Dad's Write Stuff

Journalist Finds Comfort in Father's Literary Passion

At age 5, I had no idea what he was up to. But I could see that he had the best toy in the house, a black and chrome Smith-Corona SuperSpeed that I used to write the first draft of this story. Back then, I carried a cap pistol in my holster. But my dad could make his toy sound like a machine gun.

Reprinted with permission of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, copyright 2002

In my 47th year, it occurred to me -- as it does to many people at midlife -- that I ought to reinvent myself.

Many of my friends had left this newspaper. One went into public relations; another built a software company; a third started a dot-com. Meanwhile, I had been plowing the same furrow as a writer and editor here for 25 years. The turn of the century should find me starting something brilliant, fresh, lucrative.

So I paid a call on a woman who calls herself the Job Doctor. She asked me questions about my parents, my boyhood, my dreams. Then she listened to me caterwaul about my gloomy prospects: underpaid, unappreciated, largely unrecognized.

She took some notes, waited for me to quiet down, then gave me a prescription: "Talk to your father ."

Well, thank you very much, Job Doc, and here's your check, but don't you recall that I told you that Dad's been dead for 17 years?

Have that chat anyway, she said.

My dad, Richard M. Weiss , held no truck with counselors, nor with channeling. But this is what he would have told me: Great material.

My dad was always on the lookout for material, something around which to build a story. He was a writer, too. And he wrote for the finest journals in the land -- the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Life, Saturday Review and Harper's. None of them published what he submitted.

Still, he wrote for them. And I watched.

At age 5, I had no idea what he was up to. But I could see that he had the best toy in the house, a black and chrome Smith-Corona SuperSpeed that I used to write the first draft of this story. Back then, I carried a cap pistol in my holster. But my dad could make his toy sound like a machine gun.

Dad found his material everywhere, in '43 pounding out a long article against a "world federation," in '69 a screed against "bare-assed" productions on Broadway, in '79, taking Uncle Sam to task for collecting taxes too slowly.

He found his best material in his family -- at least I thought so. He wrote about playing hide-and-seek with my sister and me. Never one to put much effort into such frivolity, he lay down on the hill of our yard fronting a busy street. Not long after, police confronted him. They were responding to reports of a drunk sprawled in the grass.

These stories had me howling. When he sent them off to those erudite publications (and the Reader's Digest as well because "they pay a pretty penny"), I was certain he'd trigger a bidding war.

Weeks later, the responses came back. Nope, nope and nope.

"Thank you for letting us see the enclosed material," said one. "It was given careful consideration, and we regret that we cannot use it."

"Well, at least they had read it carefully," I offered.

"That's what you call a form letter, son."

But not all of them were boilerplate.

From the Atlantic, Nov. 9, 1943: "We are sorry to report that this article of yours finds us possessed of more material dealing with post-war considerations than we can possibly accommodate. This was witty and persuasive writing, and I hope you will find an opening for it elsewhere."

He did, but only as a letter to the editor in the St. Louis Star-Times.

If the rejections rattled my dad, he never made me aware of it. He stapled his no-thank-you slips to his carbons, filed them away and sent the stories on to another publication.

His life was hardly filled with futility. He was a pioneer broadcast journalist, joining Pulitzer Publishing just a year before the company introduced television to St. Louis. Over the years, he worked his way up to executive producer, responsible for the 6 and 10 o'clock news. Channel 5, then known as KSD-TV, perennially led the ratings.

As challenging as the day job was, he found it a literary vacuum.

"I'm a hack writer," he once told me. He said it clinically without a hint of self-pity. Even so, the remark made me feel awful.

"No you're not, Dad. You're terrific."

As I got older, I took my turn at the Smith-Corona. But I couldn't make it shake, rattle and roll like he could. I would go over the same sentence, again and again, x-ing it out, rolling in fresh paper, then making a mess of that.

I wasn't good enough to have anything like writer's block, but I did get very stuck on a seventh-grade assignment: Write your autobiography.

Nothing of great moment had occurred in my first 13 years. No problem, dad responded. Make it up. Whenever you get stuck, he advised, just get silly.

My teacher read "Diary of an Abominable Snowman " to the class. They laughed at all the funny parts, and I got an A.

My father was not the sort of guy many kids would have ordered from a dad catalog. In those days, he was pencil thin -- about 6 feet 4, and under 130 pounds. (The family joke: My mother, a foot shorter, weighed more than him at their wedding.) His sister called him "Beek" because of his prominent nose. And he was no fun to play catch with because he'd quit if you threw the ball over his head more than a few times.

