The Real Life Of A Writer

By Ned Burke

When I was a boy I loved to listen to the grownups talking about my grandfather, “Dada” Sweeney. He was a rugged individualist and one of my favorite tales was when, as a young lad, he signed aboard a whaling ship. 

Back in those days they did everything the hard way. So, when a huge whale was spotted, Dada and a few of his mates were lowered into a large rowboat. When they finally got close enough, my grandfather would harpoon the behemoth and then, in Dada’s words: “Ye held on for one helluva ride!”

Well, that’s sort of the way a writer lives each day. You harpoon a whale of a career and then you hang on for “one helluva ride!”

You never know where this whale will take you, but I assure you it will be an exciting living experience. So I hope you will climb aboard and join other writers in discovering new worlds and new challenges each and every day. 

*E. P. Ned Burke as a young reporter in 1970 interviewing Frank Clause, The Bowling Schoolmaster, of the 50s and 60s. 

Writing is truly like sailing the open seas. You need a sense of adventure and a certain amount of courage to face your unknown future. And whether it is the eerie vastness of the ocean or the immense blankness of that first page, you do need a bit of “swashbuckler” in you to swallow your fears and cast off.

In fact, you may discover, as I did, that getting started is not as difficult as simply trying to remain afloat in this shark-infested business.

I got my feet wet rather early in life. When I was twelve I turned “pro”, winning a cash prize for a catchy slogan sold to a local radio station. It was only a few dollars but it increased my self-esteem to the point where I began rattling off clever verses to every female admirer I could snare in my poetic web. I had found my destiny!

After a few small successes in high school and college I was sure of it. Then when I landed my first paid writing gig as a “columnist/feature writer” for our local newspaper, I knew I was on my way to literary stardom.

But I was in for a rude awakening.

The first bit of advice my cigar-chomping editor barked at me was: “Forget all that crap you learned in school. Just do what I tell you to do. Ya got it?”

Well, I thought I “got it” until I handed in my first feature article. It was about professional bowler, Frank Clause, The Bowling Schoolmaster, who was the spokesperson for AMF and who helped to turn the sport of bowling into a craze in the 50s and 60s. 

I sweated over that article for many hours until I was sure it was Pulitzer Prize material and then proudly dropped it on the editor’s desk.

I did think it was a bit odd that the entire staff followed me when I handed over my assignment. They watched in amusement as the editor’s thick eyebrows fell beneath his glasses. The room was hushed, listening to the grunts and awaiting the final verdict. It came painful and jarring, as if I had unexpectedly stepped off a high curb.

“Piece of crap, Burke!” my disgruntled editor snapped and crumbled up my “masterpiece” and tossed it into a nearby trashcan.

Only later did I learn that he did this to every rookie reporter just to get a laugh from the staff. Eventually, he took the piece from the trashcan and sighed: “Ah, it’ll fill up some empty space.”

And that, dear reader, was my welcome to the “real world” of writing.

Sample column:

His Name Was Harry

By Ned Burke

The guy was beautiful.

He wasn't physically attractive, but, deep inside, he glowed.

His name was Harry Davenport. I know because he showed me his birth certificate. And why he showed it to me is the basis for this little tale.

It was the hot and rainy summer of 1972. Hurricane Agnes turned the placid Susquehanna River in northeastern Pennsylvania into a raging monster that flooded the entire Wyoming Valley. The city of Wilkes-Barre sank beneath 30 feet of water. More than 24,000 homes were damaged and it was weeks before the 14 trillion gallons of unwanted water finally receded.

As soon as the National Guard helped to clean things up, the politicians and other VIPs arrived in their clean suits and shiny cars. They all promised to "share the pain" of the victims. In reality, most took off soon after the TV crews left.

But for a few days it was my job as a reporter to endure their pontifical speeches, take notes and write my story. One day, I finally sought solace away from the hypocrisy to a nearby park bench. My youthful idealism was quickly turning into a newsman’s cynicism. I began to wonder if there was one unpretentious, honest man left in the human race. That was when I met Harry.

He sat near the end of the bench. He looked like what we would call today a "street person." He wore a large, tattered coat with several sweaters beneath it. His pants were baggy and caked with mud.

He looked so weary and sad that I offered to get him a cup of coffee from a nearby Red Cross stand. He seemed surprised at my gesture, but, nevertheless, accepted the invitation. After giving him the coffee, I returned to my notes.

"Nice day, taint it?"

I found the old man’s words unwelcome, interrupting my train of thought. I was facing a deadline. I needed solitude.

But his sad, toothless smile beckoned me to share a few moments with him. He told me his name was Harry. He said he had been on his own for a long time. But when I asked how long, he didn’t answer.

I quickly changed the subject to politicians. He wasn’t ashamed to ask me what the word "hypocrite" meant. He nodded when I told him and said that he had run into "dem kind" over the years. I was sure that he had. Yet he didn’t seem bitter.

"Dem's folks jes like youse and me," he said. “Dey's jes tryin' to be somethin' dey ain't. Shucks, I'd like to be somebody else too  . . .  I guess." Then he fell silent.

As we sat side-by-side, an unpretentious old man and this young reporter full of himself, it occurred to me that perhaps not every politician was hypocritical, nor did every newsman have to be cynical. Maybe, just maybe, there was indeed hope for the integrity of man in this mixed-up world after all.

"I tink it's my birthday today," Harry said, interrupting my thoughts again. He dug deep into his layers of clothing and withdrew an old, crumpled document and showed it to me.

I saw that it was a birth certificate. "Harry Davenport?" I said.

Harry smiled weakly and pointed a dirty thumb to his chest. "Dat’s me."

I glanced at the date of birth and told him it was indeed his birthday that day. "Happy birthday, Harry," I said, and shook his withered hand.

My new friend appeared embarrassed and withdrew his hand sheepishly and looked away .

I felt a little uncomfortable myself and decided it was time to go and interview a few politicians. But as I got up to leave I felt Harry’s hand tugging at my sleeve.

I looked down and saw that his eyes were moist. His hand shook as he pointed a crooked finger to the date on the document.

"How old am I?" he asked, fighting back tears.

Like I said, the guy was beautiful.

The One Finger Novelist

By Ned Burke

It's true. I am a one finger novelist. I was also a one finger publisher, editor, writer, columnist, and newspaper reporter. At one point in my early career I was even a one finger typesetter … until my narrow-minded new boss looked over my shoulder and asked, "What the hell are ya doin'?"

I said, "Typesetting, sir."

He said, "With one finger?"

I said, "Actually, I use two. The index finger of each hand."

He said, "You can't do that."

I said, "But I can. And I average over fifty-five words a minute, sir."

He shook his head. 

"I can't have one of my typesetting people using  only one finger."

"Two, sir," I said.

He then got hot enough to boil a raw egg on the back of his neck. "I'll give you two!" he screamed. "Two minutes to get the hell outta here."

Well, I took my one finger (okay, two) and continued to hunt and peck for more than three decades in the publishing field until I became the "literary phenomenon" you see before you today. 

Anyway, I urge you to come back here often and perhaps buy one or more of my books. 

(Heck, let's  be honest. Isn't that what sites like this are all  about?)

And who knows? You may one day be a "literary phenomenon" too.

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