Years ago, I was privileged to be mentored by the celebrated author and critic, Charles Lamb Crostini. Chuck, as I referred to him only under my breath, insisted the most daunting task any writer could ever undertake would be to compose his own obituary. Being young, therefore ignorantly invincible, I took the maestro up on his challenge.
Lee Allen Hill was a prince among men . . .
"Crap on crap cracker!" he croaked. "What the hell do you know out princes . . . or being a man?"
"What evidence do you possess to support your lame contention that Lee Allen Hill was a prince among men?"
"Uh, I am Lee Allen Hill. Prince-ness runs in my family."
Chuck shook his head. "You're Lee Allen Hill at twenty-three, remember? 'Prince among men' suits you like a tutu on a puppy."
I couldn't argue. Instead, I stalled for time, sharpening my pencil. "But I'm not dead yet. I plan to grow into my many accolades."
He waved at me, as if my breath was bad. "But what if you died today? What do you say about yourself now?"
I shivered. "Die today? Nope. That's not on the agenda."
"Dying is never on anyone's to do list. Still, we all do it. What would you say about the dead you today?"
"I don't know. The world is a sadder place? He had tremendous potential?"
"Platitude and speculation. More crap--and no trace of a cracker. Twenty-three years on this planet, and all you can offer is a worn cliche and wild speculation?"
I gathered myself. "But this is just a . . . morbid exercise. I have plenty of time to do something. I have plenty of time to make an impact."
"You don't know that."
I grinned, not without malice. "Ah, but the actuarial tables do, and they're pretty emphatic. I've got a good fifty years to write my obituary. I'll accomplish plenty."
"Okay, okay. I get your point, Chuckles. Some people die young. Not me, though."
"That's what King Tut said. And Romeo. And Joan of Arc. Immortality has nothing to do with how long you can hold your breath, smart guy. The folks I mentioned never got the chance to imagine their obituaries. I'm giving you that opportunity. What would you write?"
I nearly burst a blood vessel refraining from mentioning that Romeo was fictional. "How the hell do I know? I can't predict the future."
Chuck sucked his teeth. "I'm sorry. I thought you were more of a writer than that."
I shook a fist. "I'm a damned fine writer, damn it. But I'm not going to write my own obituary. That's somebody else's job."
"Really? Is that what you think?"
He'd backed me into a corner--whether they know it or not, everyone is constantly writing his or her own obituary. "Fine. Fine. If I had to write my obituary today, I guess it'd read, 'He shouldn't have taken his time on Earth for granted.'"
"Okay. Not bad."
I snorted. "Glad you like it. Personally, I'm bummed out. That's not exactly the way I want to be remembered."
"I'm not surprised. But maybe, you can write a better obituary tomorrow."
"Oh, yeah? You think I'm going to win Pulitzer and Nobel overnight?"
He tugged at his hairy ear. "No, I guess not. But you might write a killer sentence, or two."
I caught on. "Ah! So, this whole obituary thing is just your morbid version of 'The longest journey begins with the first step'?"
"Well, it does, doesn't it?"
"So, what's with all this obituary, Buddy Holly, James Dean crap?"
"Do you know when you're going to die?"
"According to the actuarial tables, you mean?"
"No. According to the Life-is-a-Fickle-Son-of-a-Bitch tables."
"You're saying I might die young?"
"It's been known to happen. Why leave behind an empty obituary?"
"An empty obit? Well, if I'm dead, what do I care?"
"That's the crux of the issue, isn't it?"
"You're telling me to work harder."
"No. I'm making a suggestion."
"Do you still want me to write my obituary?"
"No. I just want you to think about it. Meanwhile, you've got more honest work to do."
Be honest. How many times have you dashed off a story, essay or poem, given it a quick once-over and submitted it without another thought? How many times have those same compositions lost contests, been rejected by editors or been picked apart by reviewers? Worse, how many times have you received a condescending pat on the head instead of heartfelt congratulations?
Embarrassing? Frustrating? You bet your Aunt Fanny. Avoidable? Absolutely!
Why do novice writers do such a pitiful job of self-editing?
N.K., our venerable publisher, executive editor and paymaster, tells us even editors need editors. She's not wrong! (And I'm not saying that just for the PayPal deposit.) No one can, with any certainty, successfully self-edit new material. It takes time for the brain to forget what we meant to say and let us see what’s actually on the page. It takes time and tweaking—sometimes, lots of tweaking—for the cacophony of creation to be poked and prodded into a well-orchestrated symphony. How much time depends on our mastery of writing’s mechanics and how quickly we can transition from doting parent to objective self-evaluator. With experience--or the mixed blessing of age-related forgetfulness--we can shorten the time it takes to get from okay to yes! But few of us can manage it within a day.
Wisdom tells us to always sleep on an important decision before carrying through. What can be more important than committing a part of ourselves to writing and sharing it with others? What can be so important that we must say it now if we can say it better in the morning? After The house is on fire! I can't think of a single thing.
First celebrate. Then scrape yourself off the ceiling and get to work. Like everything else about the writing life, getting a press pass is fun but also involves hard work.