Despite these liabilities and insufficiencies, he carried himself with an air of great authority. Whenever he had an opinion, he uttered it as if no one could possibly have an opposing view. In the '60s, while many sons (and daughters) rebelled against their dads, I decided mine knew exactly what he was talking about.

Over ice cream sodas at HoJos nearly every weekend, we'd talk about two topics: the Cardinals and my future. Since he was tall, dad figured I would be as well. He suggested I dribble a basketball to school.

Because it was the news readers at his work that earned the big money, he suggested I take a speech class so I could acquire "the gift for gab." Because the Soviet Union and United States dominated the world, he told me to take Russian. And because he believed the two countries might engage in a nuclear free-for-all, he wanted me to go to summer camp to learn survival skills.

I followed every instruction, except dribbling to school.

My dad, who was relentlessly irreverent concerning most American institutions, always spoke respectfully of the Post-Dispatch.

When I graduated from college, I came home to St. Louis and consulted with my dad about finding a job. He instructed me in the art of writing query letters, told me how to make cold calls. The Post-Dispatch expressed little interest in me. But I had appointments set up all over Illinois, Kansas and Missouri.

By the time I returned I had an offer at a UHF station in Topeka and one at the Kansas City Star. The newspaper offered $10 less per week. The TV job sounded glamorous even if it was in a smaller town.

But I knew what I had to do. My dad had spent so many years trying to get published. It was up to me to take the family into print. I started at The Star in July 1973 as a general assignment reporter with my dad (and mom) waiting impatiently for every clip I sent home.

A letter from Jan. 28, 1974: "Dear Dick -- Apparently you haven't had any articles in the Star, since we haven't received any clippings. Get to work."

By the end of 1975, I had amassed enough decent clippings to apply again at the Post-Dispatch. And I got the job.

What I found in this newsroom in the mid- to late '70s were a bunch of dads in the form of several editors. They were as brilliant as my father and just as eager (well, almost as eager) to help me succeed.

In fact, they were so supportive, my dad's attentiveness began to seem redundant, at times even annoying. I didn't like talking with him about work so much anymore. He had his story ideas. I had mine. His praise, generous and encouraging, didn't seem nearly as important to me as my bosses'.

And then my dad died. At his funeral service in February 1983, I sat with a lump in my throat while his friends beautifully captured his quirkiness, his warmth, his spirit. But they couldn't articulate what he had meant to me. And neither could I. Couldn't find the words; lost my gift for gab. I offered no eulogy at my father's funeral.

In the nearly two decades since his death, I moved from one job to another at the Post-Dispatch. A new editor arrived in 1998. We didn't get along so well. And he gave me a different assignment outside the management loop.

That's when I went to see the Job Doctor. Along with advising me to talk with my dad, she told me to take advantage of the fact that my new job -- writing coach -- was ill-defined. Figure out what makes you happiest and most proud, she advised. Then do it.

Here's the part of the story where I'm supposed to win the Pulitzer Prize and lay the medal on papa's grave. I never came close.

But I did find time to do more writing and tried to coach others in the way that my dad had done for me.

Then, in 2000, came a call from a writing guru at a journalism institute in Florida. Would my paper consider hosting a workshop for hundreds of journalists across the nation? I had been to a few of these workshops. You recruit three dozen of the best writers in the land to share their wisdom with hundreds of journalists and other writers trying to get better. It seemed very Dad-like. And I approached the planning just as my dad would when he had some material: obsessively.

Our first workshop drew 400 people. Two hundred more came to the second workshop.

After each event, I got phone calls and letters from reporters who described how they had found something useful or inspiring.

I got inspired, too. A couple of weeks after the conference, I hauled my dad's typewriter over to a repairman in Maplewood. While he cleaned the keys and installed a fresh ribbon, I dived into the files my dad had left behind -- every story, every rejection slip, copies of the letters he had sent to me, and some I had sent to him.

He wasn't nearly as good a writer as I remembered. I could see where a little coaching and fine-tuning would have made his prose more compelling and publishable. But as far as I could tell, no one had given his work anywhere near the attention that he had given mine. And yet he had never given up; never wallowed in self-pity.

Though I have a new boss and a new position, I still get aggravated with my job. Writing this story frustrated me. It has gone through many revisions.

But as I paused recently and stared at the messy sheet in the old Smith-Corona, I could hear my dad admonishing me.

"Get to work," he said.