Jennifer Weiner: From Small-Town Beat Reporter to Big City Columnist
The Author of Hungry Heart on Following the Advice: "Just Write Every Day"
I graduated from college with grandiose ambitions, big plans, and 30,000 dollars of student loans. I knew that I wanted to write. My dream was to write novels. Unfortunately, we were no longer living in a time when I could present myself to a wealthy czar or nobleman or nobleman’s wife and ask if he or she was interested in being a patron, or patroness, of the arts, and supporting me while I perfected my craft, and dashed off the occasional sonnet about his or her brave character and good looks. Nor were my parents interested in funding a year in a garret in Paris, or in Brooklyn, so that I could write a thinly veiled account of their divorce and how it had hurt me.
I needed to find a J-O-B, one where I’d be paid to write, where I was, per my old writing teacher, John McPhee’s advice, writing every day. The two fields that came to mind were advertising and journalism. I rejected advertising immediately. No way was I going to be a shill in corporate America, using my talent to sell debt-ridden citizens useless crap! Besides, I was convinced, for absolutely no reason rooted in reality, that I’d end up working on the tampon campaign, and that my professional life would be spent finding synonyms for the word “absorbent.”
(True story—years later, my agent called me up. “I think I know what you’re going to say to this, but I need to run it by you anyhow,” she began. I could hear the reluctance as I asked what was up. Turns out, a “feminine protection brand” had asked if I wanted to be their campus ambassador.
I was instantly enthralled. “Would I have to dress up as a giant tampon?” I demanded.
“I don’t know,” Joanna answered. “Could I dress up as a giant tampon?” I continued. “I’m going to take this as a no,” said Joanna. “No! No, it’s not a no! I need you to find out if there are any strings attached!” “I’m hanging up now,” Joanna said. “Just give me some time,” I said. “You have to admit, it’s a lot to absorb.”) So journalism it was. I was lucky enough to be selected as one of the first class of “fellows” at a new summer program run by the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank in St. Petersburg, Florida. The institute picked a dozen liberal-arts graduates who hadn’t been journalism majors but wanted to work for newspapers. They paid us a stipend, helped us find housing, and spent six weeks teaching us the fundamentals of reporting.
If Professor McPhee’s class had been about structure and language, the rhythm of good prose, and the beauty of the perfect word, then the Poynter fellowship was all about the mechanics of reporting. There was less emphasis on beautiful sentences or seamless structure and more of a focus on accuracy, on making sure the pertinent facts were in the story, that sources were quoted correctly and that their names were spelled right. Our job as journalists was to give readers news they could use, information that would help them make decisions about everything from politics to how to spend their weekend. We covered a city council meeting. I profiled a nurse at a local abortion clinic, and tried to endure the muggy heat of a Florida summer as I drove my rental car to my assignments. It was grueling and exhilarating and humbling, because, as it turns out, being a good writer and being a good reporter are far from the same thing. A writer can be invisible, but a reporter has to be both present and persistent, showing up with a notebook or asking questions over the phone. I was shy. Talking to strangers wasn’t easy. But I wanted to write, and as far as I could figure, this was the best way to learn, to get paid to write every day in a way that I hoped would help me get better.
During the final week of our fellowship, the institute had a job fair. My résumé made it into the hands of Knight-Ridder’s corporate recruiters and, in short order, I was offered a job as the education reporter for the Centre Daily Times, a small paper in State College, Pennsylvania. My job started in September, just before the deadline my mother had given to be out of her house and supporting myself.
It was 1991. I rented, for 300 dollars a month, a two-room apartment on the third floor of a brick Victorian house on East Linn Street in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. My place had wall-to-wall shag carpeting in an unlovely and stain-disguising shade of brown, a rattling radiator in a boxy metal cage that jutted into the center of the living room, and a harvest-gold kitchen with peel-on wood veneer on the cabinets and linoleum on the floor. The floors tilted, in a way that made me feel constantly, slightly tipsy, and there were two deep, narrow dormer windows—one in the bedroom and one in the living room/dining room/kitchen.
