A Crash Course in Writing — and Getting to the Point

Sep 27, 2017 at 6:00 am
A Crash Course in Writing — and Getting to the Point

In many ways, I learned to write in my three years at the Riverfront Times. Before I joined the newspaper in 1986, I'd been an editor at St. Louis Magazine, so the RFT job was not my first in journalism, but perhaps more than my earlier stint, it shaped who I became as a writer.

Partly, that was due to the people: editor Ray Hartmann, who'd founded the newspaper in 1977; managing editor Susan Hegger, who later moved on to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; and the arts & entertainment editors, at first David Folkers and later Cliff Froehlich. While I'd learned something at the magazine, I had no formal training in journalism. I got a master course at the RFT: Get to the point. Compress. Move this paragraph here and that one there and the story becomes tighter.

The other staff writer aside from me, Julia (J.A.) Lobbia, a Mizzou journalism graduate, was tiny — under five feet — but the most dogged reporter I've encountered, one who fiercely took on sacred cows in St. Louis (the Veiled Prophet organization, the Busch family and others). It's a sign of her relentless muckraking work that one of her articles from that time had a recent sort of second life and was partly responsible for one of Donald Trump's cabinet nominees withdrawing: In 1989, she co-wrote a cover story about allegations that Andrew Puzder, then a St. Louis attorney, had abused his former wife. At the time, Puzder was set to head a Missouri abortion task force but after the article appeared, he resigned.

This year, after Trump nominated him as labor secretary, that 1989 RFT story garnered a flood of new attention, and the ensuing political pressure led Puzder to withdraw his name. J.A. Lobbia, unfortunately, didn't live to see it. Not long after she published that story, she landed at the Village Voice, where she wrote fearlessly about slum lords and then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani before she died much too soon at 43 in 2001.

At the RFT, we turned to each other for advice on sources (she was likely more helpful to me than I could be to her) and read each other's work before it went to press. She was often blunt. Once, to my chagrin now, I used a French phrase in a lede and she laughed. "That's pretentious," she said. "You're showing off." She was right and I cut it. Her message was clear: The work must be honest, the rest is just silliness.

There were other reminders in those days that it was the story that mattered above everything. It certainly was not the ambience. When I joined the RFT, before we moved downtown in 1988, our offices were on two floors over a bar in Lafayette Square, where the only design consideration seemed to be, where could we fit a desk? The carpet was ragged, threadbare in places, and there were holes in the subfloor we instinctively learned to avoid. When a heavy rain fell, even if I shut the window near my desk, it was so poorly sealed anything I didn't move got wet. We wrote on computers that had only 256 kilobytes of memory. (As context: the shortest song in my iTunes library, the Beatles' "Her Majesty" — 26 seconds — requires roughly three times as much memory.) The dust in the air sometimes affected those computers, causing a glitch, making pieces of an article disappear, replaced with nonsensical mathematical symbols, meaning we had to start over.

Because the staff was so small, although we also used freelancers, Julie and I wrote a lot. In my time there, I calculated I published more than 100,000 words a year. On a practical level, it taught me to write quickly: Find the story, research it, shape it and get it down in time to meet the Monday deadline.

On a larger level, I can't help but think of 100,000 words as a novel and the words we wrote in those years as a sort of non-fiction story capturing that time: the end of the Reagan years and the start of the first Bush administration.

Because we practiced advocacy journalism, our stories tended toward a clear narrative: good and evil; the underdog striving against a hostile system. There was, for example, the story about a man who worked 30-plus years in a coal mine but couldn't afford to fight the mining company to collect benefits for the black lung disease those years had given him.

There was the story about the grade-school dropout who'd been homeless, and had been in and out of jail but also founded a massive food bank, and the one about a woman who taught college philosophy but who lived in "voluntary poverty" as part of her life with the Catholic Workers.

There was the story about the World War I veteran who talked of surviving the Spanish flu that tore through the ship taking him to the front by sucking non-stop on lemons, and the one about the woman whose years as a clerk with Gen. Douglas MacArthur in the Pacific were so central to her identity that, 40 years after World War II, despite a long civilian career and two children, she still preferred people refer to her by her military rank, "Sarge."

Some are dead now — the coal miner, the former homeless man who founded the food pantry, the doughboy who sucked lemons to stay alive and the sergeant who was a clerk for MacArthur — but in a way, despite our small staff and our initially ramshackle environment, the work we did documenting that time and their lives was a record that they had been here, that they'd had aspirations and faced adversity, which they sometimes overcame and sometimes did not, none surrendering easily.

I like to think we wrote about them with honesty and that what those years taught me still shows in my work. The truth is, even decades later when I get clever and forget that the story is what's important, not me, I can hear J.A. Lobbia: "You're being pretentious." I hope I have the wisdom to change it.

After leaving the Riverfront Times in early 1989, Joe Schuster earned an MFA in creative writing. The author of a novel, The Might Have Been, he is a professor in the Department of Communications and Journalism at Webster University.