Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Learning a lesson

This story probably has nothing to do with editing and grammar, but it does have a lot to do with being a writer.

In 1997, several of us — all writers — were talking about the end of the century and the millennium. Everyone there but me thought that 1999 was the end of the 20th century. I said, "No, it's not." One of the woman, an editor for a weekly magazine, said, "Yes, it is." "No, it's not," I repeated.

Then I explained in my best Socratic method. "What was the first year?" I asked. "The first year? What are you talking about?" "The first year of the current calendar," I said, "was 1. Not 0. It was 1. The 10th year was 10, the 100th year was 100 and the 1,000th year of the first millennium was 1000. That means that the first year of the second millennium was 1001. The last year of the second millennium will be 2000, and the first year of the third millennium will be 2001."

Years earlier, I had reasoned that out so I could explain 2001: A Space Odyssey, the book by Arthur C. Clarke. I forgot it, then had to figure it out a second time.

My logic didn't go over well, and that's the moral of this story. I was right, but my I-know-better-than-you-do attitude probably alienated everyone who was listening. That editor, once one of my biggest fans, suddenly became an enemy of sorts. She killed at least one perfectly good story of mine for no apparent reason, and from then on she shot down my story ideas like the Red Baron firing at Sopwith Camels.

I was right, but I was wrong. Being right isn't enough. Journalism is all about being a good listener, knowing the times to take your shots, cultivating your sources and your friends, knowing when to just shut up.

What I said was right; saying anything at all was the mistake.

Entries from The Dog Blog
Blog entries from The Auto Racing Journal
(a book of great stories about the Intimidator)
(the book of great NASCAR stories)

More blog entries by Tom Gillispie

Anecdotes by Tom Gillispie

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