Monday, December 17, 2018

Dec 17: Jennie Ziegler on Nora Ephron and Indulging Old Aches

La Lune de Ephron

There’s an old ache I indulge every so often, when it’s late or early or noon—an ache that grandly I dub the greatest hiccup of my life. Journalism.
     I do not regret falling into teaching. I do not regret my students, who honor me with their patience, minds, and hope. I’ve had wonderful teachers and know their impact, and hope that I may act in a similar position for each student who enrolls into my courses. And though I was warned about the thorny path of academia: the dead-end positions of non-tenure track, the risks for women (I still get physically patted on the head in meetings), the low pay, the anger over grades—there are many wonders of this job not solely limited to watching a student excel or graduate—or finding a book they fell in love with.
     But there’s a part of me.
     A rather large part.
     That wishes I had stayed in journalism.
     When I was completing my undergrad (in English rather than journalism) at The Ohio State University, I had the pleasure of working with Lee Martin and the late author Okla Elliott. While some of my other excellent teachers cautioned me against going into graduate school immediately after college, Elliott and Martin both offered me an option of a different path than Ph.D. glory or the fiction-based MFA I once dreamed of pursuing. “Creative nonfiction” felt brand new to me—and I had only completed one or two workshops of it during my stay at OSU. I was writing it anyways, as most undergrads do, in my fiction workshops—thinly veiled essays-as-stories. When it came time to either making a return to the East Coast or start filling out applications, I was a bit desperate to keep moving further and further away from my hometown and what seemed like everyone’s (and my own) deep skepticism of a girl wanting to pursue something as cute, as desperate as writing about blue collar cities and blue collar ways.
     In the year that I enrolled into Martin’s nonfiction workshop, I was accepted into a summer Features internship at my hometown newspaper in eastern Pennsylvania, which has a daily circulation of roughly 80,000. Begun in the mid-to-late 19th century, it now ranks among the nation’s top-100 largest-circulation newspapers, though that particular fact doesn’t matter much to this essay. Nor does it matter here that the paper once had an evening edition, when it was the norm for most papers to have at one point or another. It was one of the first to run the Peanuts comics. And its current name, given to it by a child who won a local contest during a rebranding initiative, doesn’t matter much here either. But I am compelled to mark its commonplace history, even if briefly, since in 2000 it was bought out by Tribune, as so many were, and I shuffled into its machine two years later. It was the time when structural changes were being slowly rolled out throughout the company and the lay-offs began. The time before it felt like the newsroom, the newspaper, and the entire industry all changed.
     And certainly it was the summer of great change, at least personally. Not only was this my first internship, but I was also in the throes of my first heartbreak: a high school sweetheart of four years and the simultaneous loss of a friend to a maybe-maybe-not suicide. When my newspaper printed the obit, my friend’s death suddenly made real and public, I carefully clipped it and pinned it to my cubicle, dully aware of the oddity of the action, of life.
     The newsroom was thrilling and it may have been the first and last time I fell into a career not by happenstance but by a full-brimmed love. A deep, deep love that saturated itself into the years of my life, like smooth liqueur piped into cake. I’d get in early every day, trying to make it downtown in my beat plum Jetta, which I kept running on mechanical tape and Boyz II Men cassette tapes. Arriving at my desk in Features first, I’d squeak a mouse hello as reporters and copy-editors and editors and sub-editors spilled out of elevators, shoulders squared, footsteps quick, hands immediately darting towards computers, phones, papers. Each morning, when the newsroom was still quiet and relatively empty, I would walk through the cubicles, noting the reporters’ desks, the “SO WHAT?” post-its that everyone taped to their monitors, to grab a warm copy of the day’s newspaper. This was a wonder: a freshly printed newspaper. For a few blissful moments, the only sound I heard was the quiet rustling of pages. It was tradition to read it through in the newsroom—under the fluorescent lights, sitting in fabric-coated cubicles, ink scenting our fingertips.
