The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Ah, the Glamorous Life of a ‘Writer’!

Posted on | March 17, 2020 | 1 Comment

Roger Simon on “self-quarantining” as a novelist:

I know — it’s hard to look at the bright side of a pandemic. But take it from someone who has self-quarantined for the better part of fifty years, it’s not always so bad.
That’s what professional writers do, sit alone in a room and work (or try to) for hours on end.
I didn’t realize at roughly age fifteen when I fell in love with the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Chandler that the writer’s life was one of loneliness. I thought it was about attracting Bennington undergrads at cocktail parties by bragging about your (unfinished) novel when you weren’t dreaming up your Oscar speech.
I learned quickly.

I never dreamed of being a “professional writer.” My career plan as a teenager was to become a rock-and-roll star, making multi-platinum records, traveling the world, having sex with beautiful groupies. Bennington undergrads? Wow, Roger, talk about aiming low. Anyway, for a few years, I lived a low-budget version of the rock-and-roll dream until, at age 26, I got a job at a weekly newspaper in Austell, Georgia.

Being a local newspaper reporter isn’t as lonely as writing novels. You work in an office with other people, you leave the office to interview sources and cover events, and then return to the office to try to file some kind of coherent account before deadline. It was actually kind of fun, especially when I covered sports. After a year or so working in the suburbs of Atlanta, I became sports editor of the Calhoun Times, where in addition to writing, I took along my 35mm camera and got photos as well. In a small town, a local sports editor quickly becomes friendly with all the high-school coaches, and the players and their parents, too. How I loved the “hospitality room” at the annual Calhoun High School basketball tournament! There was a sort of potluck buffet provided by the Booster Club, so for three days in December, I ate for free.

Oh, sweet delicious memories . . .

Is there any gig in journalism as sweet as a small-town sports editor? I realized rather quickly that the secret was to write up each game as if it were crucial, and to hype up the players as if they were celebrities. The top scorer for a high-school basketball team is, in his own mind (and the minds of his parents and peers), a future NBA All-Star, so when Timmy Starr scored 23 points to lead Fairmount High to victory over Banks County, I’d feature a big photo of Timmy with a big headline and a story that conveyed the excitement felt by the most enthusiastic Fairmount fan. Then there was Shea Thurman, the girls’ track phenom at Gordon Central. When she captured four medals at the state track meet, I wrote it up as if she had just returned in triumph from the Olympics.

Here I’ll quote Hunter S. Thompson:

There was a time, about ten years ago, when I could write like Grantland Rice. Not necessarily because I believed all that sporty bullshit, but because sportswriting was the only thing I could do that anybody was willing to pay for. And none of the people I wrote about seemed to give a hoot in hell what kind of lunatic gibberish I wrote about them, just as long as it moved. They wanted Action, Color, Speed, Violence…. At one point, in Florida, I was writing variations on the same demented themes for three competing papers at the same time, under three different names. I was a sports columnist for one paper in the morning, sports editor for another in the afternoon, and at night I worked for a pro wrestling promoter, writing incredibly twisted “press releases” that I would plant, the next day, in both papers.

Alas, there was no professional wrestling in Gordon County, Georgia, but there was a motocross track, and rec-league softball in the summer, and dear God help me, bowling leagues. The secretaries of the leagues would bring their weekly results to the newspaper office, and my job included typing all those results into the system.

Talk about your life of loneliness! You have no idea how tedious it is to be what is referred to in the sports-journalism racket as an “agate maggot.” The box scores, league standings and schedules which fill up one page of your daily newspaper sports section are in what used to be called “agate” type. Somebody has to compile all that agate, and on a large newspaper, this task is assigned to the lowest man on the staff totem pole. At a local weekly paper — do such things still exist? — the sports editor is a one-man staff, and so my job description included typing in bowling league results every week. You could not avoid this task, which required diligence and attention to detail because any error or omission in the printed results would summon the wrath of the bowling-league secretaries, who read every week’s paper with a hawk-eye scrutiny.

Years of typing in bowling league results are like the scars of a combat veteran. Having done my service as an “agate maggot,” I have a lofty contempt for these kids who think their degrees from some elite journalism school entitle them to be political pundits at age 23.

As Professor Reynolds says, Twitter is a “virus of the mind” — any arrogant punk can offer his “hot take” on national issues and attract a following by substituting cleverness for genuine knowledge. You never have to leave the basement, just bleat your partisan snark into the online echo-chamber 280 characters at a time, without doing any work at all. Sorry to sound like a grumpy analog-era fossil, but what these Twitter pundits need is the humiliating experience of being assigned to do some of the obscure drudgery of journalism, reporting on stuff that only the locals care about, or maybe typing in bowling-league results.

These punks have not paid their dues, you see, which is why so much of what they spew out on Twitter is full of errors and spin. They imagine themselves to be “experts” on whatever the story of the day is, so the same Twitter “hot take” crowd who were posing as experts on Ukraine policy a few weeks ago are now experts on epidemiology, and as long as they keep getting a certain number of likes and retweets, their phony expertise is as influential as any other Twitter pundit’s.

Ultimately, all these punks are angling for a cable-TV news gig. They picture themselves on the set of Morning Joe, or being interviewed on CNN by Don Lemon, and this dream of pundit glory signifies to them what “Bennington undergrads” once signified to a teenage Roger Simon, or what the rock-and-roll lifestyle once signified to me. So the Twitter “hot take” is never just 280 characters, but rather an audition for an MSNBC job, and should be discounted accordingly.

Myself, I never harbored such ambitions. I’m just a guy who writes words for a living, and over the years I have learned that the ambition of political influence is fool’s gold. What did Max Boot obtain by his “influence”? A share of the blame for the Iraq War debacle, and the eternal scorn of conservatives once he turned against his former friends.

So I’m never going to change the world, I’m never going to be sitting on the “curvy couch” at Fox & Friends, and I can’t do anything to halt the spread of the Wuhan coronavirus. All I can do is to remind you that the Five Most Important Words in the English Language are:



Thanks for your support. It’s better than typing bowling-league results.



One Response to “Ah, the Glamorous Life of a ‘Writer’!”

  1. Friday Links | 357 Magnum
    March 20th, 2020 @ 9:49 pm

    […] Again from The Other McCain – Ah, the Glamorous Life of a ‘Writer’! […]