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Yesterday’s post of a Toastmasters speech reminds me that I have another one in my back pocket, a (purportedly) humorous one called “Noble Misfits of the Work Force.” It is presented here for your edification:

If there’s a singular reason I’ve survived twenty-two years as a professional journalist – aside from being of questionable character and having no other marketable skill, I mean – it’s the people. Journalists, by and large, are the noble misfits of the professional class. Most of them – emphasis on “most” – are smart enough to be tremendously successful in any other line of work: high finance, the arts, street peddling. Instead, they choose journalism. Why? A million reasons, and some of them actually brush up against the idea of digging out the truth and exposing corruption. (Me, I chose it because I wanted a profession that let me sleep in until noon and made me just enough money to remain well-stocked in pizza and compact discs. I’m glad that this crowd is sufficiently unhip that I don’t have to explain an antiquity like “compact disc.”)

Suffice to say that the profession attracts people who skate on the other side of the ice. People who march to the beat of a different drum. People who view life through a different lens. People who overuse metaphors. Some of my older colleagues contend that the heyday for the noble misfit was actually several decades ago, that the most colorful days of journalism ended when newspapers added HR departments and began frowning on those who carried flasks in their desk drawers. Poppycock, I say! The times no doubt have demanded that alterations be made, but I find that the flask fits perfectly fine in my overcoat.

It’s been my pleasure to know some of these irascible characters in my career, and today, I would like to introduce you to a few of them:

THE TWISTED WIRE EDITOR

A wire editor, my friends, is someone who gathers the news from the various cooperatives – the Associated Press, etc. – and condenses that huge pile of offerings into a daily report inside your newspaper. When you’re a wire editor, you quickly become numb to man’s ghastly capacity for unmentionable cruelty. Whether it’s police brutality in Poughkeepsie, shootings in Saratoga, murder-suicide in Milwaukee or beheadings in Birmingham, a wire editor reads it all.

One of my colleagues in San Jose, Calif., who held this job would meticulously harvest the lead paragraphs of stories of mayhem and transplant them onto a take he kept squirreled away in his personal queue. There, he would perform a bit of mad-genius surgery to the snippet of story, removing the name of the perpetrator and inserting a new one:

Mother Teresa’s.

Thus, someone reading this take would come across items like this:

“SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. – Police say that Mother Teresa was arrested Friday after a traffic stop and search that revealed she was carrying three tons of marijuana in the trailer of her semi-truck.”

“ELKO, Nev. – Mother Teresa was taken into custody Wednesday after a four-hour armed conflict in which two police officers were shot, one critically.”

“JORDAN, Mont. – Mother Teresa is being held on $15,000 bail after being arrested and charged in the poaching of seven elk.”

We don’t know why this wire editor did this. (In truth, we don’t know why he’s still walking around as a free man.) But the point is, he was perfectly at home in a newsroom. Celebrated, even.

THE RECALCITRANT SPORTS EDITOR

I didn’t witness this, but I have it on good authority that it went down this way.

It’s a Friday night in 1968, and the sports desk at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram is humming along at a brisk pace when the elevator pings and two men who don’t belong in a newsroom step off. (When you work in a newsroom, you develop a sixth sense for interlopers. They have personal hygiene. Their socks match. That sort of thing.) They make a beeline for Charles Clines, who was working that night, and say, “Is Charles Clines working tonight?”

Charlie, as he was known, says, “I’m not sure. Let me check the schedule.” He walks to the opposite wall, puts his finger on the schedule, and says, “Nope. He’s off tonight.” The two men thank him and head back to the elevator. Unfortunately for Charlie, his coworkers launch a long, cascading laugh, and the two men pivot and walk back into the newsroom, past the sports desk, on their way to the managing editor’s office. Charlie, figuring he’s done for but showing the can-do spirit of a desperate fugitive, dashes into a side office, shuts the door and turns off the light.

It’s all for naught. The managing editor and the two men show up, unlock the office door, and place Charlie in handcuffs. The men were cops, and the reason they came for Charlie is that he hadn’t paid his parking tickets. Ever. He was paraded through the newsroom and received a standing ovation.

(The reason I know this story? Charlie is my stepfather.)

FINALLY, A LOVE LETTER TO THE PEOPLE WE COVER

The first two examples I cited were people inside the newsroom. But at least half the fun of the profession lies in who you get to know outside the office.

Down in central Texas sits a town that’s spelled M-E-X-I-A. It’s famously mispronounced even by longtime Texans; it’s not MEX-ia, but MA-HEY-UH. Back when Grant Teaff coached the football team at Baylor, he made a recruiting visit to that town and, as the story goes, he stopped off at a local restaurant for a bite to eat.

“Ma’am,” he says to the woman behind the counter, “I always get this wrong. Could you tell me again, real slow, where I am?”

The woman looks at him and says, “DAI-REE QUEEEEEN.”

Finally, here’s one that actually happened to me:

Early in my career, maybe 1990 or 1991, I’m covering the Texas Golden Gloves at the Will Rogers Coliseum in Fort Worth. One of the championship fights comes down to a Dallas fighter against a Fort Worth fighter. Given the pro-Fort Worth bias of the crowd, the Dallas fighter is lustily booed, both as he enters the ring and throughout the fight. Despite facing this hostility, the Dallas fighter ends up winning in a knockout.

