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WORKING WRITE, NOW

About what? About 2,500 words
By Tom Peeler |

IT WAS PROBABLY midlife panic that inspired me to become a free-lance writer for D. The magazine was still an infant when I turned 40, and it was too good an opportunity to pass up-a creative outlet in my own neighborhood.

My earlier efforts at creativity had been thwarted at every turn. I was expelled from the choral club in the sixth grade for chewing gum, and in art class my watercolors always ran together. In the Sunday School Christmas pageant, I was the wise man who didn’t talk. D gave me my chance, but they made me pay for it.

In the summer of 1975, D carried a delightful story about an old violin that had been in the writer’s family for generations, which the family suspected of being a Strad-ivarius, and about their futile efforts to get rich off it. What really caught my eye, though, was a note at the top of the page announcing that the magazine would be featuring other works by talented but undiscovered Dallas writers. I considered it a personal invitation.

My wife and I were caught up in the flea market craze at the time, so I wrote what I thought was a marvelous guide to junk antique shopping and sent it to D. A couple of weeks later, it was returned to me with a letter from the copy editor expressing regret that the manuscript could not be used, but promising to keep my name on file. Having read Writing the Modern Magazine Article by Max Gunther, I recognized the letter instantly as a rejection notice.

To my amazement, I received a call from the magazine a few days later. The editors were planning a monthly antique column to anchor a special section devoted to advertisements by local antique dealers, and they wanted me to come in and talk to them about writing the column.

The magazine office was located in an attractive contemporary wood building on Carlisle Street, just off of Cedar Springs. Once inside, I was directed to the small corner office of editor Jim Atkinson. I was on my lunch break from my regular job and was wearing my usual suit and tie. Atkinson was wearing blue jeans and a plaid shirt and was drinking a cold can of Coors. “Hot damn!” I thought. “This is the life for me.”

According to what I had read, there was a remarkably wide range of pay for magazine columns, but the minimum was about $35. Although I was extremely eager to see my name in print, I decided that I would exhibit a professional demeanor by quibbling if the editors offered less than that.

“We want to try it for a few months to see how it goes,” said Atkinson. “We’ll pay you $175.” I didn’t know if he meant $175 for a few months or per column, but I didn’t dare ask for fear of exposing my gross inexperience. I quickly calculated that $175 for six months (six is a few) would be nearly $30 a month, and that was close enough.

It was agreed that since none of the editors knew the first thing about antiques, I would select the monthly subjects. Since the first column was due in three weeks, I decided to go with a subject I was familiar with-Depression glass-and I proudly delivered the first column three days before the deadline. Atkinson thumbed through it and said that it looked fine to him.

A few days later, Wick Allison, D’s publisher, called and said that the column looked great but there were some problems we needed to discuss, so I went by after work on a Friday afternoon.

Wick was easy to find; he was the only one dressed in a suit. He was also sporting a pipe, gold cufflinks and an expensive haircut-he looked successful even before he was. He told me that the advertisers, all of whom had classy shops along Fairmount and Routh streets, were appalled when they heard about the Depression glass story. They seemed to view the subject selection with the same enthusiasm that gourmet eating establishments might exhibit toward a dining feature on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Wick explained that it made no difference whether I wrote something good or bad about a particular advertiser, or whether I mentioned any of them at all, but that it would be suicidal to proceed with Depression glass. I reluctantly agreed to write a substitute column, and it was decided that a guide to books on antique collecting would be an appropriate alternative. I asked when the column would be needed.

“We need it now,” said Wick. I looked around the room to see if I could detect the hint of a smile, but there was none. For the first time, I noticed the two editors in the room were sitting between me and the door; they weren’t big, but they looked desperate. After extensive negotiations, I was given until the following Monday morning at dawn to deliver. I spent all day Saturday at Cokes-bury’s Book Store and all day Sunday recording the results of my whirlwind research.

On Monday morning, the editors were impressed-not so much by the quality of my work, but with my performance in a crisis. Some writers gain feme through their graceful metaphors and word pictures rivaling the Old Masters; I became known as a fast-draw artist. Someone wrote “dependable” beside my name on a 3-by-5 card, a stigma I have yet to live down.

