Friday, August 5, 2011

Back in Business

During the waning decades of the 20th century, I wrote for Business Week, now Bloomberg Business Week. I toiled there from 1987 to 1996 and loved it. Then I had a baby, my father's mental health started to deteriorate and I decided that writing business stories, nursing my son and being married to someone who worked 24/7 was too difficult. I didn't want the grind of deadlines or the stress of racing to interviews anymore. I wanted to be an auteur and an artiste, penning novels, short stories and autobiographical essays, pursuing high art and emotional truth, la-di-da. I went to graduate school for an MFA in fiction writing. I thought I was leaving one career for good and starting a brand spanking new one. I didn't realize that an MFA doesn't really qualify you to do much more than teach creative writing, and creative writing teachers are like cockroaches---hungry, resilient and everywhere.

Two agents were interested in my work. I blew off one, disappointed another, had another baby and focused on raising my sons. I taught creative writing for free at Columbia and eventually, landed a paying job teaching fiction and creative non-fiction through New York Writers Workshop. Not every moment has been glorious but on the whole, my students have been really sharp, well-read, ambitious, generous and decent. I've taught psychologists, doctors, lawyers, engineers, community organizers, artists, copywriters, journalists, decorators, actors, movie producers, receptionists, models and kindergarten teachers. They've been gay, straight, single, married, divorced. A couple of students were abused by family members, and one was mentally ill. Teaching them and leading workshops in which we discussed their work were some of the toughest experiences I've ever had. But there have been magical moments too. A few students have published stories and essays they first workshopped in class. One, Beth Raymer, sold her wonderful memoir Lay the Favorite: A Memoir of Gambling, which is now being turned into a movie.

Along the way, I applied to teach creative writing at a local state university. There were no creative writing jobs available but there was an opening for an adjunct journalism instructor. Beggars can't be choosers so I started to teach news reporting and business reporting. I brought working reporters in to talk to the students about their jobs. This one was working for The New York Times! That one was working for NPR! I started to feel wildly jealous. I missed being a journalist. I wanted to be stressed out and poorly paid again.

A few months ago, I started writing for Patch, an on-line, hyper-local newspaper. In June, I wrote about the family dynamics of a local hardware store. My editor is terrific. We started talking about covering local businesses more aggressively. I suggested we launch a column called, "What's in Store?" The first round of "What's in Store?" stories are here: What's in Store, Flywheel Takes Millburn for a Spin, Red Mango Aims to Open by October and Food, Liquor, Coffee and Clean shirts: Change is coming to Short Hills station.

Business reporting isn't always pretty. Writing short stories, essays and novels is like furnishing a living room. You want everything to be beautiful, elegant, carefully chosen and precise. The best creative writing makes your jaw drop. Writing business stories is more like buying carpeting for the basement---you need to get the job done but it isn't always stunning. But business reporting is steady work. Creative writing? Not so much. But I'll keep banging my head against the wall and do both.

As always, my worth is measured by the number of people who traffic the Patch site and leave comments, so if you have any inclination to do so, I would be grateful.

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