Writing Lessons

What I Learned and How I Learned It

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By Charles Bowden


 

The first day someone yelled, “Where’s the crash and burn with the two lettuce heads?” meaning, I learned later, a car crash with two Mexicans.

I needed a new bicycle—I’d been on the bum for a year or two. I had no credentials (no journalism school, no creative writing program) and flimflammed my way onto the newspaper.

I was hired to write soft features, the stuff called fluff.

About six weeks into the job, I was sent to a murder because there was no one else around. The guy lived with a lap dancer and while she was at work, he bashed the 20-month-old kid’s head into the block wall of the hot sheet joint. Porn played on the television and a beer he’d forgotten in the freezer had turned rock hard.

A few weeks later, I was at the reunion of Pearl Harbor survivors and asked about their boat. The room fell silent and one man snapped, “We served on a ship. We put boats on our deck.”

Then came the morning an old hand on the city desk called me over.

He waved the story in my face and said, “You got the man’s middle initial wrong.”

I shrugged.

He exploded, “Goddamn it, a person’s lucky to get in a paper once in their life. Get it right.”

I never got the bike.

The newsroom taught me it’s not about fine writing. It’s about the pain and love hovering past the edge of language.

The rest was learning how to say it better. That part never ends.

Charles Bowden is a writer in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

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