     I completed my assignments early and quickly, and then would sit and read—which would prompt some reporters to stack more assignments on my desk, which I would also quickly complete, fearful of asking too many questions (or any at all) and overreacting in a tight, blue panic at any story that seemed imminent to our local lives, which seemed like all of them. I made mistakes. I was desperately afraid of the telephone. But it was kindling. I often watched the reporter in the next cubicle to me, a kind man who, when he had the time, took me under his wing, acted the Prometheus, and gave me suggestions for edits and story ideas. After each morning read-through, he would ask a follow-up question aloud to himself. It may have been related to what he was reading—or not. Once he asked me if I knew what the purpose of yawning was after we had succumbed to it a few times, a domino spill of breath. I looked at him blankly, desperately wishing I did, so I could offer something other than my blonde hair, my mouth open like a carp, because someone there had spoken directly to me, thinking I knew something about…well, about anything. I watched him rush onto the phone and call up a contact at the local hospital, already wearing his pencil onto white creamy sheets of paper. This was how it was done: this was how they did it, I thought then: this curiosity of and about the world. Anything could begin it. It seemed so simple! So brave. Ask questions and chase them down. It was more than hunting, stringing our bows, our fingers along keys. It was a possession.
     In “Journalism: A Love Story,” Nora Ephron summarizes and briefly examines not only her history as a journalist in the 1960s, but also the nature of what it is to be a reporter, a writer, an essayist:
It was exciting in its own self-absorbed way, which is very much the essence of journalism: you truly come to believe that you are living in the center of the universe and that the world out there is on tenterhooks waiting for the next copy of whatever publication you work at.
Besides being surprised that it’s “tenterhooks” and not “tenderhooks,” I could have danced when I first came across Ephron’s “creative nonfiction” essays about her start in journalism. It read like the kind of love I had for that time in my life: newly single, unsure about anything in the future, but finding rhythm and importance in the news and confidence in the training of my own writing. And there’s nothing—absolutely nothing—like being in a newsroom, alight with research, lit faces in computer glows, phones buzzing, printers quacking in the background, a man named Jack yelling across City into Crime, and TVs and windows to the outside world on mute, largely ignored.
I loved the Post. Of course, it was a zoo. The editor was a sexual predator. The managing editor was a lunatic. Sometimes it seemed that half the staff was drunk. But I loved my job. In my first year there, I learned how to write, which I barely knew when I began.
In the essay, Ephron details a success story: her rise from mail girl to researcher at Newsweek, and her transition over to the New York Post. And I think often of this moment in her life when she quit Newsweek because they wouldn’t let a woman write or let a woman become a reporter. The moment she decided something momentous. To go were they would let her write. She describes this act in an earlier essay “The Story of My Life in 3,500 Words or Less”:
I write a story. I think it’s funny. I turn it in. I hear laughter from the city desk. They think it’s funny too. I am hired permanently. I have never been happier. I have achieved my life’s ambition and I am twenty-two years old.
In classic Ephron style, she then lists the stumbling blocks of that achieving that dream, the varied roll-her-eyes consequences—but it’s as if she was divining any young writer’s dream. To be on a “30 under 30” list. To achieve a career in writing. To be thought of as funny, therefore witty, therefore educated, therefore worthy to the world in some way that is meaningful and also yours alone. These dreams shift, or they don’t. But it’s that hope: that hope of connection with an audience who can associate, in some small human way.

