My professional career probably started in my senior year at Harvard in the office of my creative writing course instructor, Mr. McCreary.
“Jablow,” he said in a soft Boston accent that I remembered for decades after forgetting his first name. “You write damned well but you’ll never be a fiction writer. You write like a journalist.”
Mr. McCreary wore tweed sport coats and had a yellowing mustache and looked enough like William Faulkner that his advice seemed instantly credible. I have followed it ever since.
After Harvard came Columbia University and a master's degree in journalism and then thirty-plus years in newsrooms in North Carolina, Baltimore and Philadelphia.
It is a wonderful business, filled with amazing characters and amazing stories. It is also a business with clients – the readers – and an unceasing struggle to figure out what they want.
Some of the stories – the triple ax-murders, the presidential elections, the hurricanes lashing the shore – are ripe fruit on the ground. But mostly it’s a struggle to find out what’s different in a neighborhood, a person or a business concept and make that difference clear to the reader in a collar-grabbing way.
Readership surveys don’t help you here. Not when you’re standing there and the city editor swivels around and says, “So, what's different about this? Why is this a story? Who cares?”
It’s about interviewing people and finding things about them they never realized themselves. Sometimes, if you’re really lucky and really good, it’s sitting in a coffee shop or riding a bus or train and hearing folks talk about something you wrote or edited.
I left the newspaper business and the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2003, at the dawn of The Great Downsizing, to teach and to work on a novel, ignoring Mr. McCreary's advice at what turned out to be my peril.
There was an executive coach, a personal finance counselor who headed a six-person firm, the head of an IT consulting firm, a landscape architect and a Web designer, among others.
In the Philadelphia area, clients have included the city’s Board of Ethics and the Web sites of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Wharton School.
All are different from each other. And different in their own way.