I did my best to decorate, with family cast-offs and tag-sale finds. A third of an old sectional from our living room became my couch, and an old dresser housed my TV. I bought a wobbly wooden table and two metal-frame chairs at a secondhand shop, and put my king-size futon on a donated queen-size box spring on the bedroom floor. (The way the futon hung over the box spring always reminded me of the lunch-meat-and-miniature-bread sandwich in This Is Spinal Tap.) The dormer cutout in the bedroom was just wide enough for a twin-size bed—I called it my guest suite—and the one in the living room was the perfect size for the folding metal card table that I’d be using to write on for the next ten years.
Bellefonte was a small town about ten miles from State College, and the CDT ’s office, and about five miles away from the State Correctional Institution at Rockview.
Bellefonte was grittier than Simsbury. Few of the houses had swimming pools or well-tended lawns. There were no country clubs, no fancy boutiques, no art galleries or bookstores or cute little cafés . . . but there was a library, and a video rental store, and a pretty park full of friendly ducks that would eat bread crusts right out of your hand. Fran and I went to the BI-LO supermarket and stocked up on basics—chicken broth and rice, chuck steak and onions, garlic and carrots, apples and bananas and salad stuff. Then Fran drove away, and I got into the minivan that my mother had sold to me for the last of my bat mitzvah money to go exploring. I turned the key and, instead of the car starting, I heard an ominous thunk. I got out and found what appeared to be the entire engine lying on the pavement. I’d gotten a AAA membership as a graduation gift, so the tow to the repair shop was free, but the van needed hundreds of dollars’ worth of new parts, and I had to rent a car so that I could get to work (Fran: “Ask if there’s a company car they can lend you!”). Not an auspicious start to my employment.
Shopping options in State College were limited. My work wardrobe boasted pieces from Lane Bryant and T.J. Maxx and Marshalls back at home—lots of long cotton tops and stirrup pants, boxy jackets with shoulder pads, floral skirts worn with white hose and pumps from Payless. At home, I’d wear my favorite casual top, an extra-large blue cotton hooded pullover with a pouch in front for my hands. Chris Isaak and Enya were on “repeat” on my Discman, I took step class at the gym, and I went to Sears and bought a TV—my first major, adult purchase— because, not so far out of high school myself, I was obsessed with Beverly Hills, 90210.
My job was to cover the five local school districts in the paper’s circulation area—their board meetings, their outstanding students, their teachers’ strikes. I was also responsible for typing in five districts’ worth of school lunch menus once a week—and if there’s anything that slaps the taste of F. Scott Fitzgerald out of your mouth faster than having to sit there typing “Hot dog with bun, tater tots, fruit cup, your choice of skim or chocolate milk,” I don’t want to know what it is.
Even though my beat was education, reporters at small papers end up covering everything. Breaking news about the bagel shop on College Avenue closing? That’s you. House fire? Car crash? Sewage board hearing that nobody else can attend? All you. The fires were actually pretty big deals. State College had some hot firemen . . . or at least it had strapping guys who looked appealing in their turnout gear, with hoses coiled around their shoulders and axes in their hands. When news of a fire came over the scanner, I’d fight the other young female reporters over whose turn it was to cover the blaze and who’d gotten to go to the last one.
In my two and a half years at the CDT, I wrote about everything—usually, at least at first, badly. I’d profile artists and writers, and get their names wrong, or the names of their books or their spouses wrong. I’d write about proposed tax increases, and get the decimal points wrong, and show up at work the next morning to find 32 furious voice-mail messages on my phone, most of which would be from the senior citizens who seemed to comprise much of the CDT ’s subscription base, and who had nothing to do but linger over the day’s paper, hunting for errors.
