The life and times of an unregenerate freelancer
The first piece I published in Toronto Life appeared in October, 1973. Actually, it was the first piece I’d published anywhere, except for a precious little effort in Performing Arts in Canada, which examined wrestling as a clue to society’s ills, and another that wound up hacked to bits in Maclean’s, one of whose editors subsequently swore I’d never work for that august periodical again, and was, I’m pleased to say, correct. TheLife piece was a profile of the late John Bulloch, a local tailor who’d gained notoriety by virtue of his fundamentalist newspaper ads. I’d proposed the concept (something I’ve done infrequently since), and was given the assignment on spec. Naked and afraid, I sat down to read back issues of the magazine-rough sledding in those days. (I particularly treasure a photo caption, identifying the “pretty writer” June Callwood, circa 1968). Then I went off, interviewed Bulloch, and produced the sort of stuff I thought was required. Fortunately, the editor, having read a draft I dearly wish I’d kept, told me it could be fixed up, all right, but he’d rather I went away and thought about it. This was the sum of his direction. The revise-roughly what I’d wanted to do in the first place-ran, with two pencil changes, and wasn’t bad. I read it the other night, and my flesh only crept twice in the course of 4,500 words. For this, I was paid $600, and walked on air for months thereafter.
Life‘s editor at the time was John Macfarlane, who’s currently at Saturday Night. When he headed there, we talked on the telephone. He promised he’d be calling me-that it wasn’t a matter of if, but when-because he needed good writers. He’s never called, but then he’s been real busy publishing Canada’s most important whatzit against all odds and good judgment, and I’ve been out a lot. Moral: stay by the phone, and you will get to profile bureaucrats, bagmen and cabinet ministers of the hour, at whatever length you please.
But I digress. Let’s see how the piece you’re reading came about. Marq de Villiers, Life‘s present editor in excelsis, decided a couple of years ago to savage his regular contributors, and quite naturally turned to me. Many people have flirted with the idea of a Life parody, but nothing’s ever come of it, and just as well. Readers might not be able to tell the difference-and if by chance they did, the magazine might not recover. In any case, DeV, having regained his senses or lost his nerve, depending on how you look at it, decided not to run these gems of wit. They sat in a drawer until last October, when he realized that one of his upcoming Ryerson journalism classes (Penmanship and Advertorials 101; batteries not included) was bereft of content. In desperation, he seized the manuscript, summoned his failing powers, and treated his youthful charges to what I’m told was a spell-binding recitation. Several of these golden lads and lasses happened to be putting this publication together, and moved with agility to cook up a piece labelled “parody of magazine writing styles” by someone named Ed Haylwood. But they too had second thoughts-prompted I suspect by Don Obe, a.k.a. the Gloomy Chairman of Ryerson’s journalism school. Perhaps he figured that to float a bunch of sorry pastiches without permitting readers access to the originals might push everybody’s luck, and (considering that he previously occupied DeV’s office; the piano wire and leg-hold traps have since been removed) be a mite incestuous to boot. So it was that I got a very nice note from Janet Crocker, this issue’s editor (who’d meanwhile bothered to check my name), asking for a fast 1,500 words on whatever tickled my fancy, in return for $200. News Flash: Ryerson has been transported back in time to the fiscal year 1973; you read it here first.
I therefore propose to amuse myself by writing about how so-called freelancers paint themselves into corners, and reflecting on the nature of one such small pond. You all know Toronto Life-the last bastion of lucite bidets, the Magazine for the Whining Rich, and so on. You’ve heard that it demeans a noble calling, grovels at the feet of powerful interests, and in general compromises all and sundry to various points of the compass. Come on by any time, and you’ll find once-upright human beings knocking off the latest light-weight atrocity, and cackling the while. One has only to survey the editorial pecking order to grasp why matters have reached so dire a pass. DeV governs the whole enterprise by osmosis, ably abetted by Steve Trumper, who should return without delay to his former duties as a police dispatcher, and Jocelyn Laurence, who secretly mainlines glue. All the work, such as it is, gets done by scrofulous juniors, who drudge for pitiful wages and photostat their resumes when no one’s looking. Worse yet, Peter Herrndorf (the publisher, and welcome to it) prowls to and fro like a superannuated elf, patting luckless bystanders in a bizarre, post-est fashion, the better to further dilute their Journalistic Objectivity.
Well, now. As Hunter Thompson (to whom we turn more and more frequently for solace in these unsettled times) has remarked, the only example of truly unbiased reportage he ever clapped eyes on was an antishoplifting camera in the general store in Woody Creek, Colo. Let me rephrase that. The camera’s a fine and private device, no question about it, but Life is a cabaret. In other words, I can’t think of anyplace I’d rather (albeit loosely) be, warts and all.
