By Jim Hagarty
In 1977 I scored my first job as a reporter on a little hometown newspaper called The Advocate. At least that was the name on the masthead. Readers knew it as The Aggravate.
The job came with a hefty wage of $4.20 an hour and all the cockroaches you could kill. The newspaper was located next to a butcher shop. The roaches came to our place for a rest from chomping on meat and stuff all day.
But there was a bonus, or something that would eventually look like one to me. Among my duties which included chasing a bat out of the darkroom every morning and keeping the sidewalk cleared of snow in winter, as mandated by a strictly enforced town bylaw, was the job of writing a weekly column. I took that up with gusto. It was the prize whistle at the bottom of what really was a very stale box of Cracker Jacks.
My column was aptly named One Day at a Time. And if a person was foolish enough to work at that newspaper with anything but a one day at a time approach, instant madness was the reward. I got the job because the reporter before me lasted only three weeks and at the end was walking around the office in his bare feet. Apparently, he looked ahead a little too far. Like maybe two days at a time. And what he saw literally freaked him out. Last I heard he was selling pencils from a cup on the streets of Toronto and was much happier for it.
So I unleashed One Day at a Time on the world, a world which, I now see, was probably not ready for it. I wrote seriously about all the big issues of the day. But I was confronted with a handicap: I knew less than nothing about all the big issues of the day. But, perversely, the less I knew, the more I wrote. A favourite request of my editor made by readers during this time was, “Make him stop!”
I didn’t stop. Me? Hah!
But one night I ran into a wall. I had taken home my primitive little Radio Shack laptop which weighed about the same as a small tractor. My lap is still depressed where that mammoth machine used to sit. Anyway, I sat there stumped. I was fresh out of no knowledge about the big issues of the day. I had absolutely no ignorance left to share.
But then I noticed something strange. My two cats were fighting over the same heat register. Thirteen heat registers in the house, and they both were willing to battle to the death over that one special register, which was only special because they both wanted to sit on it. If you have ever seen two cats fighting over a heat register, you have seen every world war ever fought, start to finish.
Desperate, I wrote my column about the catfight. And crazily, it was the first column any reader appeared to have liked. No dummy me, cat columns flowed from me from then on like pee from a toddler when the diaper comes off. It got so bad, a letter to the editor came in and was published and these were its very words: “Tell Hagarty to stop writing about his cats!”
I was undeterred. But I got a bit bored with my cats, so I started writing about the neighbour’s cats. And eventually, his dog. Also, about my pathetic home renovations. And my rattly car that was a car in the same way a dandelion is a tree.
And then it happened.
I won a best humour writer award in a newspaper competition. Little did those poor judges know they had poured gasoline on the dying embers of my writing career.
It is popular to disparage awards. I have probably done it myself. But that little bit of encouragement from my peers in the newspaper business was like a flagman on a highway, directing me into another lane.
More awards. Soon, I stopped writing for my readers and started writing to win more awards.
The awards stopped.
But it was OK.
I no longer chase cockroaches and bats.
And I still write about cats and broken down cars.
And love every minute of it.
Turns out, all I needed was an opportunity and a pat on the head.
And to one day finally see all 10 Writer Commandments wrapped up into one line which every beginning writer needs to see:
“Write what you know.”