The Pacino Blunder and 4 Other Goofs I Made as a Young Writer
When you’re a novice, there’s a lot to learn.
- Who Is Al Pacino? Dumont High School, New Jersey, 1979 — senior year. A few of us were in the Periscope newspaper office after school. Adviser and journalism teacher Charles Barragato ran in, breathless. “Al Pacino is on the field!” he said. “Someone has to interview him!” I said yes, dashed down with pen and pad and saw a dark-haired man in a wheelchair, near the track. But I didn’t know Al Pacino from Adam. “Is that Al Pacino?” I asked a beefy fellow in a jacket. “If you don’t know who he is, why do you want to interview him?” the man snapped back. I stammered something. Turns out Pacino was considering the part of paraplegic Vietnam War vet Ron Kovic in “Born on the Fourth of July,” and they were scouting locations. I don’t recall what happened next. Maybe we just ran a photo and blurb. (The film came out in 1989, starring Tom Cruise.) I’m still embarrassed about this blunder. I know much more about celebrities and ordinary people now. (And we have Google, Wikipedia and IMDb — and a cell phone in every high schooler’s hand.)
- Can you repeat that? As a timid cub reporter at The Daily Targum at Rutgers, where we used clanky typewriters and published five days a week, I attributed a famous person’s words to the source I had interviewed. That would be like giving credit for Mahatma Gandhi’s famous “Be the change” quote to University President Edward J. Bloustein. Oops. I got a letter at the newspaper office with a gentle correction. Good to know. Lesson learned. Listen closely while scrawling quickly in your own shorthand on steno pad; cradle big phone receiver in shoulder.
- Foreign language. My earliest paid editorial job at a magazine (after two weeks temping at Car and Driver) was as assistant to the fashion editor at Woman’s Day in Times Square. The phone lines lit up red. On my first morning, the top assistant to the EIC called. “Do you have the bag? Did the bag come in?” she asked urgently. “The bag?” I stumbled. “A shopping bag?” It was early, and my boss wasn’t in. It was a handbag. I had grown up in Jersey calling that a pocketbook. I would learn other key words that were foreign at first, including sample sale, fashion closet and giveaway table. Also, tennis shoes, a name used by California and Tennessee girls at Seventeen. We called them sneakers back in Dumont.
- Leaving bakers in the lurch. I am ultracareful about spelling and facts. (When I graduated from Rutgers, my undergrad friends named the worn red office Webster’s the Alice Garbarini Memorial Dictionary.) Yet as Good Housekeeping Lifestyle Writer, I inserted the email address and omitted the toll-free phone number for the Land O’ Lakes Holiday Baking Hotline in a box called “In Case of a Cookie Emergency.” It was printed in the December issue, our hottest, plumpest seller of the year. I owned my error, even though several of us signed off on proofs. L O’L, of course, was a big, buttery advertiser. I had gracious editors and did not catch heat — yet I still crumble a bit when I think of snickerdoodle bakers from Oregon to Georgia who wanted to dial in.
- Hurtful mistakes sent by mail. 📫 I learned this by osmosis, not by my own fumbles. I submitted a short story to a magazine and when my manuscript was returned, rejected, the envelope also included the editor’s rather catty remarks (meant for her files) about the piece. Ouch. My husband, also a young writer, submitted a proposal to a bridal magazine about honeymoon planning and the staffer accidentally mailed back the comments intended only to circulate among the editors. One had penned in the margin: “She sounds like a spoiled brat.” (That was based on where I did and did not want to go on our Hawaiian trip.) Double-triple ouch.
As my yoga teacher, Joe Gandarillas, says at the close of class, “Thank everyone who has ever taught you, even if it was hard.” So my thanks go out to Al Pacino’s bodyguard and everyone else on this list. No one’s perfect, but experience definitely helps.