Life Essay: Words, words, words!

January 2022

“To be a writer, you have to write.” It’s something I’ve done all my life, both professionally and personally.

One of my earliest memories of my creative writing was sitting in front of my dad’s portable typewriter, hunting and pecking away at age eight.

The idea of writing as a vocation wasn’t until much later, but not the same as a novelist, reporter or columnist. I was in a journalism class in high school, which was somewhat inspirational. I thought I was a pretty good writer. Then I arrived in college.

It was in my first term freshman-required writing course that my positive self-evaluation collided with the reality of many corrections in writing assignments. I realized how little I knew about the style and mechanics of writing.

But it was the time on the college newspaper the Pioneer Log that first year that truly inspired me to go on to bigger things, just not at Lewis & Clark. I applied to Boston University, was accepted, but couldn’t get past the University’s required freshman courses, which would have taken up the entire year I was planning to be away from Lewis & Clark.

Later, during the summer of 1979, I turned my sights to the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism, a top ranked J-School (the University of Missouri was always the top school, but is isolated in the farmlands.) A provision of dad’s employment with Lewis & Clark was not only free tuition for dependents, but also tuition coverage for any other school, not to exceed the current L&C tuition. Tuition in Eugene would be free.

According to my transcripts, I was enrolled in Journalistic Writing (the infamous “J-250”), Production for Publication, Print Advertising, Magazine Editing, Magazine Design and Production. The University also offered courses I could not get at L&C, including “Rhetoric”; “Sun as Future Emerge,” a solar energy class; “History of Western Civilization” taught by a sharp former Stanford professor; “Violent Public Policy”; and, “Mock Convention” where I was a delegate on the floor of MacCourt.

J-250 would be the much needed boost in my understanding of grammar, journalistic style – mainly the Associated Press style, and provide me lots of practice in the writing labs with graduate students. One assignment was writing a feature article: I sold plasma and wrote about that. Spelling tests were my not my fave – spelling has never stuck with me to this day. Looking back, I can’t remember ever been taught grammar in elementary or high school.

Back at Lewis & Clark, I was working on the newspaper in the fall, but was being pressured to be co-editor with Jonathan, who I thought would take the glory and leave me doing the heavy lifting. I bailed on the paper winter term, but set my sites on becoming editor the next year and rejoined in the spring. Senior year as editor in chief, my responsibilities were mainly administrative, although I was there for Tuesday night production and to lead a Thursday afternoon staff meeting and critique, along with our advisor Dick Hoyt. I also contributed a Pioneer Log style guide.

I was inspired my freshman year on the Log by the former editor Jeff “Kingston” Pierce who as a senior was the paper’s op-ed editor, but was beginning to write for external publications. Late in my senior year, during another writing class taught by Dick Hoyt, I yearned to also ply my skills writing externally.

Writing topics sometimes wane or flood. Fortunately I had two ready subjects. During that senior year I had a practicum working with two fellows trying to make a-go of a neighborhood paper: Southeast Times. It was a bust. But I had been there enough that I could write about its demise, so I pitched the article to the Willamette Week, was accepted and had about 10-12 column inches published. The other article was based on my primary research into the history of the Wolff family house at 3116 SE 18th. The article was a tutorial for researching a reader’s own house history. I pitched and was published as Sunday section cover story by the Tacoma News-Tribune. But, each of these sales only netted $50: I could easily starve as a writer.

So I didn’t pursue it.

Instead, I leveraged my college design and paste-up experience into newspaper jobs, then traveling to San Francisco to learn more formal design at the Academy of Art, then returning to design ads at Fred Meyer.

Even the diversion into corporate marketing was mostly visual. Occasionally, I not only designed flyer, but I was also writing brief, salesy content, a few paragraphs at a time.

It really wasn’t until I was established at Grant Thornton that writing would be fun and successful. During a West Region marketing meeting or phone call, on which fellow marketing leads and associates from 10 offices, someone shared the benefits they had had engaged an outside PR firm to increase that office’s visibility with articles in the local media. The other offices were challenged to do the same.

I interviewed several PR firms, mostly smaller ones, selecting Frause, a firm with headquarters in Seattle and a satellite office in Portland; my Seattle counterpart would also hire Frause and we would work together. We would talk about the direction the offices want to pursue and into which publications we might be able to place articles if the accountants were willing to write; many did.

Occasionally, there were opportunities, but no accountant to write. I began piecing together articles with a local twist using firm articles and collateral, then having a subject matter expert as well as Frause review and edit the content. I am forever thankful to Krista Hildebrand at Frause for her support, inspiration, oversight and friendship.

Every spring, the Portland Business Journal published its special section on top CFOs, who were our direct target audience. Just after the beginning of the year the firm launched a survey of CFO; I was able to get a subset of the results from the West Coast survey participants by late March and compare and contrast “local” opinions to those of the national audience. Our article was always published in the special section.

This annual article and others were ghost written, assigning a practice leader as the “author.” After a while, these accountants hardly read my content, fully trusting my content and a national office vetting. I didn’t mind that my name wasn’t on it. I knew I had written the piece and we were getting the attention. I was placing several dozen articles a year, a handful of which were written by me.

The time at GT also stirred within me the desire to write personally. One of the internal audit professionals was ISACA and FBI security trained and told me stories, which inspired me to dream up a mystery outline for a book. Over 10 years have gone by and the book outline remains largely just that, although from time to time I revisit it and have written several 1000 word sections.

Outside of work, I turned my volunteer time to Resurrection Catholic Parish, serving on the Parish Council, but also serving on Capital Campaign for the Formation Center and since 2010 producing an annual report about the parish and its ministry committee activities. The reports are largely a layout exercise, but I throw in relevant historical snippets to make the report relevant in the future, should someone want to know when an icon was installed or a building completed.

While at Reinisch Wilson Weier, I’ve largely been a blog editor, but also write the occasional news item for the website. But I’ve used me proposal writing background to craft compelling descriptions about the firm’s differentiation and expertise for a largely non-legal audience. On top of that, my PR placement experience has served with several very good opportunities for the attorneys to contribute and increase the firm’s awareness outside our workers’ comp industry. Those are wins that are as satisfying as seeing my own byline.

Others “book” ideas have floated up and I have outlined these. Or, I’ve studied writing “systems” such as Jessica Brody’s “Save the Cat.” Inspiring, yes, but nothing further has come about.

So I’ve come to realize that no writing gets me no closer, so at least these life essays are about crafting stories, except they really happened.