This Week's Question: First Paid Gig
This week’s question for Pandemic Baseball Book Club authors: What was your first paid writing assignment?
In 1995 I was part of a group of playwrights that staged shows at a church in Albany, NY. I wrote a play in which Allen Ginsberg and (fantasy-baseball fanatic) Jack Kerouac have a protracted dialogue in a city dump about the meaning of life after one of them finds a sunflower growing inside the hull of a television. The review called the setting of the play "ironically symbolic of the piece as a whole." I believe I got $25.
My first paid writing gig was with Rant Sports while I was in college. It wasn’t the model of wonderful journalism that everyone dreams of, but it taught me how to successfully develop my own story ideas. The quick-hitting pieces I wrote for Rant Sports helped me see that my passion was actually for long-form storytelling, which ultimately resulted in my debut book a few months ago.
My first paid gig was a summer job at a weekly shopper — a publication made up mostly of advertisements in Plantation, FL — after my first year of college. There were three of us on staff. The editor was the hefty, bespectacled ex-husband of my high school algebra teacher/softball coach. The other staffer was a lonely 40-something woman with long, thinning blond hair. I loved them both. My job was mostly rewriting the police blotter. What better assignment is there on a small-town paper? Occasionally I'd have to cover city council meetings, which is the reason I ended up being a sportswriter: No city council meetings.
As a college student I covered sports for the Santa Cruz Sentinel, including attending an open tryout for the just-formed Florida Marlins in 1992. The sports editor had his pick of two young freelancers to send, and explained to me that I was his choice because, while the other guy had a better chance at getting noticed by scouts, I had a better chance at filing decent copy. How’d the tryout go? From the ensuing story: “If my performance on the field was an automobile, it would be a 1932 Studebaker with four flat tires, a thrown rod and an A.M. radio stuck on an easy listening station. If it was a presidential candidate, it would be Walter Mondale. If it was this article, I would continue to stack up heinous similes.” The piece, featuring a photo of me looking relatively forlorn, anchored the Sunday sports page and was titled “A Fish Out of Water.” At least the check cleared.
My first paid writing gig was at Associated Press in July 1998. I helped write the "Baseball Today" feature that appeared on the box-score pages of daily tabloids across the country. What a thrill it was to pick up the newspaper for the first time and say, "Hey, I wrote that!"
The first time I fully realized that there could be monetary rewards for my writing occurred when I was a student at Virginia Tech, covering the baseball team against Clemson. I was asked by The State newspaper in Columbia, SC, to do a story each day of the three-game set. It was nice to feel connected to another school … and to get enough money to refill my meal plan for a couple of days, at least.
The first time I was paid to write was the stipend I received for working at the Diamondback, the student newspaper at the University of Maryland, which involved writing, editing and working in the production shop until 3 a.m., putting our daily newspaper to bed. It convinced me journalism was my future.
The story that stands out above others was a profile I wrote about Tom McMillen, who was among several stars playing for one of the best basketball teams in the nation. We were both seniors, but that’s where our similarities ended. McMillen had been recruited by 350 schools, graced the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high school senior and spent his summer mapping his path to a Rhodes Scholarship. I worked at a machine shop and spent my downtime sending resumes to just about every newspaper in America.
This was my first big story for the Diamondback, the cover for our special section on the coming basketball season. I was nervous, and I learned an important lesson: When you shake hands with someone who is 6-foot-11, you need to stand back further than usual. If you don’t, you wind up talking into his naval. Which is exactly what happened. Tom instantly picked up on my nervousness and worked to help me relax. We sat in the lobby of McMillen’s dorm and spoke for more than an hour. He knew the angle of my story: Maryland fans were disappointed that Bill Walton, not McMillen, had become the best player in college basketball. Despite the tough angle, McMillen spoke openly and honestly. If only the many thousands of men and women I would interview over the following four decades were that cooperative.
My first paid story came when I started working as a research editor (read: fact checker, a position that, sadly, barely exists anymore) at Islands Magazine, a travel publication. I was delighted when the editor-in-chief gave me a shot to write a 200-word sidebar. I think it was something about how different ethnic groups populated the Pacific Islands in waves. I was so excited to see my name in print in a national magazine that I had my parents go down to the local bookstore to see it for themselves. Of course they bought copies and showed everyone, which took quite a lot of effort considering there was no Facebook or Twitter in those days.
In my mid-20s I was hired to design the logo for a recreational cooking school in Santa Cruz, CA. The owner asked if I'd be willing to write a monthly newsletter. My whole life I'd been encouraged to write by teachers and professors, but they’d never mentioned money. So for two years I wrote a monthly cooking school newsletter, for $75 a pop. As with many design jobs, I soon realized that all creative endeavors are not created equal, but I nonetheless learned a lot during that time. Still, I swear to gourd, if I ever have to write a punny headline featuring seasonal produce again, I'll explode.
My first paid writing gig was at The Daily, the University of Washington’s school newspaper. But that's a boring answer, so I'll give a slightly better one: My sophomore year, I covered the school baseball team, an otherwise unremarkable group except for the presence of a really good right-handed pitcher you might remember named Tim Lincecum. That year, I got to write an article on Lincecum for a now-defunct Mariners magazine called The Grand Salami. It was my first time in a magazine, and it was cool as hell. The Mariners, of course, passed on drafting the local boy in favor of Brandon Morrow. The rest is history.
Right outta high school I became a stringer at the Redwood City Tribune, covering mostly high school sports for between $15 and $25 a game. I loved basketball season because just a year earlier I’d played against the guys I was covering. (I also played baseball, but we staffed relatively few baseball games.) Bob Melvin was a two-sport star at Menlo-Atherton High, and between the third and fourth quarters of one game he sidled up to me and asked, “Hey, Chris, how many points do I have?” Two other distinctive aspects of the job: 1) We wrote our stories using carbon paper, proving that I need carbon dating to measure my age, and 2) I received excellent editing, which helped me grasp certain writing basics—mainly from a guy named Mike, who a couple of years later vanished briefly and came back as Michelle.