Twenty summers ago, I lived in hell.
Technically, Champaign, Illinois isn’t hell. It’s a college town. A cool college town, home to the University of Illinois and high stalks of corn and a place that, literally, sells burritos as big as your head.
For me, however, it was the absolute worst.
I had just wrapped up my sophomore year at the University of Delaware, and—after applying to probably, oh, 150 newspapers—was hired as a summer intern by the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette, a daily with a circ of, oh, 65,000. Landing the gig was an incredible high—I’d be living by myself in a new town, writing for a real paper, gaining experience and bylines and contacts.
Uh … yeah.
Champaign was hell. To begin with:
• I had no friends. None. Zero.
• I broke my ankle playing basketball, was on crutches for several weeks, got off the crutches, return to the court—and immediately sprained my other ankle.
• I lived in an apartment at 405 Green Street. I’m pretty sure the guy above me was beating his girlfriend. I had a TV that received two shows—Star Trek and The 700 Club. My mom bought me two plants to hang—I’m pretty certain they both died. I was so bored I tried taking up cigarette smoking … and failed miserable. Puff, cough, puff, cough.
• I was 20, and one needed to be 21 to enter bars.
Worst of all was the newspaper. Well, worst of all was me at the newspaper. To be blunt, I was a little cocky fuckhead. I thought I was God’s gift to writing, and walked and wrote with an unwarranted strut. I took advice from no one, mocked older scribes, thought I had nothing to learn and no need to improve. In a word, I was insufferable.
The woman who hired me, a sports editor named Jean McDonnell, made my life even worse. She shredded my copy, told me what I needed to work on, demanded professionalism and (gasp!) told me I needed much improvement. With seven weeks in, I packed up and left. I was supposed to be there for eight but, fuck, I couldn’t take it any longer. I was out. Ghost. See ya.
A few weeks later, I received a two-page letter from Jean. She told me I had talent, but that I wasted a great opportunity; that a bad attitude damns many a talented writer. I read the letter, probably cursed Jean out, read it again. And again. And again. I still have it, stashed. It’s a prized possession.
And one that probably saved me career.
A few months back I received a surprise e-mail from Jean, asking if I’d be willing to speak to her journalism class at the University of Illinois. Last night, at long last, I did.
I told the students about ledes and transitions and interviews and John Rocker and Roger Clemens and Walter Payton. But what I really wanted them to understand was the value of humility and listening; that just because someone has an ability to turn a quick phrase doesn’t make him a quality journalist.
Then, before it ended, I apologized to Jean for 20 summers back.
It was long overdue.