You are recognized as a real writer. Now you need to work like one. Sit down and figure out what expenses you will need to cover. These would include, travel to and from the event, parking, transportation around the event, and food. Some magazines cover expenses but most don’t. Don’t forget things like babysitting, hotel rooms, and possibly time away from that boring job that pays the bills. Make an estimate beforehand and then double that to include possible minor emergencies, like you need photos and your phone isn’t good enough, the babysitter can’t come and you have to cover an event measured in dozens of acres with an infant in a sling or the car breaks down right before the event. (All things that have happened to me.) The number you get is the amount of money you need to make from this event to make a profit. Most events are going to have to spawn at least two articles for you to get ahead.
Now start your research. Look at all the maps and schedules you can get online ahead of time. Take a deep breath and resign yourself to the fact that you won’t be able to see everything you want to, whether this is a one-day event in a hotel or a weeklong event in a huge area. Don’t be fooled by small events. They are often the most time packed. Your focus has to be determined by who you’re covering the event for. If you’re covering an event for a magazine for the handicapped you might be counting wheelchair accessible port-a-potties during an airshow. That too is part of being a professional writer. Make out a personal schedule ahead of time and mark out a route and then a second route. If it is spread out area or your hotel is far from the event, check out what transportation is running. Can you ride-share? Is there a bus? How late do the taxies run? What are the alternatives? Busses, trams, even elevators can be too full. If you know alternate routes, you might be the one to get that big scoop. It’s good to have your second tier of events also written down so that you can get to some of those too. Don’t fill out your whole schedule; things can change fast. Leave some room for pop-up events or sudden changes. Some events have a downloadable app with schedule changes on it. Remember to be gentle with yourself and check distances. You will want some conditioning ahead of time for some of the more spread out events. Large events can involve walking for miles. Make sure you have good shoes and stay hydrated.
Check all the rules and conditions; where do you need to go to get admission tickets, armbands etc? The sooner you can get these, the better. At EAA AirVenture only the first half of the journalists to register get free parking. Many places give freebies with these like special guides, coupons and other offers. You will need personal ID to get your press pass. It may be a paper card like you saw in the Superman cartoons but more likely it will be a plastic tag on a neckband. Whatever it is, hang on to it. They are rarely replaceable.
If this is a well-known event try to figure out what the slant is that no one else has written on. Check for little known areas, look for subgroups within the bigger event. This can also be good for those other articles you have to sell. For example, if I cover EAAirVenture for a sci/fi mag; I might find the missionary doctors covering the medical building and get an article for a religious magazine or go down to the campground and get pictures of a homemade RV. Look for subgroups by age, too. Kid’s magazines are interested in programs that get kids flying and magazines for the elderly would love a story on the UFO’s. (In Oshkosh, that’s the United Flying Octogenarians.)
Don’t forget the people who put the event together, whether paid or volunteer. They have background that can help you understand an event in general and can help you get to places or people that you couldn’t find on your own. Lines can blur here because some places will let reporters also be volunteers and then you can get into special meals or other perks. The question can be do you want to be an outside observer or deeply embedded. Both can be good. The last day of events can be a good time to interview the organizers. You can also find people doing jobs that can get boring, like checking ID’s or passing out papers and talk with them.
Next check the rules for journalists. Can you do open interviews with people you meet or are interviews only allowed at certain times and places? Is there a seating chart at press conferences? Can you ask for autographs from famous people that are attending the event or is there a set time for this? What are the rules on photos? Can they be resold? A good rule of thumb is that any remarks not made at a formal press conference are generally considered “off the record”. You can quote it and say where it was said but normally only the person’s title is given, not their name. (For example, an FAA official said, “It’s a good thing no one reported that to the FAA or there would have been trouble.” And yes, I heard that.)
And that leads to another big issue for writers, ethics. Specifically, bribery. All those people giving you free food and trinkets are looking to get something from you. Sometimes it’s as small as, “Please attend our press conference so that the number of people we report to our boss sounds better.” and sometimes it’s “Now that you’ve eaten a meal from our resort, tell your readers how good we are.” And then there is the bribe that is your press pass. (And it is a bribe.) Most places will expect to get a copy of the article or a link to it so it’s best to remember that. It’s best to have a plan ahead of time about bribes while your head is clear. (Especially if the bribe is margaritas.) Some travel magazines don’t want you to take any freebies. Some are fine with it if you say what they are. I have made a reverse expense account for an editor where I detailed all the gifts I was given. Other times I remember the attitude of a Mexican official that I saw. Someone asked if he took bribes and he said, “Yes.” He took their money, but when they asked to go to front of the line, he said, “You asked if I took bribes, not if it would help you.” And walked away. Sometimes for a writer this is a good attitude. As long as you don’t say it out loud.
Again, congratulations. Now, get to work.
Often, I’m asked how I get published so much. What is my key to success? Whenever I’m asked about finding markets, submitting, or habitually writing and rewriting my stories, I think back to yesteryear--- to my childhood and to certain vignettes where my mom imparted her modus vivendi on to me.
