By Will Schuck
“Write an electronic communication vehicles study,” my boss said. “I need it for a meeting one week from tomorrow.”
Having written for the trade press for nine years, much like Sherwood Anderson had in his days at Long-Critchfield, I had developed a style was standard modern newsroom: inverted pyramid. Put the important stuff first and the unimportant stuff last.
I had also written corporate expenditure policies in my career. This experience stiffened my style, knocking out about all the creative element that was left. Surely, an “electronic communication vehicles study” would benefit from such a background. Or so I thought.
Diligently, I scribbled down a list of our company’s electronic (non-print) communication vehicles: e-mail, intranet, voicemail, videoconferencing, and the human resources information database. Next was to conduct interviews with the “owners” of each vehicle to find out the details: Who has access? How is it maintained? What is its purpose? Who is the audience? How does one use it? And so on.
After four days, I was quite proud of myself. I had interviewed all the electronic communication vehicle owners and documented the information in an organized format. I even photocopied and three-hole-punched the document and put it in a black binder with tab dividers. Boy, it looked slick.
I put the report on my boss’s desk a day early while she was at an offsite meeting. I went home on time and bragged to my wife how well I did the job. I lay on the couch that evening after our son went to bed and continued reading Kim Townsend’s Sherwood Anderson. Life was great.
The next day, as I sat in my ergonomic office chair pursuing completion of the next project on my list, my boss stood in my cubicle opening. Her hands were on
her hips. The black binder with the tab dividers was under her arm. She didn’t say a word. I pretended not to see her right away, giving her the chance to have the first word. Of course, she came to congratulate me.
“This is not what I wanted, AT ALL,” she thundered. Fear penetrated me as I turned my head from my computer screen to look up at her. My throat tightened as I stammered to say, “What do you mean?”
“This is not right,” she began in stern but softer tones. “No doubt you went to a lot of effort to gather this information. But the way it’s presented just is not right. It’s far too academic or something.”
This was the story of my life. Professors told me I sounded too much like Hemingway before I ever read him. High school and college girlfriends left me because I was “too nice.” Now, my Electronic Communication Vehicles Study was “too academic.” I wasn’t going to guess what “or something” meant. I was furious but buried my wrath until she left with “I want it re-written by
tomorrow and I want it to be more user-friendly.”
“User-friendly!” I went for a shaky walk around the floor wishing I could make a phone call or tell someone in the office how angry I felt. I ended up going to the men’s room to cool off.
As I sat in a stall, assuming the position of The Thinker, I quietly thought of appropriate forms of revenge, like quitting. Realizing I couldn’t do that, I began to think of Sherwood Anderson when he walked out of his Elyria office and followed the railroad tracks to Cleveland. Here I was in Cleveland, feeling the same pressure to produce. Suddenly, I had it.
I marched back to my desk, opened a new document, and started typing away. This would put her in the corner! Her meeting was tomorrow and she had to use whatever I produced.
I typed into the evening, crumbing-up my keyboard by eating lunch and dinner at my desk. The words seemed to come naturally, sounding just like one of Anderson’s “reason why” advertisements.I had read in Townsend’s biography the night before. As Townsend described the ad copy, “It is the word of a writer trying to create a voice that makes you feel he is talking directly to you, in words that you can trust.” As Anderson himself put it in the ad, “Every word of this book is written under my personal supervision. As you and I may never meet face to face I give you my word now that what is written in this book is true in spirit and in fact.”
Like Anderson, I pleaded with the reader (or “user” as my boss liked to say) about the importance of the information in my Electronic Communication Vehicles Guide. I
reasoned with the reader-user that this information would make him the star of his department because now he had the keys to understanding how the company’s electronic communication vehicles work, to whom they are delivered and who is the intended audience of each. I personally guaranteed the compilation’s accuracy by applying dates to each section of information, promising an annual
update and putting my name first on the report’s outside front cover.
I heard Anderson’s voice urging me on as I wrote. “Muttered” and “damned” were the only words I refused from him as he took over for me at the keyboard.
When Anderson finished dictating to me and I stopped typing, I felt relieved, like I had come clean about my feelings for my boss and the project. This was a real gamble, and could mean my getting fired, but I didn’t care. To me, it was just one project in a heap of paper I produced since I began writing for a living nearly 10 years ago.
It was done. All that was left was to print a copy and put it in my boss’s red “urgent” folder. Then, I could sleep on the bus ride home. As I lifted the still-warm 30-some pages from the output tray and slid them into her in-box, I
trotted to the elevator and slipped away.
The next day was like a scene from the film “Groundhog Day.” I again sat in my ergonomic office chair pursuing completion of the next project on my list. My boss again stood in my cubicle opening. Her hands were on her hips. The black binder with the tab dividers was under her arm. She didn’t say a word. I pretended not to see her right away, giving her the chance to have the first word. Of course, she came to fire me.
“This is JUST what I wanted!” she thundered. Fear penetrated me as I turned my head from my computer screen to look up at her. My throat tightened as I
stammered to say, “What do you mean?”
“This is perfect!” she began. “No doubt you went to a lot of effort to rewrite this. It’s just perfect! What inspired you?”
I didn’t dare to tell her. I only hoped that this was the beginning of the new story of my life. Career-wise, with Anderson as my muse, perhaps I’d stop feeling like the stifled George Willard of Winesburg, Ohio. Anderson had given me a voice and a confidence that would carry me through the next corporate assignment (a field communications guide) and, six months later, to a promotion.
Thank you, Sherwood. You saved my career.
Will Schuck is a corporate communications writer living in Avon Lake, Ohio. He is director of The Anderson Project, a community literacy center planned for Elyria, Ohio.