To this day, I’m not sure why I was so awful. Maybe it was a lack of supervision: the paper was understaffed, the editors were overwhelmed, and the reporters were mostly twentysomethings, most of us at our very first job. Maybe it was the difference between the desultory pace of writing opinion pieces whenever I felt opinionated versus the grind of churning out two or three or four pieces a day about a variety of topics, some of which interested me intensely, some of which you couldn’t have paid me to care about. It was a learn-as-you-go situation, and I tried to get better and enjoy myself. After a year, I moved from Bellefonte to the second floor of a carriage house in Boalsburg, on the expansive grounds of Boal Mansion. I had a roommate and a boyfriend, a tall, handsome guy who’d started at the paper a year after I had, and along with my fellow reporters, we’d all find ways to have fun after hours for as little money as possible. We’d go hear local bands or out for ten-cent wings and five-dollar pitchers of beer at local bars. I’d cook, or we’d go hiking in Bear Meadow, or swimming at Whipple Dam, or for grilled sticky buns at Ye Olde College Diner on College Avenue. Life felt like it was moving in the right direction—even if, sometimes, I’d come across a profile of a former classmate who’d sold a novel or of a 23-year-old who’d been hired to write for Saturday Night Live, and I would feel sick with jealousy, plunged into despair, positive that I would be stuck in State College forever; that I’d die broke and unfamous, with my student loans still outstanding.
Still, most days, I couldn’t believe that I was being paid to write, even if it was the princely sum of $16,000 a year, a few thousand dollars less than annual tuition at Princeton had cost. But I didn’t care . . . and I wasn’t proud. Whatever needed to be done, I’d do it.
Which is how, a year or so into my tenure, I found myself dressed in a skirt and cute suede pumps, rolling a tranquilized bear across a cornfield.
Happy Valley, where State College is located, has at its heart Penn State University, and the sophisticated town that had grown up around it. There were ethnic restaurants and movie theaters, fancy clothing stores and a new, modern library. As you got farther away from the campus, there were golf courses and new construction, gated communities of condominiums and McMansions where nostalgic PSU alumni could purchase second homes and be within walking distance of Beaver Stadium and Nittany Lions football games.
But if you drove five miles in any direction, it was Deliverance. Maybe not Deliverance, exactly, but it was distinctly agrarian, which was a whole new world for a suburban girl like me.
The first summer I worked at the paper, in 1992, a bear had been ravaging area cornfields. The bear would amble through the rows, pulling off ears of corn at random, eating its fill before basically passing out in a food coma in the middle of the field. It would roll around, crushing the cornstalks, before arising, decimating a few more plants, and strolling off along the ridges of Mount Nittany, on its way to the next farmer’s fields.
We’d been getting calls about the bear—first from farmers, then from game wardens who were trying to catch it. I’d written a few little squibs, my own humorous takes about the hungry bear and where it would head next. So it was that on a Monday morning, the city desk phone rang, and an excited warden announced, “We caught the bear!”
“Good for you!” I said. “Do you want to come see it?” he asked. Initially, I did not. It was a bear. I was a young woman who’d taken pains with her appearance that morning, because I had a school board meeting that night. I was not interested in schlepping 20 miles into the hinterlands to get a look at the local wildlife.
The game warden wore me down. “Oh, c’mon, aren’t you curious? You’ve been writing all these stories about the bear! You should come see!”
Reluctantly I went to the newspaper parking lot, climbed in my minivan, and drove. And drove and drove and drove. Out of State College, into Bellefonte, through Centre Hall, up and over Mount Nittany, all the way to a farm on the very edge of where the CDT could claim penetration. There was the warden, all crisp khaki and gold badge, wide-brimmed hat and wider smile. And there, maybe ten feet away, standing on its hind legs with one of its feet stuck in a trap, was the bear.
I’d never been that close to a bear before. The first thing that struck me was the smell. The bear reeked. Think elderly, unwell, rotting-from-the-inside black lab, with top notes of halitosis and spoiled meat. The bear was enclosed in a seething fog of fleas, a grayish nimbus that clung to its greasy-looking fur, lifting briefly whenever the bear moved, then settling down around it again. It was clacking its teeth, which, I learned, is what bears do when they’re angry, and regarding me and the game warden with unmistakable resentment. I wasn’t scared, exactly—the bear was trapped, and I figured if it started moving toward us, I could run and it would get to the game warden first—but my trembling knees and the sweat at the back of my neck were all signs that this wasn’t the same as looking at an animal in a zoo.