“I earned my Phi Beta Kappa Key the hard way!” Dad said, as he flipped the brats on the grill, with Mom holding a platter standing nearby. Her lips turned down.
“How’s that?” a friend of Mom’s asked.
“I married it!”
The jest elicited a laugh, a roll of the eyes from Mom, and the dimpled grin of Dad. As Mom and I carried trays back inside, she whispered to me. “That joke of your father’s gets old.”
Mom was proud of her piece of metal touting her academic prowess once- upon- a time. She pinned it on her 1960’s Jackie O look- alike suits she wore to PTA meetings. She thought the shiny key might impress her students’ parents. Sadly, most didn’t know the significance of her jewelry from Duke.
“Ambitious,” the word, hardly did my mom’s eager beaver attitude justice. As a child, she’d been doted on by parents who didn’t much like each other, but thought their daughter hung the moon. Affection they withheld from each other, they poured on her. Money they didn’t have to spend, they spent on her. Fashionable clothes, private lessons, and an elite college all took cash- mostly inheritance gained from selling farmland. In turn, she made them proud.
When Mom played the accordion at a get-together, folks commented: “Oh, Shirley, I wish I had your musical talent.”
In private, Mom said to me, “Talent? Humph! I practiced day in, day out. Nights, too. For years! That’s what a lonely girl does when she has no sisters or brothers to play with.”
At a barbecue, another pal, a stay- at -home mom remarked: “Shirley, you’re fortunate you have a gift for languages.”
Mom just smiled, but I knew what she was thinking because I’d heard her many times before say to me: “Luck has nothing to do with it! Rote memorization and drill do! If she’d fallen asleep each night clutching her Spanish text book, she’d be ‘gifted’ too.”
My dad’s one sister, who never learned to operate an automobile with any proficiency, opined, “I wish I had the courage to drive to the shore with the kids, like Shirley.” Mom didn’t think it took courage to drive to Island Beach, New Jersey. Kids need to go to the beach so you take them was her philosophy.
“Isn’t it something, Shirley, the way you hold down a job, raise three kids, and care for your elderly mom?” another neighbor gushed as she looked over at my grandma sitting in a chair being served sauerkraut and sausages by Dad.
Mom held the warm German potato salad that she got up early that morning to prepare, so it would be fresh. “You could do the same thing!” she answered the seated lady as Mom bent over to spoon the sour and sweet spud mélange onto the guest’s plate.
My mother never acknowledged limitations. She never mulled around feeling incapable. She epitomized the Nike Ad “Just Do It” before the saying became a mantra. Whenever Mom joined an organization, immediately she was elected to a position of authority. “Those Germans sized your mother up right away when we joined the Steuben Society. They made her secretary, and your mom began adding German poetry to the newsletters. Your mom could take a job, excel in it, and expand it,” Dad remembered.
Mom was a hound dog for sniffing out a buck. Not only did she work all week teaching high school students Spanish and German, but on Saturdays she taught German at Spractschule and on weeknights she tutored paying college students in Spanish.
Mom didn’t suffer from fear of success. She was the ultimate over-achiever. “When your mom and I started dating, she flew gliders. It made me dizzy watching her from the ground. She almost hit high tension wires once,” Dad reminisced. Mom wasn’t scared of the unknown, of rejection, or of doing too much. She grabbed life by the horns and wrestled it into submission.
I wish I’d had more time with her. She was the “supermom” before the term was coined. The little free time Mom had was split between my siblings and me, Dad, grandma, in-laws, her friends, her obligations, chores, and church. At 18, I was off to college--her alma mater; a career--teaching; marriage and family. Mom got sick before I finished having children.
In her final year, 1986, Dad had to make a business trip to Japan which would last a month.
“Your mother’s not going on that?” my mother-in-law inquired with a look of disbelief.
“No one can stop her!” I answered.
At the time, I worried the trek would aggravate her disease and cause it to spread. Perhaps, it did. Who knows? What is known is she had a ball astonishing all the Japanese men with how fast she picked up expressions and culture. Women were not allowed to attend meetings and dinners, but the board chairman took a shine to her, and he’d say, “Mrs. Vogel, you sit next to me at the table.” When I saw my folks after their return, Dad glowingly recited the compliments paid her.
Mom confessed: “Erika, I listened to those tapes day and night just so I could say the most mundane things! Japanese is not easy to learn!” Mom shook her head while divulging her secret study habit.
My mother and I differ in a lot of ways, but I hope she looks down at her daughter now and sees a bit of that tenacity, perseverance, and “can do” attitude she was either blessed with or learned on her own by repetition, will power, and the never flagging adoption of a positive attitude. Mom wrung the last little ounce out of every opportunity she stumbled upon.
Every so often over the last 30 years, Ill reach in the back of my dresser drawer and pull out a velvet box. I’ll open it and peer down at the gold key. I’ve never taken it out. Of all the things left me, this little piece of metal means the most because it symbolizes what she valued: perseverance, excellence, and recognition for a job well done. I gaze at it, her beloved Phi Beta Kappa Key, and it unlocks treasured memories, and I see her again.
Lee Allen Hill is just a leftover hippie with a penchant for word-slinging.