Stopping the presses (an ode to paper and ink)

It’s hard to write a love letter to a printing press. They’re big, ugly throwbacks, a steel-clad gnarl of gears and rollers and blinking control panels attended by black-fingered guys in coveralls with “Lou” stitched on the chest. They smell like ink and grease and machine oil (the presses, I mean. Well, the pressmen too). I love them all the same.

Next week, my old paper, the Austin American-Statesman, will stop printing onsite and start outsourcing the job to facilities in Houston and San Antonio. Which means the end of any late-breaking news in the printed paper because of the earlier deadlines required to ship papers to Austin every morning. And it means 100 very dedicated people will have to look for new jobs.

I understand. Newspapers have been struggling for years, the loyal ink-on-paper customers are a dying breed, and you gotta save money where you can. But it still makes me sad.

IMG_0012I worked at newspapers for 24 years, and they all had that mysterious sanctum that housed the presses. If the newsroom is a newspaper’s brain, the pressroom is its gut, the place where the messy stuff happens. For me, the Statesman pressroom was where magic happened: aluminum plates bent by hand around hard rubber rollers that would spin and roar while rolls of paper the size of Yugos unspooled into the thing’s maw. Those old offset presses would shudder and clatter and the ink would churn in the glass-fronted gearworks and crisp, folded newspapers would roll out the other end by the thousands.

I used to lead the occasional newsroom tour – mostly for my University of Texas journalism students – and the pressroom was always the highlight. We’d start in the newsroom where the reporters cubicled: fluorescent light, computer screens, fingers tapping at keyboards. Standard office scenery. (I secretly wished someone would jump up mid-tour and yell into the phone, “The truth, senator! All I want is the truth!” Never happened.) So, on to the presses.

Down the long blue linoleum hallway, past the vending machines. You feel them first. A warehouse full of running presses will set the floor buzzing and tickle the soles of your feet as you get closer. Then you hear them: a low metallic thrum that vibrates in your chest. Through the metal doors, the noise drowns all conversation and you’re wrapped in that inky industrial exhale. I memorized a few fun facts that I’d shout at the students: each press can spit out however-many thousands of papers per hour, each paper roll would stretch 2.3 miles if you unrolled it (or whatever it was, I had a cheat sheet). Most of the students were too busy gaping and pointing to listen.

IMG_0019Then we’d file down the narrow little stairway to the dimly-lit room beneath the presses where giant paper rolls rode grooved tracks in the floor, following some mysterious mechanical choreography before they were loaded into a press.

I remember ducking into the pressroom in 2002 with David Hafetz and Maria Henson to watch what we thought would be a landmark story come off the presses. Those were exciting days at the Statesman – the staff was still big and growing, the dot-com bust seemed like a temporary blip, and few of us saw the digital cliff ahead.

David had spent a year reporting and writing the story of Jacqueline Saburido, a Venezuelan exchange student who’d been horribly disfigured in a car wreck and was desperately trying to find a surgeon who could repair her face and hands. I’d been the editor – my first really big story since crossing the aisle from reporting – and Maria (a veteran editor) had swooped in to rescue us when David and I lost all perspective inside that massive story (which ended up running as its own section of the paper).

We walked along the flanks of the presses, watching the paper web whir through the cylinders, images flashing on the paper with each revolution like a jittery old movie reel. We snagged a few fresh copies and flipped through them quickly, enjoying the feeling of a long, hard journey finally transformed to ink-and-paper reality. Then we climbed the metal stairs on Big Blue, the vertical German press that had just been installed (the Statesman had to literally raise the roof to accommodate it). We climbed to the top catwalk, where downtown Austin was perfectly framed in the windows, washed in sunset colors.

It’s still my favorite pressroom memory. I get a little inky just thinking about it.



master new floor 2

How not to write a novel in six easy steps

So anyway… where was I? The Cook Islands, I think. Then a long silence. So let me recap the past six months or so; we’ll call this “Six ways to not work on your novel for months at a time.”