*

As Ephron would say about the ‘60s, a sentiment which still holds true: “It was a given in those days that if you were a woman and you wanted to do certain things, you were going to have to be an exception to the rule.”
     Her quitting Newsweek is an act that may seem minor to some audiences. But for many women, this is such a large risk: to start over, to jump without financial security or expectation of landing anywhere viable.
     I wish I had many things: financial security, really a trust fund, but mostly a savings account, maybe some investments—just so my hand will stop shaking every time I open bills and monthly student loan debt reminders. I wish my out-of-sync heart would stop suddenly spiking its own pulse wildly whenever I went out to the mailbox. Mostly, I wish for a backbone and gumption. And I constantly ask myself if I do have that same power over my own life as it reads that Ephron had. It never feels like it, though I’m sure that’s just reason talking.
     I wish for possession.

*

I remember asking around, early in my time at the paper, where the newspaper store was. Where did people go to buy mementos? Did we have a neon-titled shop on the first floor that I missed? Online commerce by that point was still relatively new, and my aging East Coast city, nestled snug among the eastern Appalachian mountains, would keep its local stores alive until Amazon took wide control and pruned them from their neighborhoods like the dying roots they were. Most of the people I asked—the two editors I wasn’t shy to the point of muteness with—looked at me blankly before telling me to go look for my own contact—even for this. So I e-mailed around and found someone—a slightly surprised woman who scheduled an appointment to walk in silence to a dark backroom. I dug around some faintly damp cardboard boxes for a sweatshirt and a mug. Believe me, I wanted all the gear—even the never-fits-well-polo shirt or the extra-extra-extra large t-shirts of a charity fundraiser that was dated two years prior. But I was already deeply embarrassed about my ask over how I should pay (cash that went directly into her hand) that I didn’t look back after scooting out of the room.
     I still have that mug and that sweatshirt, which has strange proportions, which may explain shoving them into a forgotten storeroom—I have long arms, which, according to my closet, is apparently rare in humans, especially in female humans, and the fabrics of my sleeves never quite hit my wrist bones, but this particular piece is on its own level. The sleeves cut off another inch or two short that my wrists—though not short enough for it to be considered ¾ of a sleeve, which would at least be a style embraced by most of society. Nope. And the body! The body ballooned out strangely like a fishbowl around my torso and began to end a little north of my waist, so that it was a touch longer than a crop top. I got the medium, too, and I am normally a small, so I have no idea what the actual size of this thing is. I keep it, though I never wear it, in my “active” pile of sweatshirts (quantity: two—turns out, you never need winter gear even in northern Florida, which was my latest move from Arizona from Ohio from Pennsylvania—more commonplace history). My mug is packed away somewhere in the garage. It would make me sad to look at it, I reason, so I never shudder through the boxes looking for the thing. But it’s there. I proudly drank from that cup every morning at home before work (too embarrassed, also, to show the newsroom that I had purchased a mug after only a week of working as an lowly intern) and used it as my pen cup during the rest of my time at college, a reminder that I could potentially pursue that trajectory. I could still make a choice.
     The internship lasted until August, though I was able to stretch it as long as I could towards September. I returned to the Midwest and fell into my major courses, which included more upper-level creative writing courses. Creative nonfiction, a rather strange title if you think about it, felt like a natural home for me, and both Elliott and Martin convinced me through their work of its bright future in academia and within the pantheon of The Great Three tracks for an MFA. Though it would take another year or so to determine I’d pursue a terminal degree in it, I was hooked—it was something new, curious, and ill defined. Largely, I thought it functioned as lyrical journalism.
     I can’t summon up a similar history to Ephron’s, I think as I reread her I Remember Nothing collection of essays, and reread and reread “Journalism: A Love Story,” sometimes aloud to my husband or sometimes to myself. I recognize the excitement she registers for her first few bylines. What it meant to see her name printed. What it meant to track down stories and research—for a living!
But for many years I was in love with journalism. I loved the city room. I loved the pack. I loved smoking and drinking scotch and playing dollar poker. I didn’t know much about anything and I was in a profession where you didn’t have to. I loved the speed. I loved the deadlines. I loved that you wrapped the fish. You can’t make this stuff up, I used to say. 