The inaugural antique column appeared in D’s first anniversary issue in October 1975. When the first check arrived a few days later, I was relieved to discover that the $175 was for each column rather than the whole project because I was earning every penny. I found that it took no time at all for me to share with the readers everything that I knew. By the third column, I was spending countless hours researching and interviewing-undertakings which are more like work than artistry.

By the following spring, I had advanced to cut glass. Wick and I were even talking about future columns, and I remarked how encouraging it was to talk about appearing in future issues. “I know,” said Wick. “It’s encouraging for us to talk about publishing future issues.”

Two months later, Wick told me that the antique column was being canceled because it had “outlived its usefulness.” By this time, I had learned some of the jargon. When an editor says a piece “just doesn’t work,” that means the manuscript is suffering from an incurable disease. An article that “can’t be used because of space problems” is one that the editors thought they wanted at first, but then changed their minds. I could tell from Wick’s remarks regarding the column that the advertising revenue for the antique section had dried up.

But there was good news. I was to be made a contributing editor and would be encouraged to submit material of a general nature on a regular basis. Overcome momentarily by pangs of greed, I asked if that would mean a raise in pay. Wick explained that it was a honorary title and that it was unrelated to the magazine’s fee structure.



IN THOSE DAYS, there was a great deal of turnover in personnel at D. Before the second anniversary issue, Atkinson had left and was succeeded by a stream of new editors who weren’t around long enough to find the pencil sharpener. One editor would assign a project and then disappear, to be replaced by a new editor with a “fresh point of view.” This happened to me on my first feature assignment, a story on custom-built homes scheduled for the October 1976 issue.

It was to be a straightforward “how-to” piece, with the usual rundown on selecting the site, lining up an architect and a contractor, obtaining financing, etc. But by the time I turned in the manuscript, editor Gay Yel-len had assumed responsibility for feature articles. She thought that the piece lacked life, and she said that she was afraid no one would read it. “You want people to read your first feature, don’t you?” asked Gay.

Gay decided that it would be nice to find five families in the city who had built their own homes and tell their stories. I came frightfully close to abandoning my writing career and trying watercolors again, but I remained true to my calling and began contacting friends and acquaintances who might make likely subjects.

After turning in the revised version with the fresh point of view, I received another call from Gay. “This is much better,” she said, “except for a couple of these houses. They just won’t work; we looked at the houses, and they’re too dull.” One of the chores I did not envision when I was reading the story about the Stradivarius was having to call people to tell them that the editors of D had determined that they were living in dull houses.

Another problem that I hadn’t anticipated was the difficulty in communicating with certain segments of Dallas society, which I experienced in my second feature, a story on dancing. My research took me to the No. 3 Lift, the “in” Dallas disco at the time. The manager introduced me to the disc jockey, who was perched high above the dance floor. “What’s happenin’, man,” asked the deejay, extending his hand down below the loft in the form of a greeting. I offered my hand in the traditional manner, but the deejay seemed determined to commence the ritual with his thumb. He Finally gave me a sickly nod and returned to his record stack.

One of the things that’s a little hard for a fledgling writer to get used to is the fact that people read this stuff. During the creative process, the writer reads his precious product over and over, reveling in the rhythm and flow of the graceful prose. But there are people out there who read magazines just so they can trap writers in mistakes. This happened to me on an article that I wrote for another publication on coping with Dallas traffic, in which I mentioned a little-known thoroughfare that made a great morning route into downtown Dallas. One reader wrote a sarcastic note pointing out the fact that the street I mentioned was one-way, going away from town. Picky.

And people really read bests and worsts. I wasn’t involved in the first compilation, for which I was later thankful, since it didn’t come across well. There were too many shots taken at easy targets, such as Burger King, Dairy Queen-even Totino’s frozen pizza. And some of the entries were in extremely poor taste, including the classic “worst girl-watching” at the Parkland maternity ward.

Wick decided to improve the second annual effort by broadening the universe, calling on contributing editors, the sales staff and anyone connected with the magazine to submit entries. When all the entries were in, a group of us gathered at the magazine to critique the suggestions. After a couple hours of this, Wick decided that the atmosphere left something to be desired, and the committee adjourned to the beer garden at Cardinal Puffs to debate bests and worsts while quaffing pitchers of beer. The result was a much more creative product than the initial effort a year earlier.

