It Happens: Newspaper…Book…National Column.

A story:

Back in 2000, as a freelance writer I was retained by Newsday for a year-long series that was to run in the paper every day.  They were calling it “Names of New York.”  It involved research and history — a perfect love match for my interests.  Newsday provided me with a long list of New York-based streets, landmarks, bridges, highways, and my job was to research and write about their name origins. The articles, which you can find under “Pages” here, looked like this:

Solomon R guggenheim MuseumIt was a sweet gig and you know what made it even better?

One day, while the “Names of New York” series was running, I received a call, out of the blue — an offer to write a book.  On Queens, where I grew up.  The publisher?  Yale University Press.  Seriously.  That turned into an amazing, interesting and grueling four-year project but the result was my first book and two nods by The New York Times — once when it was released in hardcover and later when it came out in paperback.  

The Neighborhoods of QueensFast forward to 2013 and many great assignments in between — I’m now on another fascinating research/writing project, this time for Parade Magazine’s website,  Expanding on my much earlier “Names of New York” work for Newsday, I’m now writing a weekly “Names of America” column.  Research…history…love!

ParadeAnd so kids, the point of this story is clear– yes, freelancing is often a biatch, but once in a while, one plum assignment lays the foundation for future work.  You won’t know it at the time, but it happens.

Parade ContributorAnd now back to your regularly scheduled querying and kvetching.


The Writer’s Life


A, O, Way to Go, Ohio

My recap of the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop in Dayton —

I squeezed in a few workshop sessions in between a pill-popping frenzy that would have made Judy Garland gasp.  (Although I doubt she ever took aspirin recreationally.)  Now before you get your knickers in a knot (don’t they say that in Ohio?) let me explain: no sooner did I land at the Dayton airport than my brain began throbbing, building steadily to a feverish pitch over the next two days.  For those of you about to travel to Ohio, here’s a tip — Excedrin Migraine has no potency in that part of the country.  Still, I ingested the capsules feverishly, along with evening mouthfuls of Advil PM.  (Note: While I am not being paid to endorse these brands, I’m open to negotiations).  But enough about that…

The Writers Workshop was broken down into three days of sessions, most of which were very informative, although one presenter stressed repeatedly that while much of the alphabet isn’t funny, k-words are hysterical (see “knickers” and knot” above).  But I and most of the attendees k-new that already.

Every lunch and dinner featured keynote speakers.  My favorite was Alan Zweibel, who told us stories about meeting and then working closely with Gilda Radner in the earliest days of Saturday Night Live, where he was hired at 21 as a writer.  (Zweibel was not ready for prime time lawyering – prior to SNL, he’d scored terribly on his LSAT, he said, resulting in his parents applying black fabric over all the mirrors in the house, an ethnic joke that fell flat on the goyish majority in attendance.  Speaking of, each meal was preceded by a formal invocation complete with Jesus references — blessings that fell flat on the Jewish minority in attendance).

Ilene Beckerman, who’s had her first taste of success at 60 from “Love, Loss and What I Wore” spoke about how she came to write her charming little book. Also her not-so-charming experience with the Ephron sisters (producers of the performance show), whom she indicated snapped up the rights, although Beckerman had little to no legal representation to speak of.

And highly entertaining – humorist Gina Barreca, who did over an hour of stand-up on the last night. After her set I hugged her so fiercely she had to pry me off her torso.  This was not only because she had me in stitches (they do say that in Ohio) but also like Zweibel, she was raised on Long Island and by then I was shamefully homesick.

You see, my Dayton, Ohio conference goals were met, but ultimately…what Dorothy said.

Applying the Seat of the Pants…

I’ve been really lucky to have a few mentors throughout my career.  So I want my first entry to my writing blog to be a big shout out to one of those special people that has influenced my work directly.

So first and foremost, Michael Dorman, Boy Reporter.  Mike was working as a longtime editor at Newsday’s editorial department when we first met via email.   Somehow I found his name and sent him a note and some writing samples, as I’d been interested in writing op-eds at the time.  He must have checked my website immediately, because his first response to me was something like, “You’re a real looker.”  Which in turn, led me to google him to find out exactly who I was dealing with.  I mean, who does that in the 21st Century?

Turns out, this was Mike’s style.   In his late 70s,  Mike was an old-school reporter, one who had covered the civil rights movement in the deep South—had been there, in the trenches–written books about it and was pretty well-known by that generation of journalists. He enjoyed answering the phone by singing out, “Mike Dorman, boy reporter.”  Doesn’t that pretty much tell you everything about this man?

In person, he was a sight for sore eyes.   By the time we met, his overall health had been slowly deteriorating for years. Frail and thin, he was just about five feet and walked with a cane. Still, he was a terrible flirt.  We’d get together for lunch, which for him consisted of chocolate milkshakes and stories about the old days.

Mike told me I was a good writer — an accolade that meant the world to me, because it came from him, a seasoned journalist who had seen it all and written it all.  He introduced me to Newsday’s editorial department, which allowed me the opportunity to write op-eds on a regular basis.  He got a kick out of telling people that he “discovered me for Newsday.”   I’d been writing for other departments for years, but I let him brag because it made both of happy to hear those words out loud.

I only had the privilege of knowing Mike for just a few years.  He passed away on August 6, 2008.  I keep his Newsday obituary on my bulletin board in my office, so I can see him smiling down at me every day.   As I do so, I hear his favorite quotation, which he would repeat to me endlessly when I’d moan and complain about lack of motivation.  “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” (Mary Heaton Vorse)

I’m sitting, Mike.  I’m sitting…