I romanticize the one summer I took this one job. A job I’d probably be better suited to, sure, but it’s a ship I got off and never sailed away into the distance on. I’m on a steady giant cruise ship of higher education now. Confined by non-tenure status, a sinking in university enrollments, and departmental quandaries endlessly debating what “English” really means. And, so, of course I miss the isolation and open curiosity the field of journalism seems to offer. The quick blood of the newsroom. But I really should know better. I remember the lay-offs, the dip in circulation counts, the growing pains of shifting to online reporting, and the anger of one particular reporter who blamed her dismissal on the act of giving the editor’s pet (me) additional (her) work. The desperation to keep your work good and relevant and important. And I’m glad to have missed out on the transition into social media.
     No, it wasn’t all rosy.
     Journalism as an industry has greatly changed—as it always does and will—in the past 15 or so years since that summer, which seemed choked by Atlantic humidity and grief and wonder. Even when I attended editorial meetings to take notes and “observe,” I was in the thick of discussions about the future of the paper, of all papers. At that time, we shifted to a “webpage” aesthetic in the physical copies of the paper—a move that horrified most, some going so far as calling it “cheap” and “the deepest shame.” Others looked impassive at the news, with a look most writers master—the “Who the fuck cares?” forehead scrunch that now I use in my own meetings.
     The 24-hour news cycle, social media, “breaking” headlines—which all headlines now seem like—cobbled-together stories with assumptions and drafted theories. I now read the news thinking I’ll just have to check back hours, days, or a month later to get the full story, with all its edits and revisions. Everything is a developing story, which seems like an impotent phrase these days. The news is prepped and prepared like an endless potluck in various stages of warmth. Ready to be consumed, readers acting as the locust, ever hungry for more copy, reading a headline, then moving on to the next, leaving the meat, the evidence, the arguments.
     This lessens my regret some.
     Despite my critiques, I mourn at the villainization of the industry under this current regime. Journalism is beyond important—it is necessary for civilization, for its people. Nora Ephron would warn us, though, that freedom of the press only belongs to the man who owns the press. We’re beginning to feel a tighter squeeze. Every reporter is cast as a tabloid con artist, the public actively debating on how we define the word “fact.” Perhaps we were getting tired of defining “theory.” It’s strange to think, sometimes, that the journalist is human—so often they are cast as our teachers, researchers, guides—or they are the great destroyers. Never curious humans who are called to translate and give us the world in our living rooms. Who go into that dark night with questions and a blaze of communication, hoping to light some sky.
     But then, essayists would reason that that job is ours.
     Ephron’s work is her life—she famously quotes her mother’s saying “everything is copy”—the sentiment of such the drumbeat of an essayist’s long walk to their own examinations. The essay is an active investigation—we are trained to weave in research like an academic and intentional language like a poet. The endless pursuit of questions feels, to me, like those days in the newsroom—follow the story to its very end.

*

To be completely honest because, well, ‘tis the season, I often sound like those people who studied for a semester abroad and then can’t stop talking about their experiences when they lived in (fill in the blank with your favorite location that you are secretly jealous they were able to visit and therefore ruin for you) and then trot out some rudimentary additional language skill that seems a requirement for those kinds of conversations. Though I consider myself a writer, an essayist, and am content for it, I find myself speaking about my one summer at one newspaper like that.
     Perhaps we all speak in similar patterns about things or people or lifestyles we not-so-unexpectedly fall in love with—especially if those experiences are short, clipped.
     We have a word, even, for that phase: “honeymoon,” in French, translates to la lune de miel. A moon full of honey. And that’s how that time follows me—this pregnant moon of memory, hanging like a soft-watt bulb above me, full of promise and weight, spectral in all its perceived beauty.





Jennie Ziegler currently lives and teaches in the Southeast and serves as an Associate Editor for Dying Dahlia Review. Her work has been previously published in Essay Daily, Appalachian Heritage, Luna Luna Magazine, Crab Fat Magazine, Folklore Thursday, and Atlas and Alice among others. She has forthcoming work at The Normal School. Find her at jennieziegler.com or @InTheFourteenth.

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