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From AJR,   August/September 2012  issue

Books about Writing and Life   


By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     

Several recent books offer some interesting insights into how one becomes a journalist and what one does after arriving.

Philip Meyer, for example, was inspired by Superman.

Meyer is retired now, after an accomplished career as a reporter and executive for the late Knight Ridder organization and then as a journalism professor and researcher at the University of North Carolina. (He is also, I should say, a friend and former colleague.)

His nicely titled memoir, "Paper Route" (self-published through iUniverse), tells his story in an amiable way.

Like many of his generation, Meyer was a working-class student attracted to writing early. Reading the Superman comic strip in the Kansas City Times "had a profound effect on my own daydreams..I could never be anything like a superhero. But I could certainly be a mild-mannered reporter."

And he became one, starting in high school, interning at an engraving shop, studying journalism at Kansas State, and moving through small papers into the big-time roles in Miami, Washington and elsewhere.

His book is a pleasant blend of personal reflections and keen observations about his fast-changing profession.

Another charming work is "Several Short Sentences about Writing" (Alfred A. Knopf) by Verlyn Klinkenborg.

You probably know Klinkenborg as one of the few editorial-page writers whose style is instantly recognizable. His ruminations on rural life, featured in the New York Times of all places, offer timeless, consoling counterpoints to otherwise weighty and anxious editorializing.

His book is written in something close to free verse, a series of poetic sentences and pithy sections that reflect–sometimes helpfully, sometimes over-preciously–on the writing art.

Almost any writer, from beginner to veteran, will find both head scratchers and sparkles of insight. One of my favorites:

"Your job as a writer is making sentences. Most of your time will be spent making sentences in your head. In your head. Did no one ever tell you this? That is the writer's life."

A writer whose life was both memorable and inspiring was Jim Murray, the sportswriter featured in Ted Geltner's biography, "Last King of the Sports Page" (University of Missouri Press).

Murray came of age as a crime reporter and rewrite guy in the 1940s but came to prominence as a Los Angeles Times sports columnist starting in 1961.

In, according to Geltner, some 10,000 columns, Murray perfected the one-line zinger and spot-on observation, all wrapped in an irresistible literary flourish. He was chosen sportswriter of the year 14 times, named to the Baseball Hall of Fame and awarded the Pulitzer Prize for commentary.

The best part of the book, naturally, is Geltner's lavish use of excerpts, many of them well-known (UCLA basketball coach "John Wooden is so square, he's divisible by four") but still fun to read.

Geltner, referencing Murray, also includes one of the best pieces of advice for anyone who covers sports, politics or almost anything else: "The best story is in the loser's locker room."