  1. Finish major editing and decide to put the thing down for a month or so. This was the plan – and I say that with the caveat that my life is almost completely unplanned at this point. I got back to Austin from Colorado in September after chopping 200 pages from the manuscript and had a big blowout weekend with my friends at ACL Fest in early October. Then everyone left and … well, I fell into a pretty good funk (guyspeak for “depression”). I clearly underestimated the psychological impact of blowing up some of my life’s main structural features. I’d been a journalist for more than 20 years, and now I was… what exactly? A writer? A wannabe novelist? I just knew I wasn’t ready to dive into the book again. I felt drifty and twitchy. Much pacing around the house. Which meant the only cure had to be…
  2. ripping out carpetStart a major house project. This began innocently, with a Craigslist post in November. I forget what I was actually looking for. A lamp? The ad I spotted said: bamboo flooring, 400-plus square feet, $50. Really? And it was the same flooring I used in the investment house that I’d sold to pay for this whole adventure. Floating floor, cut it and click it together. Easy. I called the woman and within a few hours I had a garage full of slightly used flooring, figuring it was enough to re-do my master bedroom (for the record, I’d never laid a floor in my life). That, of course, led to new baseboards, new door trim, fresh paint on the walls … and hey, guess what? She’d actually sold me about 650 square feet, enough for all three upstairs bedrooms. They gotta match, right? Two positives from this: a full renovation of the bedrooms, and it kept my mind and hands busy all the way through January (which is when I decided to build a platform bed, a headboard and two nightstands, because I’m a masochist). And by then I was starting to think, “Hey, weren’t you writing a novel or something?” So I decided to…
  3. Sign up for writing workshops and dabble around with the novel. The Writers League of Texas rocks. They really do. One way in which they rock is by doing these workshops for folks who are anonymously toiling away on their various books. I signed up for a couple of them focusing on revising and rewriting. They were great. They got me fired up. I started messing around with chapters, sketching out character bios in more depth. I showed my mess of a manuscript to my friend Lisa, who gave me great (and positive) feedback. I was back, baby. There was just one little thing I had to take care of first…AAS
  4. Become a writing consultant/part-time editor. Just before the Cook Islands trip in December, I ran into Bob Gee, the state desk editor at the American-Statesman (my former place of employment), who mentioned that he needed a backup editor to help during the legislative session for a few months starting in February. It paid reasonably well, and it was evenings only. Perfect, right? I could work on the novel during the day, then edit at night. Then I had lunch with another Statesman editor friend, Andy Alford, who wanted me to work with four of their younger metro reporters as a writing coach. Sure, I can do that too. We’ll meet in coffee shops and dissect their writing. Fun. Even more cash flow (my nest egg was shrinking). Plus, I love working with writers. She also wanted me to do a few round-table discussions on writing for the whole staff – which turned into a rather massive open-ended conversation about the state of writing at the newspaper, and that turned into me organizing seven critique groups for about 40 writers. When I looked up at the end of the legislative session, it was the end of May, time to…IMG_1787
  5. Renovate a house you’ve never seen, 750 miles from home. Somewhere in the middle of all that freelance work, Nathan called. Nathan’s the guy who bought the aforementioned investment house from me. He liked what I’d done to it. And he’d just bought a vacation house in Taos, New Mexico and wanted to know if I’d go up and work on it. Taos? Never been. Heard good things. Why not – can’t turn down another income opportunity, right? So a few days after finishing my consulting/editing gig, I left a set of keys for the California family that’s renting my house for the summer (thank you again Craigslist) and drove Nate’s F-150 up to Taos. The house was… well, not particularly fresh. Picture nicotine-tinted walls, rat shit in the corners, and a general air of neglect perfumed with a musty stink. About four days into my 3-week stay I got a nasty sinus infection that laid me up for a week. Taos is worth its own blog post, so I won’t get into the midnight bear visit and all the rest right now. The short of it is, I got the project finished, loaded up the F-150 last Wednesday and spent two exhausting days on the road (thanks to ear infection #2), getting back to Austin just in time to…WLT conf
  6. Go to a writing conference and get reminded what the hell you’re supposed to be doing. The Writers League’s Agents and Editors Conference was last weekend at the Austin Hyatt. Three days of schmoozing and drinking and going to panel discussions on all manner of writerly things. But the highlight is the agent consultations – if you’re willing to lay down $50 for 10 minutes of face time with an agent. Which I was. Even better, I got my first two choices among the agents (it’s a bit like 300 nerdy kids trying to buy dates with the same 10 or 15 prom queen finalists. Everyone walks around asking each other, “Who’d you get?”) And preparing for that first consult was exactly like getting ready for my first real date. Racing mind, sweaty palms, muttering to myself. Except this time I had a page of notes to study beforehand (but no Binaca). The nice volunteer lady showed me to the table, the agent smiled, and I blurted out the entire plot of my novel in about 3 ½ minutes without taking a breath. He smiled, nodded, and said: “Sounds interesting. Send me the manuscript when you’re done with it.” Which, to continue the analogy, felt like getting to second base – better than I did on that first date in 1985 in my dad’s monkeyshit brown Olds Omega. Two hours later, I was sitting across from another agent, who was a bit less amped about the book, but asked for the first 30 pages. First base. I’ll take it. And now that the conference is over, it’s time to…

IMG_4715Go to Mexico for six weeks and get back to work on the novel. My plane leaves in the morning. I’ve rented an apartment in Guanajuato, one of my favorite places in the world – and also the home of two of my characters. So hopefully I can channel them in the winding cobblestone streets while I whip this fractured mess of a book into some form of coherence. I’m not sure what to think about the past six or eight months. I was mostly very busy, mostly earning money, occasionally paralyzed by my freedom, intermittently guilty about not working on the book. But if nothing else, I spent most days doing something I love to do. Even if it wasn’t writing. I’m going to call that success.