.” I was technically the Managing Editor, something I thought should be reflected on everything I wrote. I comprehend entirely (now) that no one cares what business role you fill at the paper in a byline but at the time it seemed very unfair. So I put “Not Just A Staff Writer Anymore” as my byline. What wit! What a thumb on the nose to the authorities! I got away with it because the Editor-in-Chief (a guy I admired—and still admire, as a matter of fact) knew he could shove my piece in the satire section and no one would care because, let’s face it, the satire section was pretty sad. I realize now that I could have contributed to a teenage version of The Onion or The Daily Show, but again, that whole research thing got in the way. It should be noted, also, that I was possibly the worst Managing Editor in the history of school newspapers. Whatever managing I was supposed to do, I did none of it.

But that same laziness also got me into some hot water later on. I was helping with a piece for the entertainment section about local stuff for teens to do. I think we had little blurby reviews of arcades and hangouts and such and I decided to do a short bit about the local bowling alley. Now, let’s just pause to reflect that I was saved a heap of scorn in this by mere chance: While it was me who wrote the paragraphs in question, the bowling alley featured was owned by a guy whose son was both my friend and on the newspaper staff. Plus, there were a couple other writers on the byline since it was a collaborative article. So while the problem was entirely my fault, the blame got diluted a little. What happened was: I hadn’t been to the bowling alley in a while, probably something like eight to ten months at least. But I figured it didn’t matter because the place didn’t change that much with time—it couldn’t, right? So I wrote my review based on memory. And I wasn’t exactly flattering, either.

I could try to explain it by saying we were on a deadline (true) or that I didn’t have time to visit the bowling alley (not true) or that I meant to fact-check it later but forgot (partially true). It doesn’t matter. The point is, I never should have assumed anything and I never should have let the other authors put their names on something that I wasn’t fully confident about. I should have pulled my section, at least. What I really should have done was gotten off my lazy butt and done the real research.

Now, again, the owner’s son was on staff (possibly he had even collaborated on the story, I don’t remember for sure now) and it was more embarrassing for him that he had let it slip by than it was for the rest to be associated with me and my story. But the owner (my friend’s dad) wrote a letter to the editor saying that my bit was full of factual inaccuracies. They had upgraded the arcades, fixed some of the fees and improved other areas I criticized. Had we been there recently? the letter asked. Our instructor asked us point blank. Had we done the research? I had to admit, I had not.

We issued a retraction and felt bad and wiped the egg off our faces and ultimately it didn’t matter because no one read the paper anyway, but I won’t ever forget the vengeful creeping sense of shame and regret that came—and this is key—not with having written the piece, but in having been caught and called out on it. I recognized even then, as dumb as I was, that the only way to avoid having that kind of revealing insight into your human failings broadcast for all to see, was to not try to pass off fiction as fact. Perhaps if I’d learned a bit about passing off fact as fiction, I might have been a better satire writer, but that lesson would never come in time to be of any use.

 Lesson #3: Art May Be Subjective, But Writing Still Has To Make Sense

In my junior college days, when I was directionless and unwilling to grow up but felt like I wanted to achieve greater heights than my teenage idiocy had permitted, I carried around a notebook that I would fill with scribbles and poems and freestyle verse and handwritten lectures about the kinds of things that a guy who listens to too much Bob Marley and reads too much Stephen King thinks are really, really deep. I felt then that the words in the poems were only there to provide contextual clues to the theme of the poem, which was further conveyed by my hand-drawn typography experiments. In short, it was half the words and half the way the words appeared on the page that made the poems work.

Let me save you some time: The poems didn’t work.

I showed a few of them to my friends who were prone to being dazzled by “art” in the sense that we all felt if it was vague or incomprehensible but even hinted at depth or meaning, it must be mind-expanding and hold value. But then again, we listened to Metallica for the lyrics, if that tells you anything about the sophistication of our art appreciation. They liked it, said it was great stuff, man. Around this time I started noodling in a speed metal band with a guy I thought of and still believe to be a genuine genius. Now, he’s a tortured artist type in the classic sense but he’s also incredibly grounded in a reality that is more at home with the hard facts of life than I hope I will ever fully understand. At the time, he was writing all the music and lyrics and I was just chugging out power chords as a rhythm guitarist. I showed him one of my poems, saying it might make for some good lyrics. He read them and then handed back the notebook.

“What does it mean?” he asked.

“You don’t get it?” I replied. Protip: Whenever someone shows you something and then asks this question if you request an explanation, what they mean is, “I don’t know, either.

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