I hightail it back to the interview area and catch him as his gloves are being cut off.

“So,” I say, “did the boos motivate you?”

He flashes with anger, balls up his fists and says, “Naw, man, I don’t drink.”

Too bad. I had this flask, right there in my overcoat …

I’ve been involved with Toastmasters for a couple of months now. I joined the group to iron out my public-speaking skills, now that I actually do a fair amount of it. I’ve never had a lot of trouble with structuring a speech or being entertaining (please refrain from offering a rebuttal of this second point), but I have a painfully well-developed penchant for littering my speech with “um” and “you know” and “whatever and stuff” and all manner of other fillers. For all-too-cringeworthy examples of this, check out the AV page at CraigLancaster.net. Or don’t. You’ll probably be happier with the latter choice.

In any event, today I presented a speech to my Toastmasters club called “The Accidental Novelist.” There was sufficient demand for it among my peeps at Facebook that I thought I’d go ahead and post it here:

Today I wish to tell you how the worst day of my life led me to the fulfillment of my biggest dream. But first, a little background on that dream …

I wrote my first novel, 600 Hours of Edward, in 24 days of November in 2008, was finished revising it by February 2009 and sold it to the first publisher who looked at it. It came out in October 2009 and has since been named a Montana Honor Book and a finalist for a High Plains Book Award. Zero to published in less than a year. Man, I thought, this novel-writing stuff is going to be a cinch.

Then I wrote my second novel.

The differences were stark. I drafted The Summer Son over three arduous months in the summer of 2009, turned it over to my beta readers – a group of people I trust to give me honest feedback on my work (which is to say, none of them is my mother) – and watched them drive Buicks through the holes in the plot. So I wrote it a second time, rearranging pieces of the story, backfilling details, cutting out the useless bits and generally turning my work area into a bloodbath of narrative body parts.

I’d have given my second effort to my beta readers, but for one niggling fact: I hated it.

So back I went, through a third, a fourth and a fifth draft. The original manuscript, which checked in at around 79,000 words, lost weight and gained focus. Late in the fourth draft, I finally discovered what the story was really about – the beating heart beneath the prose – and my pace quickened as I saw the solutions to all the problems I’d put in my own path. By June 2010, I had a finished manuscript, at just a shade under 72,000 words. It promptly sold, and now I await a January 25th release date.

A 12-month, five-draft slog to Book No. 2. Man, I thought, this novel-writing stuff is going to kill me.

The truth of the matter is this: It was only after almost literally killing myself that I embraced my long-held dream of being a novelist. In July 2008, just a few months before I wrote 600 Hours of Edward in a literary frenzy, I cajoled my wife into letting me have a motorcycle, bought it in Sidney – because, you know, why not purchase a death machine 260 miles from home? – and began piloting it back to Billings. Thirty-seven miles from home, at 60 miles per hour on Interstate 94, I went down when a buck jumped in my path. I bounced through the passing lane and came to rest in the median strip. The damage, while not fatal (obviously), was plenty bad: I broke all the ribs on my left side, collapsed a lung, lacerated my spleen, wrenched my left knee and tore up my elbows with road rash. The impact blew off my shoes and wrenched my wedding ring from my finger. Recuperation came with a weeklong hospital stay, another month at home in a recliner (because of my ribs, I couldn’t lie flat on my back) and enough pain medication to turn me into a drug dealer, had I so chosen.

In the month that I was out of commission and unable to do much but sit and think, my mind wandered. I knew how fortunate I was; at that speed, on that terrain, one shift in the geometry might have done me in. I was lucky that Ang was following me in our Ford Explorer – not so wonderful for her to witness the wreck, but she was able to call in help immediately. In the days and weeks that followed, I endured nightmares about the wreck, nighttime visions that still occasionally visit me. But I also found my thoughts drifting toward goals I’d once had for my life, and notable among those was a desire to write books. Here’s the deal: I can’t tell you how many people come up to me and say, “I have a novel inside me, I just know it.” For years, I was one of those people. Do you know why most of those novels never get written? BECAUSE IT’S HARD. More than that, it’s because we all harbor dreams about what we want to do, but for many of us, the day-to-day demands of life crowd in, and those dreams wither on the vine.

Sometimes, it takes a powerful jolt to shake those aspirations loose, to remind us that we really do have only one life and one chance to pursue happiness. A motorcycle wreck, for example. On July 22, the day after my wreck, I might have spit in the eye of anyone suggesting that I’d received a gift, but that’s exactly what it was. It was a gift of perspective.

600 Hours of Edward changed my life; there’s simply no way to adequately capture what it’s meant to hear from people who’ve been moved by it. The Summer Son, a darker, more psychological, more personal story, promises to give even more lift to my literary dreams. The great Western novelist Richard Wheeler, in endorsing my new book, wrote: “The Summer Son travels straight into the realm of broken hearts and hurt souls only to discover miraculous things at the core of each of us: grace and love.”

Grace and love. That’s pretty heady stuff for a guy who was just trying to get home one very bad day in July and ended up crashing into a new way of looking at his life.

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