Writing Ambience

Do you play music while you write? Watch television? Or do you need complete silence so your ideas can germinate and flower in your mind?

We were sitting around the dining room table, enjoying Thanksgiving dinner when the phone rang. It was someone from the Columbus Enquirer. I can’t remember who called – probably the newspaper’s city editor – but when asked if I could come in, I said yes.

It was my first newspaper job, and that was my first day. I was frightened, ecstatic, eager and reluctant – would they realize I didn’t know anything?

The newsroom was a large, open space in 1973. Not many people were working, but it was pretty noisy. Back then, we had manual typewriters and an endless supply of coarse, tan-colored newsprint. Typewriters clacked around the room at different speeds, depending on how well the writing was going, a symphony of sound. A good copy editor could tell by listening which reporter’s

I began my newspaper career getting comfortable with an old Royal typewriter, much like this one. Photo courtesy of Joseph Hart, Australia.

copy was going to be late.

We had a radio for communicating with reporters out in their company cars, and a scanner that spoke in arcane codes only the police reporter and the editors understood. 10-4 was the only one I could decipher.

Copy editors marked copy with fat grease pencils and typesetters in the bowels of the building turned our deathless prose into something printable.

The process and the atmosphere weren’t new to me; my father had been a copy editor at the Enquirer, and an editor at other newspapers. I’d visited them now and then, and toured the Enquirer several times during school field trips.

I learned young how to read backwards from watching my father help typeset the Morning Star newspaper on Okinawa.

I loved the Enquirer, and not just because on that Thanksgiving day I found myself sitting two feet from the copy desk where my father, who died five years earlier, had sat.

Audible, though muffled, a bank of teletype machines rattled away in a small room nearby. If something especially important came over the wire, the teletypes sounded an alarm easily heard in the newsroom.

Reporters banged away on heavy manual typewriters, muttering to themselves or yelling to a distant coworker or the room in general. How do you spell this? What’s the name of the college dean? When was that bridge built?

Looking up information back then wasn’t quite as easy as it is now.

The copy editor grimly assaulted long sheets of taped-together copy with his grease pencil, raising his head now and then to question the writer about a certain fact, or to point out a spelling or grammar mistake, along with a plea – or an order – never to make that mistake again.

That’s how I learned all right is two words. Even though alright is trying to push its way into proper usage, I will never type it except as an example. I learned my lesson, loud and clear, way back then.

The only quiet place was the library, which was called a morgue when my father first took me to visit a newspaper. The managing editor had a walled-off, glassed-in office in one corner of the newsroom, but it was only marginally quieter than the newsroom itself.

Even high above the huge printing press in the basement, the smell of typewriter and printer ink permeated the atmosphere. When the press roared to life late at night or in the early afternoon (depending on whether it was printing the afternoon Ledger or the early morning Enquirer), the ancient linoleum floors vibrated underfoot. Coffee danced in your mug and pencils sometimes rolled off your desk.

I loved the noise, the smell and the pace. I loved distracted editors, long-suffering but highly skilled photographers, angry copy editors and reporters that ranged from one who thought any questions about a story he was working on meant you were trying to steal it, to one who was the ultimate mentor, and everyone in between.

I loved my job, which at first was writing obituaries. Holidays always bring a flood of obituaries, so my first day was hectic and scary and my training consisted of J. Randolph Murray, the city editor, handing me a newspaper folded to the obituary page. “Write them like this,” he said.

Well, he gave me a bit more guidance than that as I stumbled through the first ones, but there was a newspaper to get out, so hand-holding the newbie was utterly out of the question.

Many years after I left the newspaper business (for good, I thought – I’ve thought that more than a dozen times in my life), I went back to my old stomping ground.

Under the leadership of the late Jack Swift, the building had just been renovated top to bottom. By then, the evening paper, the Columbus Ledger, had merged with my beloved morning paper, and the whole shebang became The Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. We used to be rivals working in two separate newsrooms in the same building. Now, the combined, once-daily newspaper is a team effort.

The new newsroom was quiet, with padded dividers and little, open-ended cubicles. If you talked too loudly, a reporter interviewing someone on the phone or trying to write a story shushed you. No one there would dream of calling out a question.

There was carpet and every desk had a computer terminal with a quiet little keyboard for writing or editing stories.

I hated it.

One of my writing friends, indie author Casey Freeland, posted on Facebook about an app that lets you “type” on an old manual typewriter, complete with the clacking sounds.The post set off this little trip down Memory Lane. Thank you, Casey!

What he posted looks like fun. But what I need in order to be truly productive is the constant noise of a dozen manual typewriters, people talking on the phone, yelling across the room, an occasional burst of profanity, the intermittent sssssss-WHUMP of a pneumatic tube, and the distant chatter of teletype machines working tirelessly inside their own little room.

Is there an app for that?

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4 responses to “Writing Ambience

  1. Awww, thanks Lynt. Glad I could trigger some sweet memories. I loved reading about the good ol’ days of the newspaper biz. Reminds me of how radio was when I first jumped in, before computers controlled the whole thing.

    Great Sunday morning fare. Thank you!!!

    Casey

    • Honestly, this entry was the most enjoyable post I’ve written so far. Most of my best memories are inextricably entwined with the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. Thanks for being today’s “idea germ,” Casey!

  2. I love this post. It takes me back to my own newspaper days in New Delhi. The fun is gone out of newspaper offices … ah, nostalgia.
    If you don’t mind I’d like to share my personal answer to your opening question: about how one writes.
    “I often prefer to write with pen and paper (usually it’s a pencil)—writing down lines as they occur to me, wherever I happen to be. Sometimes, I’ll just head out of the house, find a coffee shop, give my order, and then tune out the buzz around me and start scribbling. I’m tuning in to the conversation I’m making up in my head as I focus on the particular point in the story where I find myself. There are probably others with completely different habits requiring laptops, a drink, closed doors and privacy.. I don’t know why but coffe shops work for me.”

    • It seems coffee shops figure prominently in many writers’ lives, so you are in excellent company. Did you know there is a contest for coffee shop writers? Coffee Shop Author turns out to be only one of many websites/blogs devoted to those who write publicly. Poems, novels, essays, etc. produced by coffee shop writers are called, appropriately enough, coffee shop literature. How cool.

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