The genera] disdain for the best and worst selections seems to be evenly distributed. There is, of course, a natural resistance to being named the worst, but the bests are just as vulnerable. According to one reader, our best kennel was really the home of the world’s largest flea farm.

In early 1977,I was given an assignment to write a consumer column on lawn mowers. I later discovered that Wick had been in the market for a grass cutter himself, and this gave him the column idea. The following month, Ted Warmbold, another new editor, assigned me a similar piece on room air conditioners, since he was enclosing his garage and needed help with his selections. Wick bought an electric lawn mower, which I had written off as impractical, but Ted left town before he could get his garage enclosed.

The consumer column became a monthly feature and was supervised by Judy Powell. Among other things, I wrote about auto insurance, firewood, diamonds, computer games, toys, tequila, car washes and light beer. I drew the line when editor Mike Greenberg, who was two or three editors after Judy, wanted to send a fashion consultant out to critique my closet.

Even while all these people were coming and going, there was a hard-core cadre of midlevel editors on board who knew what a magazine article was supposed to look like, particularly Charles Matthews, David Bauer and Jim Atkinson, who had returned for a second tour of duty. Under Wick’s leadership (or perhaps duress), the final product had a polished look, as though it had been planned for months rather than put together between sips at the Mad Hatter’s tea party. When I look back at some of my early drafts, I realize that I should have been paying them.

Charles was the most formidable editor I ever had. He was a Fulbright scholar at the University of Tubingen, Germany, and a Woodrow Wilson fellow at Harvard. Charles earned a doctorate degree at SMU, where he taught English for seven years. At the magazine, he wore blue jeans like the other liberated editors, but in deference to his academic background, he also wore long-sleeved dress shirts. He knew rules about punctuation and participles that I never dreamed of. Before I met Charles, I thought that syntax was the extra money paid to the government on liquor and cigarettes.

Charles was Wick’s hit man. When Wick decided that he didn’t want to use a particular piece that one of the editors had ordered, Charles would explain why it didn’t work. There was no point in arguing because Charles could easily document the utter worthlessness of the finest piece of classic literature.

Space, although it was often used as an excuse, was a very real problem in the early days. To succeed financially, a magazine has to have a careful balance between the editorial content and the ads. When the advertising material was limited, as it often was, the editors hacked away at the features and columns. If Charles had edited War and Peace, it could have been published in pamphlet form.

The magazine didn’t plan as far in advance as it does now. When an article would “fall out,” which meant that the writer had either failed miserably or was in a drunken stupor, Charles would often call me. He called once on a Friday and asked me to do a feature over the weekend. “What do you want me to write about?” I asked. “About 10 pages,” said Charles, “Typed, double-spaced.”

David Bauer was the most laid-back of the early editors. David was a Dartmouth graduate with long hair and a scraggly beard. He did most of the surreptitious restaurant reviews until word got out among the restaurateurs to watch out for the guy who looked like Jesus.

David had invaluable connections among the more weird elements of Dallas society, people such as Frank Tolbert, John Anders and George Toomer, who were walking encyclopedias of non-essential information. When we got stuck on an answer for a trivia question, David could come up with a specialist in any field. The thing that impressed me the most, though, about David was the fact that he never came to work before 9:30 a.m.

David gave me one assignment that was something like “697 great ideas for the back yard.” I had received a generous raise by that time, but on that piece I later calculated that I grossed about 73 cents an hour. He also got me involved in the questions like: “Whatever happened to the lovely nymphs that used to adorn the fountain at SMU?” Try calling campus information and asking to speak to someone in regard to missing nymphs.

We never turned down a question, though, no matter how far-fetched it might have been because we didn’t get many. To fill out the page, I usually had to come up with a few questions and answers of my own. But that wasn’t bad-it’s a lot easier, I decided, to start with an answer and work back to the question.

After a couple of years of free-lancing, Wick offered me a full-time job as a staff writer. By that time, the glamour had worn a little thin, especially after I walked in one day to find the staff drawing lots for round-the-clock duty to meet an impending deadline. Besides, my family had endured about all the creativity they could stand.

Wick said that he was going to have to replace one of the staff writers because her work required too much editing. The writer had done some dangerous undercover work for the magazine just a few months earlier.

“She’ll be fine in another year,” saidWick, “but we can’t wait.” Wick didn’t buildthis magazine on sentiment.

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