Like more than a few writers I know, I got my professional start as a freelancer for a small local newspaper. It was a great crash course, better than any dozen workshops. When you’re working in a newsroom, you learn the difference between amateur and professional in a hurry.
My editor at the Record was a man named Russ, a grizzled old newsman who’d often celebrate the completion of the day’s edition with a coffee and a cigarette on the second story balcony overlooking downtown. His office was perennially stacked with papers and books, an unabridged dictionary and the ever-present AP Style Guide mixed with folders full of notes, old copies of the paper, the awards he’d received over a career.
Russ was a man of few words, but there was power and wisdom in those words. It was from Russ that I learned what’s been the single most valuable lesson of my career.
It was 8:45 on a cool Tuesday morning in September. I was in the newsroom putting the finishing touches on a story, and another freelancer was wrapping up a feature. He was a new reporter, inexperienced in the newspaper business but a local writer of some success. I can no longer remember what he was writing about that day, but he was having trouble getting it done.
Russ was prowling the newsroom, as he always did when deadlines were approaching. He came and stood behind the other reporter, looking over his shoulder. “What’s the problem?” he growled. It wasn’t an unfriendly growl, just the way Russ was when deadline drew near and he had a thousand balls in the air. It was then that the new reporter made his mistake. He muttered something about writer’s block.
Russ wasn’t a large man, but he had a big presence, and the whole newsroom came to a standstill when Russ cleared his throat. He leaned over the freelancer’s shoulder, pointed a meaty finger at the screen for emphasis when he spoke. “When it’s 15 minutes before our press deadline, and the 15-inch hole on page one is YOUR fault,” he rumbled, “writer’s block is a luxury you cannot afford.”
The other reporter stammered and fumbled for an excuse, as I recall, but I sat back in my chair, thunderstruck. I’d been a member of a local writing group for some years at that point, and cries of writer’s block were frequent excuses for failures to complete writing prompts or to bring work for critiquing. But what I realized that Tuesday was that being a professional writer wasn’t just about how well you could write. It was about mindset, about attitude. We wouldn’t accept an excuse of “mechanic’s block” from the car repair shop, or “accountant’s block” a week before tax day. Writing is no different – being a professional writer means delivering the goods when you’re tired, or bored, or feeling uninspired. For a professional writer, the solution to writer’s block is to keep on writing.
The wayward article got finished that morning, and we made our press deadline. I knew we would, of course. Russ would’ve rolled up his sleeves and started dictating himself, if he needed to, because missing deadline was never an option. And along the way, everyone in that newsroom learned an important lesson: Writer’s block simply isn’t good enough.
Russ is gone now, a victim of quick-moving cancer six or so years ago. God, how I miss him.