That’s Why I’m Here: September 23, 2009

I’m not sure that anyone starts out as a youngster thinking to themselves: I want to grow up to be a GOLF writer!  And that’s certainly not how I envisioned my career unfolding when I was eleven or twelve and determined that being a writer was possibly cooler, even, than being the Flash or the Green Lantern, because despite their super powers how would those guys perform in a Scrabble death match, anyway?  When I set out to be a writer I never imagined becoming a journalist, either.  In fact, throughout school I pursued creative writing (even earning the highly-practical graduate degree, the MFA, which would better be called an MFU for m***** f***ing useless).  And so I set merrily out to write novels and become a famous literary figure who would combine the machismo of Hemingway and Mailer and John Irving with the sensitivity and insight of Yanni on ecstasy.

Suffice to say that things didn’t go exactly according to plan.  It took about a year after graduation to realize that six years of higher education pretty much prepared me to be a terrifically interesting bartender.  While my writing skills were sharp, nobody had ever thought to even mention that I might benefit from a few lessons in how to actually make a living.  Out of self defense I began freelancing for magazines and newspapers in the 1980s.  My liberal arts years at Vassar HAD prepared me to be interested in many subjects and confident enough that if I knew nothing about said subjects, I could figure out how to learn about them.  And so, having never taken a science course in college, I began working regularly for Popular Science magazine and other publications in the fields of science, business, sports, travel, etc., and writing a weekly business column called “On The Job” for a small local paper in Portland, OR– all the more amusing to my friends and family since I’d never HAD a job.  But it proved a great outlet for writing fiction and they paid me $50 a column!  I also like to think that I’m the only writer in the history of journalism to sell the same story to Popular Science and Seventeen.

At that point in time I was pitching every magazine I could find a copy of and  I worked for a lot of places writing front-of-book stories of 100-300 words.  It was fun, very exciting to be working for major magazines, and believe it or not, the pay was about the same as it is now, which doesn’t exactly point to journalism as a great career move presently.  I also pitched a few story ideas to golf magazines, and in those days, many of the guys writing for those magazines were not really writers at all– they came from the golf side, they were former pros or industry insiders, and so I was successful in landing more and more assignments.  Many of them were travel assignments and I was quite shocked to learn that the magazines and various airlines and hotels and golf courses and restaurants all over the world would actually pay for my flights and rooms and golf rounds and meals so that I could write stories about them that the magazines would then pay me to publish.  Were they friggin’ kidding?  Rather than belching out my soul every morning trying to write a novel that I couldn’t even get an agent’s dog to take a pee on, I could write about going to St. Andrews, and actually GO to St. Andrews,  have a great time, play golf, eat haggis, drink whisky, etc. etc., and then come back and write about it in a fun, irreverent, off-handed way and someone would PAY me for that?  Holy shit!

And so, accidentally, I became a golf writer.  And while I also continued to write about other things that people paid me to write about, and subjects that I was passionate about, such as adventure travel, golf became a mainstay, and suddenly I’d become a journalist rather than a novelist.  And I have to say that after writing fiction, where you have to make everything up, writing magazine stories seemed easy in comparison.  Of course I could still make up the dialogue . . . (okay, I’m kidding).

At any rate, it’s been a very good run these past two decades and I am extremely grateful for the opportunities I’ve had, the places I’ve traveled to, from New York to Nepal, the adventures I’ve pursued on rivers, in mountains, under the ocean, etc., and the amazing people I’ve met, from dinosaur hunters to new age golf pros.  I have suspected for a some time that I am among the luckiest people alive– though I never made a lot of money, that wasn’t really important to me for most of my younger life, and I was happy to work when I wanted to (though usually seven days a week) at things that excited me, be my own boss, travel widely, and bust open wide the doors to experience.

Of course you may wonder why I talk about this in the past tense, like I’m accepting some lifetime achievement award before being wheeled back to the Home.  But the fact is that for many of us who’ve freelanced for a living, this way of life has gone the way of the cowboy.  We are relics.  Our code is not of this era– and doesn’t translate into computer code.  I’ve watched enough magazines disappear from the earth to know that the writers who survived on them are not far behind.  Print is gravely wounded, if not dead.  The opportunity to work as a magazine freelancer has dried up and blown away– unless I want to pitch as aggressively as I did when I was a pup, suck up to editors half my age for stories a tenth the length of what I used to write, and for even less money (I am NOT exaggerating here.  I earned $1 a word back in the 1980s, and many magazines are paying less than that now).

And so, at long last, I come to the point of this, my first ever-blog entry– something I thought I’d be more likely to grow antlers than ever do.  The fact is, this is what’s here for us now– but it’s an exciting fact, as exciting as the prospect of being a writer was when I started out as a teenager scribbling dark, dope-addled short stories.  I feel quite lucky to be partnering with seven other writers with similar experiences to mine– the other founding members of the A position, a website associated with this one.  My partners are all talented, gunslinging journalists who’ve covered the world for decades, published dozens of books, written thousands of articles on everything from walking on fire to fishing in Patagonia.  I hope we’re not too late to save western civilization and the English language from the overt corporatization of journalism, from stories that consist entirely of sidebars and boxes full of phone numbers and prices that could have been compiled by a team of monkeys, the type of writing determined by spreadsheets and pie charts and ad sales reps, not by living, breathing, writers who’ve had REAL experiences in actual places– you would not believe how many travel stories that appear in major magazines have been written by “journalists” who’ve never even been to the destinations they’re writing about (and yes, I’m guilty)!

So here we embark upon an adventure that is way closer to the thing most of us probably set out after in the beginning: to be real writers,  again and at long last– to describe the world and our place in it, what it looks like, how it feels against the skin, the taste it excites at the back of the tongue with all its sweetness and acidity, the smoky flavor of foreign destinations, the exotic spice of  jet lag in morning light when mists rise off some strange land.  Yes, that stuff, all of that!  While we may never earn a dime with these websites posting our articles and blogs, the fact is that we are writers again– the only thing that once mattered, the thing we sought all along: To live and write largely and ignore the flippant jackass editors with clipboards full of monetization strategies, and microscopic word counts, and even smaller New York offices.  To experience the world and describe it without the limitations of  advertising tie-ins and reader fucking service, with some color and attitude and personality, in our own voices!  To be writers!

I can only hope we prove worthy.

4 Responses to “That’s Why I’m Here: September 23, 2009”

  1. Elizabeth Ferrer

    Hilarious! You may sprout antlers after all…you never know.
    Hmmmm. Here is to your future blogs…going to search your Pu’u Kukui story now. Aloha! Elizabeth

  2. Jacque Cannon

    Can’t wait to meet you at Abaco Club on Winding Bay this week for Member Guest Golf Tournament!!! Your “Shanks for the Memories” had us rolling. We are getting ready to place our side bets…are you still “afflicted”? Congrats on your Blog. Jacque Cannon

  3. Jeff Wallach

    Thanks for the comment, Jacque– hope you didn’t place any large wagers on me during the tournament. I proved that there are many other afflictions than the “s” word that can lose a tournament! Was a pleasure meeting you in Abaco and I hope we’ll cross paths again soon. Come back to the site often and have a look around– should be posting some interesting things in the next few weeks.


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