Hi Crime Writer fans. Maureen here, in my chilly writer’s garret, with loyal dog and cat at my feet, waiting for the first snowflakes of winter to fall.
Writers lead fairly insular lives. That’s not a secret. In fact, it’s kind of a cliche. But true anyway. It’s just the nature of the beast. To write, we have to be alone with our heads and it can take a lot of time and effort.
I’m lucky enough to have a day job as a newspaper editor, which gets me out among people. Even so, that can be insular, too. We talk to people, we witness events and write about them. We call people up and expect them to reveal intimate details of their lives or thoughts so we can type it up and let thousands of others read them, too. But then we move on to the next story. The biggest story in the world still will end up in the recycling bin sooner or later. So it’s insular in its own way.
It has to be for us to do our jobs. In the last few weeks at the Morning Sentinel in Waterville, Maine, where I’m city editor, the five reporters at our paper have covered a quadruple murder-homicide and the fallout from it; the investigation, firing, further allegations and criminal charge against the Waterville High School principal, accused of propositioning a student on the first day of school; fatal car accidents, dozens of arrests for domestic violence and gross sexual assault — the list goes on. We do the stories the best we can — they consume us — but then we have to move on to the next one.
As a fiction writer, I pull from the deep recesses of my head and my heart, trying to form my truth and reality into something that will move others enough to understand that internal world.
In my other persona as a journalist, I take our responsibility seriously. I know what we do affects people, but I also know we’re writing about the world’s reality and our responsibility lies more in doing it well and right. It’s easy to believe it’s ephemeral.
That perception was shaken — more severely than I’d like to admit — the other day.
I was fiddling around with my iPhone, trying to delete a spam iMessage without actually opening it, when a file I never realized existed opened up: filtered messages. It included Facebook messages from as far back as 2011 that I’d never seen. Most of them were more spam or otherwise killable.
One stood out:
“Hi, I”m sorry to bother you. But I was wondering if you worked for a newspaper in 1983 and maybe wrote an article called ‘Jennifer, little lady with a big future.’ It was about a lil girl who’s a little person with her parents. If you did, I would like to thank you so much!!!”
In 1983 I was fresh out of college and working in the Sanford bureau of the Biddeford Journal-Tribune. I did remember the story — barely. If she hadn’t included the headline I’m not sure I would remember it at all.
As a newspaper editor, I’m used to getting feedback. Much of it negative. When we’ve made a mistake or gotten something wrong, I’m embarrassed and regretful and angry with myself for letting it happen. When someone complains because we’ve done our jobs right, it doesn’t bother me at all. Then there’s the usual tirades from those who think we’re biased, we’re conspiring, we’re deliberately doing something they don’t like for our own nefarious ends. The insults when we turn off website comments on a story because of vulgarity, racism or other issues. I enjoy setting those people straight. Responding to that stuff is right in my wheelhouse.
Sometimes I just laugh. Like about five or six years ago when I was filling in as Sunday News sports editor at the New Hampshire newspaper I worked for at the time, and a high school student called on a busy Saturday afternoon wanting to interview a reporter — right then — for a school project. I clearly identified that I was the sports editor, explained that the sportswriters were all incredibly busy, gave him a couple email address of guys I thought might help him out, but not that day.
Two days later, his teacher emailed the sports editor to complain that “a secretary” (I’m not making that up) had not allowed the boy to talk to anyone in the sports department, and therefore the boy’s assignment couldn’t get done on time.
Readers, do you know me at all? Imagine my glee when the sports editor forwarded that email to me to answer.
Once in a while, in my ten years as a reporter and now as an editor and a columnist, I’ll get a heartfelt thanks from someone the day something appears, or a couple days after.
But that’s pretty much the feedback I deal with as a newspaper editor, and that’s fine with me. Our work is fast, it’s deadline-driven, it’s not always pretty, and there’s always another story right behind it — or a couple dozen — to take its place.
The story about Jennifer wasn’t some major blockbuster. It wasn’t even important enough to me, for instance, to include in an envelope of Journal-Tribune clippings I came across recently that I’d used to apply for reporting jobs in 1984. If it weren’t for the headline, I don’t know if I’d remember it at all.
But it touched Jennifer enough that she found me decades later on the Internet just so she could thank me.
I may not have remembered the story in the 30-plus years since I’d written it, but I’m pretty sure I’m going to remember that.
Maureen Milliken is the author of Cold Hard News, the first in the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Follow her on twitter at @mmilliken47, on Facebook at Maureen Milliken mysteries and contact her through her website, maureenmilliken.com.