At the second best job I ever had, in the sports department of a small daily newspaper in upstate New York, I learned something that came in handy several years later, in an English literature course at Princeton University.
The lesson concerned two literary elements called “distance” and “point of view,” and some Princeton professor was lecturing on those narrative elements in the development of the modern novel. For the first time in what had been until then an undistinguished academic career, my eyes did not glaze over in the lecture hall. Instead my brain actually got engaged. I knew about distance and point of view first hand, as a summer intern at the Binghamton Evening Press.
Back in Binghamton, fresh out of high school in the summer of 1965, I had dealt with those lofty literary issues in a much more practical way — as a sportswriter covering the minor league team in town, the Triplets, a farm team for the New York Yankees. In one of many two-newspaper towns across America, the Press was the evening paper competing fiercely with the morning Sun-Bulletin.
Coverage of the minor league baseball game was just one of the war zones. The games were played at night, ending almost always early enough for the reporter for the morning paper to crank out a “who, what, when, where and why,” presented in the journalistic inverted triangle format with the least important facts at the end so that the editor could quickly make it fit in whatever space was permitted.
The Press reporter, on the other hand, could go home and sleep on it for a few hours, before coming in at 7 a.m. to polish a piece that would be the cornerstone of the sports section that had to be assembled by around 11 a.m.
That story, often written between sips of lukewarm coffee or drags on a cigaret, had to add some new dimension for the readers who had either been at the game or had already read about the outcome in the Sun-Bulletin. But at the same time it couldn’t lose the attention of readers who had no idea what had happened at the game. And so when a Princeton professor began to discuss narrative technique in one of the earliest novels, Henry Fielding’s “Joseph Andrews,” a light bulb went off in my head.
Fast forward to last Thursday night at Tre Piani restaurant in Forrestal Village, when my job required me to play emcee to a gathering of writers and poets who contributed to the U.S. 1 Summer Fiction issue. Once again I learned a few things. My chances of getting back into a college lecture hall seem slim. But maybe some much younger person was there, catching some part of the discussion, will some day not too long from now say, “hey, I know something about that.”
As always I was bowled over by the cogent insights of John Symons, one of the two people who screen the submissions prior to publication. Symons, a freelance editor and translator, is also a short story writer himself and a longtime student of serious literature. He described Nick Cataldi’s short story about a newspaper deliverer and a young would-be mugger as having a moral, without being moralizing. Symons noted a characteristic about George Point’s “Overheard at the Great Recession Cocktail Party” that I missed on first reading — that it had no narrator, but rather was constructed entirely of dialogue.
E.E. Whiting, a trusts and estates lawyer by trade (though she also has a graduate degree in mediaeval studies for good measure), now manages to plow through hefty novels that many of us read only as Cliffs Notes in our college days. Her motivation: to lighten her daily commute to northern New Jersey by listening to books on tape. One current selection: Thomas Hardy’s “The Mayor of Casterbridge.”
At the Summer Fiction reading Whiting explained that several works were selected for publication only after she and Symons recommended the excision of a few choice lines at the end. The writer of one of those works, Jim Levell, maintained that his poem, “The Deserter,” was ill served by the omission of his last four-line stanza. He read the poem in its entirety (and you now can, too, in the archives section at www.princetoninfo.com).
But Whiting stuck by her guns. Levell didn’t need to state his conclusion, she said, in effect. He had already shown it.
There was lots to learn. I admired the poem “Attack of the Trednods,” for its Lewis Carroll, “Jabberwocky” feel, even though I didn’t quite know what it was all about. Carol McAllister, the poet, was not present but sent a thank you E-mail after the event. I wrote back and asked about the poem.
“Yes, the form of the poem is referred to as a non-sense poem — which Jabberwocky is. However, strict elements of poetry are incorporated as they are in all legitimate poetry. The scansion of the poem is important: Rhythm, Rhyme, alliteration, end rhyme, middle rhyme, beats, and steps, and on and on. And it’s hard to write because the poet has to also invent new words and make the non-sense scheme into something that resembles sense.”
And one of the fun challenges of the poem, McAllister wrote, is to read it all in one breath, a little more than 100 words in 18 lines.
Our event at Tre Piani coincided with a gathering of Twitter users at Salt Creek Grille, just a few doors away. For next year’s issue I challenged Bill Waters, the writer who has delighted us with clever word plays, to create a piece of fiction that would rely entirely on 140-character, Twitter-length “tweets.”
No problem, responded Waters, and the next day he E-mailed me a link to his well established Twitter site: “I use Twitter to broadcast my haiku, which can be viewed at http://twitter.com/Bill312,” Waters wrote. “Since Twitter was a recurring theme, I know you’ll be intrigued — and possibly bemused — by this short article from NPR, ‘Sharing Culture, One Tweet at a Time’ (http://ow.ly/k5mX). Twitter, long-known as a communication medium for simple status updates, has captured the imagination of creatives of every stamp! Twitter-opera, anybody?”
My 15-year-old son, Frank, helped set up the reception at Tre Piani. In what must be described as a moment of truly wishful thinking, I wondered if perhaps he had absorbed some glimmer of light that will fuel a line of academic inquiry in the near future, much as my experience had been at that second best job ever.
Yes, second best. The best? I can only hope that I have shown what the answer should be.