“Now watch this,” said the warden. He pulled out what looked like a rifle, took careful aim, and red a dart full of animal tranquilizer high into the bear’s hip. The bear clacked and glared. Then it started to wobble. Forward and backward, forward and backward, in steeper and steeper arcs, until finally it pitched forward onto its face. The flea-fog buzzed, lifted, then resettled. The game warden approached. He peeled back the bear’s black, dog-like lip and used pliers to pull out one of its milk teeth—this, he explained, was so his bosses would know the bear’s age. He pierced the bear’s ear, punching a red plastic tag through a hole in the cartilage, so that the bear could be identified if it was ever captured again.
“Okay,” he then instructed. “We’ve got to get the bear in my truck.”
I blinked at him. “We?”
“Oh, come on!” he urged. “When are you going to get a chance to touch a bear?”
“When had I ever wanted to touch a bear?” I replied.
“Don’t worry,” said the warden, explaining that the bear would be out for hours, maybe even all night . . . and wasn’t I curious?
Of course, I was. It was how I’d ended up being a reporter; it was how I then ended up, in my pumps and skirt, knuckle deep in coarse, oily fur, rolling a passed-out, reeking bear across a field, then heaving him up a ramp and into the back of a game warden’s pickup truck. We drove the bear ten miles down the road, found a ledge, and rolled the bear, still unconscious, onto the ground. On the way back to the office, as I tried to wipe the grease off my hands, a few things occurred to me. First: I would not be wearing this outfit to the school board meeting. In addition, at some point, the bear was going to wake up, have no idea where it was or how it had gotten there, minus a tooth, plus a brand-new piercing. It was like the worst fraternity initiation ever!
I went back to the office and wrote up my story, which ran with a picture I’d taken. (The paper couldn’t spare another body, so one of the staff photographers gave me a camera, preset and loaded, with the instruction “Just point and push the button and DO NOT touch anything else.”)
The story joined my fattening pile of clips—my profile of the special ed teacher whose students seemed to win a collect-the-box-top contest every month, my coverage of a lengthy teachers’ strike, a piece about a four-room schoolhouse that was closing after 80 years, and a story about high school students’ reaction to Magic Johnson’s announcement of his HIV-positive status. For one of the stories I was proudest of, I figured out the longest bus route in the most rural school district, and for a week got up at the crack of predawn and rode the bus with kids who, for their entire educational careers, had spent the hours 6 am to 7:30 on their way to school.
I’d also started to write op-ed pieces about the inscrutable demographic pie-slice that people were just starting to call Generation X, and some of those columns—one about my wish for two sets of winter holidays, so that children of divorced families wouldn’t have to split their time; another considering the efficacy of Take Back the Night marches—had been picked up by bigger papers in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
By 1994, all of this was good enough to get me a job as a feature writer at the Lexington Herald-Leader. I came to Lexington in February 1994 and stayed long enough to join a synagogue, date both of the Jewish guys my age, and cover the Kentucky Derby—and, more important, the Derby parties, where I shook Ivana Trump’s hand.
That fall, there was a rare job opening at the Philadelphia Inquirer, one of the flagship papers in the Knight-Ridder chain. (I loved working for Knight-Ridder, primarily because my Nanna pronounced it Knight Rider, and I’d have to explain to her, over and over, that I was not, in fact, employed by a sentient car.)
The Inquirer had been running my Generation X columns, and I’d talked to the editors there, who’d wanted to hire me, but had to wait until someone else left. When I came on board, it was with the condition that I give up my perch on the op-ed page and settle into writing features for at least a few years. That was a bargain I was happy to make. I’d learn everything I could about how to write a great feature, a Nora Ephron-esque feature, and then either I’d resume my column and become the next Anna Quindlen, mining the specifics of my own life for generational truths, or I would write a novel or a screenplay or a novel that turned into a screenplay, and I’d finally have enough money to have kids and not freak out about being penniless.
