Sunday, March 12, 2006

Prose vs. Journalism

Lately, I've been doing some thinking. This thinking was largely prompted by the prevailing attitude I see among young writers (in fact, the prevailing attitude I recently held) that since professionally writing fiction doesn't often pay well, you might as well do something writerly - i.e. Journalism.

It's an admirable attitude - become one of the few, proud bastions of truth and warriors of the quill out there every day breaking the big story, and then coming home at night to work on the great Canadian novel.

This, unfortunately, is not the case. Speaking as someone who ditched fiction to work in the news industry, they are two very different animals - skill in one does not necessarily mean success in the other.

I started my long career of waffling around various educational institutions as a fresh-faced English major. This would be great, I thought. I'd get a chance to hone my writing skills while studying the great works of those who came before me - what better vantage point to start a career as a novelist than standing on the shoulders of giants?

Unfortunately, I learned that being an English major meant largely learning how to interpret the works of others, rather than learning to create works of my own. So I dropped out.

After a year of rambling around, cranking out a few short stories and racking up rejection letters from literary magazines, I found my calling like Wile E. Coyote finding a skillet in a Road Runner cartoon.

It was after watching the TV movie Live from Baghdad - a film based on the Robert Wiener book of the same name - that I realized what I wanted to do. I wanted to be on the frontlines of the big story, right up there with police and soldiers, but without the firearms. It was a romantic image of which I'd soon be cured.

Nevertheless, I signed up for Journalism school, and was hooked. Everything meshed perfectly - my command of the language gleaned from my brief foray into University English combined with a thought process that translated perfectly into inverted pyramid style made newswriting fun.

So, it was some months later that I entered the workforce, ready to get to the bottom of things, rake the muck, and do some serious ace reporting.

Or so I thought.

See, career small-town journalism is like career poker - long stretches of boredom mingled with moments of terror.

The big story doesn't come along very often, so the rest of the time is taken up with community news. You'll cover a LOT of tea socials, a lot of curling, a lot of minor hockey, a lot of little school events, and a lot of dry council meetings.

Most newswriting I do involves writing about something that is upcoming, and then covering the event itself. It's not the sexy, edgy profession you see in the movies, with high-powered drama and people screaming at each other about deadlines.

The biggest difference between professional prose and professional journalism is simply this: In professional prose (novels, short stories, etc.) your thoughts and opinions are paramount - it's what people are reading. Sure, you have to package it to appeal to an audience, but it's all you. In professional journalism, however, it's all about the audience - what are they going to need to know? What will interest readers? Even if covering the Valentine's Day Tea Social for the fifth year in a row makes your eyes bleed, people are going to want to read about it.

Sure, it's not a sexy profession, and it's hard work, and it's no substitute for writing a novel, but I love it, and that's all there is to it.


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