Saturday, August 11, 2012

Writer's Block

            “What’s that in the bowl?”
            My journalist friend and I were looking at a photo taken at my first real job, when I was a copy boy at The News-Sentinel in Knoxville. I was the first female copy boy they’d ever had, so the reporters often shouted “Boy! I mean Girl!”
            “It’s a paste pot,” I said.
            “A PASTE pot?”
            “We pasted the pages end to end and cut off the bottom with a column rule. I was probably doing television listings.”
            “Well, we all had to do television listings,” she said, laughing.
            A couple of years ago, I started a mystery novel set at a big newspaper in the old days. I have a large binder full of notes, lists, and false starts. The story is about a crazed concrete worker who wants to be a famous artist, and a cub reporter who winds up naked in a vat of plaster of Paris.
            What I really wanted to write about was how newspapers used to be in the days before computers, in the days where almost everybody read newspapers and most people took them seriously. The crash of the Linotype machines, the sucking sound of the pneumatic tubes which delivered things between the newsroom and the composing room, the throb of the presses: That's what I wanted to write about.
            The first poem I had published was about those sounds. Graphic Arts Monthly bought the poem and sent me a check for what it called my “filler.”
            I don’t much care about the story line of the mystery, and it shows. The reporter’s name has changed several times, her grandmother has moved from Knoxville to San Francisco and back, and even the seasons have progressed rapidly from spring to winter. I have a dozen Chapter Ones.
            We had five deadlines a day at The News-Sentinel (as well as a policy that the “T” in “The” had to be capitalized.) I pestered C.W. Orcutt, the managing editor, for a job while he was on the Home Edition deadline, and I think he hired me just to get me out of his chair. I joined the Newspaper Guild. Once a week I picked up my paycheck, $49 minus Guild dues, for five eight-hour days a week on swing shift.
            I still dream about The News-Sentinel. Sometimes I have been away on assignment and haven’t been paid for a long time. Someone in the newsroom tells me where the cashier is located, since the building has changed. Sometimes I have moved back to Knoxville and the paper has hired me back, the way they did when I came back from Greece. Some times I am worried because I have lost my notes or missed a deadline.
            Maybe that’s what I need in order to finish my mystery novel: A deadline. Or maybe a paste pot.