The Inquirer was my dream job. No more news. No more numbers. No more school lunches. Back then, the paper had a budget to let a reporter spend a week or even longer reporting a single story, or travel to do it. So off I went, on trains and planes and company cars, in search of stories.
I wrote about a group of factory workers in Michigan who were on the verge of losing their jobs when a lottery ticket they’d bought as a group won them millions apiece. I covered the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, hanging out with Philadelphia’s delegates, and I traveled to the presidential inauguration in Washington, where I saw Bill and Hillary Clinton slow-dance in Union Station’s grand rotunda. I went to Atlantic City for the Miss America pageant, and to Deerfield Beach, Florida, for a report on my Nanna’s gefilte fish, and I did my best to add whatever celebrity coverage I could muster.
I saw Kathie Lee Gifford having her eyelashes combed out on the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum, where she and Regis had come to tape. I interviewed Wendy the Snapple Lady on a promotional swing through town. In general, though, not many stars came to Philadelphia. When it was announced that the 12 Monkeys director had picked Philadelphia to stand in for its dystopian city in ruin, Philadelphians whipped themselves into such a frenzy that features reporters were dispatched across the city to cover Monkey Madness and hunt for Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt. The assignment I pulled was gay bars. “Do you know something we don’t know?” one of the patrons at Woody’s, a venerable watering hole for men who prefer men, responded when I asked if there’d been any Pitt sightings.
Sometimes the movie studios or television production companies would come to New York and make their stars available to the media—even reporters from Philadelphia. The publicists would stick their celebrities and director in hotel suites, where the talent would endure what were officially called roundtables and were less politely known as “gang bangs,” fielding questions from reporters from all over the country who’d made the trip, sometimes on the production company’s dime (the paper always paid my way).
Getting one-on-one time was the goal . . . and, if I couldn’t get that, I would try my hardest to get an actor to say something original, something that a dozen of my competitors weren’t also going to report. I once followed Shannen Doherty, in New York to promote the Kevin Smith opus Mallrats, into a ladies’ room, where she unburdened herself to a publicist. “Why do they all keep asking me the same things?” she demanded. Locked behind a stall’s door, I think I pretended to pull out the world’s smallest violin to play for her.
Sometimes the stars were lovely. Sometimes they were depressed. Adam Sandler, promoting Happy Gilmore, seemed so unhappy that I offered to bring him home to Philadelphia and make him chicken soup, even though I knew that his corporate minder in the next room could very well have chosen to have me removed. Sometimes they were boring, so programmed that they seemed less like people than like creatures that had been built in a lab, for the express purpose of entertainment. Brandy, who was then best known for starring in Moesha (as opposed to being a singer and eventually the big sister of the guy who’d costarred in Kim Kardashian’s sex tape), was especially robotic. And sometimes I never got to meet them at all. I had a scheduled interview with Minnie Driver yanked out from under me after I’d made the trek to New York, because I refused to take a blood oath and promise not to ask her about being dumped by Matt Damon on Oprah, an incident I’d eventually deploy in fiction, where Minnie Driver became Maxi Ryder (#geniusatwork).
I also covered the larger world of entertainment. I wrote about the phenomena of South Park and Iron Chef, and the brand-new genre of reality TV, ushered in by Mark Burnett’s Survivor. When the Oxygen network debuted, I watched Lifetime, which had previously been the only existing network for women, for 24-hours straight and wrote about what I saw. When a publisher dropped a book called Cooking with Friends, I cooked a week’s worth of recipes and wrote about whether eating “misery meatloaf ” or “stay-at-home pasta” made me any more sleek and hip and amusing, like the stars on the NBC sitcom.
I was happy. I was making enough money to live comfortably. I loved my job. I loved my apartment. I had a best friend and a nice Jewish boyfriend I’d been dating for two years. Aside from my ongoing, mostly fruitless efforts to lose weight, I was content. I thought I had nearly everything . . . but of course that’s not how that story went.
Copyright © 2016 by Jennifer Weiner, Inc. from HUNGRY HEART published by Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.