If it’s not appearing, it’s disappearing. I heard that said once about visual art, but I believe it is true of every art form, including the written word.
For the past four months, I have been practicing my own vanishing act. Last fall’s abrupt closure of an esteemed weekly, home to my monthly column, did not spur me into action. I did not start a novel. I did not finish a novel. I did not publish a slim volume of essays.
What was I waiting for? A muse of fire?
The answer is one any recovering journalist will recognize. I was waiting for a deadline. It’s the one essential ingredient of my creative process, and now it’s here. 600 words by Wednesday. I feel like cheering.
This is my sixth newspaper. My first was a weekly in suburban Chicago, where I wrote features and society notes and the occasional theater review. I composed these on my old college typewriter at my dining room table at 5 a.m., the only reliably quiet hour of the day. I wrote about brides in fingertip veils and dresses trimmed with Alencon lace. I covered cat shows and town meetings and the Designer Show House. I interviewed newly arrived Vietnamese boat people and experts on teen suicide. I weighed in on the Glenview Theater Guild’s production of Auntie Mame. My deadline was Monday at noon for a Wednesday edition. Most Mondays, I was still typing at 11:45.
Then we moved to Knoxville, and I parlayed my weekly experience into a full-time job with a metro daily. When I started at the Knoxville Journal in the fall of 1984, it felt like the last of the old-time newsrooms. Everyone smoked. The walls were stained yellow with nicotine. The police scanner buzzed and crackled three feet from my desk, where I labored to churn out perky copy for the Style section while listening to reports on the latest stabbing or shooting. It was a far cry from the dining-room table and my battered Smith-Corona, but there was another key difference. The deadlines arrived every single day. I can still recall the stark terror I felt at the sight of the copy editor circling my computer, pointing at his watch.
After the Journal closed in 1991, I did short stints at two other local publications. And then, in 1998, I began a 16-year run with my fifth paper, Metro Pulse. It was the longest relationship I ever had with a newspaper, and the happiest. I was back at my dining-room table, this time with a laptop. The deadline was Thursday. The rising tide of panic crested around Wednesday at midnight.
It was a columnist’s dream: a smart, hip paper with smart, hip editors and a wide and diverse readership. I had carte blanche to write about anything I wanted, including my life, which was then at its midpoint. It seemed too good to be true.
Last fall, the powers that be decided to make Knoxville’s alternative weekly disappear. Print is dead, or so we’re told. Dailies dwindle. Weeklies vanish.
Not here. Today, against all odds, you’re reading a brand-new paper named for the Roman god of commerce, eloquence, and communication. Or maybe it’s for the chemical element that measures temperature, literally and figuratively. It might even be a nod to the iconoclastic American Mercury created by H.L. Mencken in 1924 and committed to challenging everything.
All three references work. And today, thanks to grit and fearlessness and philanthropy and vision, so do a cadre of local writers, editors, art directors, publishers and sales managers.
I slide into my chair at the dining-room table and stare at the blank computer screen, listen to the inexorable ticking of the kitchen clock. I am a fish restored to water. I rest my hands on the keyboard and wait for the words to appear.
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