Mind you, I’ve been elsewhere, mostly to no good end. I’ve written for magazines too fierce to contemplate, mumbled away on the radio, ghosted books and churned out stage revues-anything to keep jail and craziness at bay. The only National Magazine Award I ever won was for something that appeared in Quest, affording Michael Enright, its former whatzit, his sole moment of glory at last year’s dog and pony show. That was interesting, because I’d submitted the piece myself, on a bet. The entry fee was $25, which paid off 400 times over. Moral: aggressive promotion, if nothing else, permits otherwise dormant editors to behave like a jack-in-the-box. A string of famous victories, to be sure! But somehow I keep returning to the Front Street fern bar, for one very simple reason.
Why do you think the Life parodies worked? Because the magazine attracts Canada’s best writers, who bring to it their best efforts, knowing they’ll be treated accordingly. Some, it’s true, tip-toe to the brink of excess, but that’s OK. I’m talking about skill, substance and infinite variety, not to mention the modicum of trust, affection and respect that exists between traditionally warring parties. Whenever I stumble across yet another tedious diatribe bemoaning the death/dearth/demise of general interest publications, I wonder where the author’s parked his/her criteria. Does nobody read Life when it’s firing on all cylinders?
Maybe not. Maybe even the so-called readers don’t. Would they derive equal satisfaction if Life were solid ads, relieved only by the odd puff piece on up-market indulgences? I hope not, which is why I take photo captions to five and six drafts, just in case. It’s my belief that widespread misconception (only a lifestyle mag in a gilded cage) hinges on context; that if you took Life‘s editorial content and put it somewhere else. unbuttressed by high-priced shoe stores and million-dollar condos, its merits would shine more clearly. Of course, if the shoe stores weren’t footing the bill for said merits, we’d all be out of a) luck, b) work, c) town. Check one, then let it pass.
But no one is guiltless, let alone me. For better or (quite probably) worse, I have become identified with Gomorrahon-the-Newsstands. I have published hundreds of thousands of words in Life‘s glossy pages, speeding the development of a house style known as Urban Glib, and anonymously rejigged an equal number. (My delight is to see a patchwork piece in nomination for the Mag Awards; a short list is available on request). I have watched the passing of several editors, for whom I’ve harbored degrees of regard ranging from qualified to zip. I have walked out once, and on occasion objected to the balance tilting too far toward what seemed to me real triviality. I am not fond, for instance, of laundry lists, to which Life is prone. The most recent example was last year’s journalistic “inner circle.” I was there, along with half the masthead. branded a “top stylist” and “bona fide curmudgeon,” both of which struck me as a premature obit and raised the time-honored question: Where do I go from here?
Maybe that’s the problem. There ain’t a better hole, which is why I sit brooding over projects of extreme complexity, pocketing vast sums, and flaunting my contributing editor’s credit card in posh bistros. (In fact, Revenue Canada alternately sends me flowers and forms inquiring why I’ve never had a job, retainer or dental plan). But what the hell! Because I lurk about, fomenting mopery and doom, I’ve become a quasi-fixture, like the acoustical dividers. My eccentricities are largely tolerated; my copy (which would otherwise be hacked to bits by fevered guardians of Good Syntax) is usually waved on through, despite its manifest lapses. A cosy arrangement, you’ll admit-but not necessarily a healthy one.
So I have an idea. Trumper got all enthused about my writing this piece (although he had no idea what I was up to). “Wow!” he chirped. “The Ryerson Review is read by lots of influential people!” Well, if so, let’s indulge in a test case. I place on record the fact that I’ve felt a tad restless at Life, ever since they suppressed dwarf-tossing contests. So I’m sporadically available, just for a change of pace. Anybody who wants fifth- and sixth-draft hack work is welcome to call. But fair’s fair; if you place an ad, you pay the paper. That’s why I hereby pledge to forward to a Ryerson scholarship, or any other fund designated by the School of Journalism, 10 per cent of all monies that stem from this announcement in the year following its appearance. Plus, I’ll write a follow-up piece (no charge) for next year’s issue, detailing what if any offers arise. But where, I hear you chorus, should prospective benefactors be in touch? Care of the Front Street fern bar is bound to reach me. In case you hadn’t noticed, that’s where good writers tend to congregate, uttering languid, incestuous cries, and scribbling their names over and over, in the hope that someone, someday, gets them halfway right.