Sunday, April 03, 2016

My mentors

Great expression in Hollywood: Mentors get eaten by their young.

While there is certainly no shortage of that “All About Eve” type behavior, I must say that for myself, I would never be where I am today were it not for some exceptional mentors. It’s like I learned pitching from a staff of Sandy Koufaxes.  One reason I started this blog was to be able to give something back. I’m a big believer in “Pay it Forward”. So if any tips I share you find valuable you can thank these people.

Larry Gelbart, Jim Brooks, Allan Burns, the Charles Brothers, Gene Reynolds, Tom Patchett, Jay Tarses, Treva Silverman, and one name you’ve never heard – Bruce Anson. Don’t race to imdb to look him up. He’s not there. Even Googling him will yield no results. (There are others with that name but they’re not him.)

But Bruce Anson taught me more about the craft of writing than all my high school and college teachers combined.

I was a sports intern at KMPC radio in Los Angeles. Bruce was one of their newscasters. He was in his 60s, smoked and drank too much (which I think was a prerequisite for getting hired in that department back then). He had been a booth announcer in the early days of TV and prior to that, network radio. And now he was pulling part-time Sunday night shifts, writing and delivering news twice an hour in between public service programs the station was obligated to run. When he finished at midnight the station went off the air for maintenance. So not exactly prime time.

He’d show up in shorts, loud Hawaiian shirts, and flip flops. Other newsmen reported for work in suits and ties.

My job was to write the sports portion of the newscast. Essentially a rundown of the day’s scores. Northwestern beat Ohio State 23-10, Notre Dame edged Army 21-20, etc. The most creative thing I did was once write: LSU puffed Rice 34-14.

During baseball season all the scores would be final by 6:00. There was no Sunday night baseball. Not even in Texas. The shift was until midnight but most sports interns would write up three sportscasts that could be rotated and went home six hours early. I went to Bruce and asked if I could help write his newscasts. He said, sure, but it’s not as easy as I think.

He was right.

I’d take a story from the United Press International wire, rewrite it, and hand it to Bruce. I assumed he’d say, “Great job. Thank you.”


He said, “This sentence could be cut in half”, “There’s a better way of saying this”, “Use more descriptive words”, “This point should go ahead of that point”, “this phrase is a little confusing.” He’d then take a pen and start rewriting -- slashing words, replacing phrases, making it shorter, punchier, clearer, BETTER.

And so began a weekly pattern that lasted until football season. I would doggedly write story after story determined to just once please that son-of-a-bitch. Finally it happened. A house fire story. I don’t remember the details but I do remember I used the word “blaze”. It aired right before the vasectomy PSA. I was so proud.

Be ruthless. Always look to make it better. Have a little Bruce Anson sitting on your shoulder when you write. Ask him to put out the cigarette though.

I owe Bruce Anson a lot. I thank him for his time, his toughness, his talent. And if he were here today I'm sure he'd say "Isn't all the alliteration a little precious?"


Ruth Harris said...

Proven time and time again: the delete button is a writer's best friend. Bruce Anson knew what he was doing!

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

Did the same job at KFAC AM/FM in Los Angeles in 1968. The classical music station. Three days a week, I'd get there at 5:30 a.m. and rip the wires, organize stories and assemble the news for the staff. My best tool wasn't the typewriter. It was the stapler. The shift ended at 8:30 a.m., in time for me to get to class

One morning I was worried about some test (or probably some girl). I left the station, fired up my VW and headed to school. I clicked on the radio, tuned in the station and instead of the 9:00 a.m. newscast, I heard the dignified announcer intone, "In place of the 9 o'clock newscast, we will have this musical interlude."

I forgot to write the damn thing!

I was forgiven, passed the test and still had girl troubles...

Michael said...

Ken, I believe you also said that you learned a lot about the art of storytelling from some guy with the Dodgers?

I worked for a newspaper editor who always said, "Short and punchy," and told us if we wanted to learn how to write a news story well, read the National Enquirer. Not for the facts (except maybe when it talks about Ted Cruz, or maybe not?), but for how they constructed a story.

Rick said...

This is off topic, but I didn't see where to send an email.

Ken, just wondered if you'd seen this:

Earl Boebert said...

My mentor was my high school journalism teacher, a burned-out veteran of the Oakland Tribune. I was editor of the school newspaper, which meant I wrote over half of it. When I started he went at my prose with an axe and by the time I graduated he was down to a scalpel. Gruff, profane and not always sober, one of his tricks was to look over a story and hand it back with an order to take out as many words as I could. After I finished he'd say "Watch this," and reduce it by the same amount or more. I don't think I ever reached his ability to sweat the fat out of a paragraph, but thanks to him I've come close.

Tammy said...

Barefoot Billy Aloha (love that name, by the way): the most shocking part of that story is you showed up at 5:30 every morning. Why, why would you do that to yourself? :p

Jim Grey said...

I think the difference between success and not-success is whether you have mentors along the way. In any field. I'm a software developer and without mentors I wouldn't have accomplished half of what I have, and I'd only have half the skills.

Dana King said...

You left out a prime element of the story, Ken: you showed him you wanted to learn, to get better. I think that's the key to any mentor relationship. I never learned a better lesson than when I asked a question of the college professor I was assisting as my work-study gig. He asked me if I had done any research. (This was 1975, so we're talking way before the Internet.) I said it has just occurred to me, and he asked me to look around and come back with what I'd learned first. I spent an hour or so in the library and came back with what I;'d found, which was limited, as it was kind of an arcane question and I wasn't such where to look. (Paper books had no hyperlinks, damn it.) He listened to what I'd learned and spent my entire work day (an hour or hour and a half, I forget now) telling me more about that topic than I imagined existed, lent me a book and generally opened a vein of his exhaustive knowledge. It was the most valuable lesson I ever learned: there's no limit to what people are willing to help with if they know you're willing to do it yourself but need a boost. Irv Godt is gone now, but that lesson shaped many of the better aspects of my personality and I have made a conscious effort to pass it along. Thanks for reminding me.

Andy Rose said...

Radio journalists have been self-editing for decades to a degree that other journalists are only now learning to do because of Twitter. Radio time limits force you to be ruthlessly efficient at pruning words and simplifying ideas to their bare essence.

Bryan Thomas said...

I always tell my editing clients “the magic happens in the rewrite,” because that’s when you have the chance to look at the entire puzzle assembled and smooth off the rough edges, refine the piece, throw out any extras, and really make it sparkle and shine. And I also tell them “less is more” applies not just to keeping scenes tight but also to verbiage. Cutting excess words is part of the sparkle and clarity, after all, writing is above all about communication. Sounds like Anson knew about that.