Sketchy way to earn a living

Back to the ol’ drawing board? Nope.

Back in the late Seventies, when I was more yappy pup than Mad Dog, one of the editors at my second newspaper asked me why I was dead set on becoming an editorial cartoonist.

“I think you’re a better writer than you are a cartoonist,” he said.

Well. Shit. Nobody else around the newsroom seemed to think I was a fledgling Woodward N. Bernstein. Especially me.

I didn’t love reporting, which precedes writing and can be a very heavy lift indeed. When bored witless at school-board meetings I often doodled in my reporter’s notebook. As a consequence coverage could be less than comprehensive. And now here was this authority figure telling me that words, not pictures, were my forte, my future. Bad news.

This wasn’t the first “Check Fiscal Engine” light on my career dashboard, either. An adviser at my first college had told me how many editorial cartoonists were earning a living in the United States (not many then; even fewer now). Might want to cast a wider net, the adviser advised. Instead I dropped out and fished blue-collar ponds for a while.

At my second college another adviser advised that I’d never find any kind of work at a newspaper, unless maybe it was with Ed Quillen, who even then had a reputation for blazing his own trail. As it turned out, this wizard’s palantír was off by seven newspapers, and I didn’t do a lick of work for Ed until I had quit No. 7 and gone rogue. Those who can’t do, etc.

But I digress. Back to Newspaper No 2.

Your Humble Narrator at Newspaper No. 3, circa 1980.

The writing was on the wall, as it were. Happily, I could read. And even write, a little, as long as it didn’t involve first walking up to strangers like some Monty Python constable: “’Ello, ’ello, ’ello … wot’s all this then?” I didn’t care for regular haircuts or wearing a tie, and I only liked meeting strangers over drinks in some dark bar.

But a few years earlier, at Newspaper No. 1, where I was a copy boy, I got to sit in at the copy desk now and then, and I really enjoyed the work. It was why I eventually quit and went to College No. 2, the managing editor having advised that I would pretty much top out as a copy boy without a degree of some sort.

So at Newspaper No. 2, after scanning the writing on the wall for typos, grammatical errors, and AP Style violations, I petitioned to relocate from reporting to the copy desk. And I spent the next decade moving from one copy desk to another, editing other people’s stories, writing headlines and cutlines, sizing photos, laying out pages, and occasionally slipping a cartoon past an editorial-page editor.

And rarely — very rarely — I wrote something under my own byline.

Almost exactly 10 years after I read that writing on the wall, I found myself inching toward the exit at Newspaper No. 7, where I had bounced from the copy desk to the sports desk to the arts magazine to the features desk. There were no chairs left unoccupied and the music was winding down. The idea of courting Newspaper No. 8 — and then Nos. 9, 10, 11, and so on, and so on, ad infinitum —felt like a long pull into a cold headwind.

And yes, I had taken up bicycle racing a couple of years earlier.

Your Humble Narrator post-newspapering, in his second act as a pro cartoonist.

So imagine my astonishment when I stumbled across an ad in Editor & Publisher, the industry’s trade mag. Something called VeloNews wanted a managing editor. I applied. Got an interview. Didn’t get the job.

But I did get hired as a cartoonist. Finally! Pro at last, pro at last, thank God Almighty, I’m pro at last!

Cartooning for VeloNews was my first gig outside newspapering, and cartooning for Bicycle Retailer and Industry News would be my last. The Alpha and Omega of my second act, as a freelancer.

In between I did a lot of other stuff, of course. Covered races and trade shows, wrote commentary, edited copy for print and online, dabbled in video and audio. But it was cartooning that brought me in, and cartooning that saw me out.

And you know what’s really funny? I retired six months ago and haven’t drawn a line since. But I just wrote 700-some-odd words, and for free, too, simply because I love doing it.

Maybe that editor was onto something after all.

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36 Responses to “Sketchy way to earn a living”

  1. khal spencer Says:

    I always enjoy your prose, O’G, going back to those Foaming Rant days and certainly your blog. You do have that gift of printed gab.

    The ability to write about “important stuff” and do it in a way that keeps the reader interested rather than glazing over or turning the page is important. That talent sure escapes me.

    The guy who I regularly read who is quite good at making prose fun to read even when dealing with dead serious subjects is Jonah Goldberg (such as ). His politics are not everyone’s cup of tea, but I tend to read as much from the right side of the aisle as the left.

    • khal spencer Says:

      In other words, maybe you did miss your calling?

    • Patrick O'Grady Says:

      Thanks, matey. And no, I think I did exactly what I was designed for and got lucky as hell. Who knows? If things had turned out differently, I might have burned out on writing, then moved to the copy desk, and whiskeyed myself into an early grave wondering about what might have been.

      • khal spencer Says:

        True dat. I don’t look back any more. I am where I am, and what I am. What coulda been, who knows or cares? Life is good. Had I worked my ass off to be one of those highly successful full professors with a long list of publications, I probably would have wrecked a second marriage and my health along the way. Burnout is not uncommon in academia. I got out while I still had my health and my sanity intact. Well, on second thought, at least my health.

    • SAO’ Says:

      // The ability to write about “important stuff” and do it in a way that keeps the reader interested rather than glazing over or turning the page is important. //

      There’s always a Jobs quote:
      “Things don’t have to change the world to be important.”

  2. JD Says:

    PO’G: I’ll second your second newspaper editor’s wisdom/advice. Your forte/gift/talent is writing ….. and today’s piece is yet another creative (and dare I say therapeutic for us and hopefully you) example of that. Brilliant! Insightful! A great read! And we’re thankful you do what you do!
    PS: I’ve always wondered when/how does a newspaper reporter earn the creds to have the article that continues on page X use his/her name ….. NOT the title of the article? (E.g. “See O’Grady p3 instead of see Sketchy Way to Earn a Living p3.”
    Again, your piece today has already made my day. Muchas gracias, mi amigo! 🙂

    • Patrick O'Grady Says:

      Gracias, JD. I don’t know when it was that an idea sent me first to the keyboard instead of the drawing board, but at some point it started happening pretty regularly, and I found I preferred writing to cartooning.

      If I’m being honest here, I think my writing improved — practice, practice, practice! — while my cartooning did not.

      As regards jump heds, now, it’s largely a matter of individual newspaper style. But if a paper has a hotshot columnist who goes long enough to jump, they might use his name instead of the hed to keep the readers engaged.

  3. CC Says:

    I’ve said more than once you’re the best writer I know. And I know a few.

    • Pat O’Brien Says:

      I agree with Chris! You are a top drawer word wrangler. The titles of your posts always give us a little taste of what’s coming. I sure am glad doing it for free is fun for you. So much win win, heh you hoser?

    • Patrick O'Grady Says:

      Señor Coursey is being awfully generous here (and gracias, compañero). Back when he was still in The Game, he was known to toss some pretty mean word salad his own self.

      Paddy me lad, I’ll keep after it. I won’t say it keeps me young, but it does keep the synapses and knucklebones firing.

      • Chris Says:

        One of my favorite things when I was “in the game,” writing 700 words for money, was they also let me write the headline. More creativity there sometimes than in the 700. Also, my column didn’t jump. From up here to down there three days a week, whether there was anything to write about or not.

      • Patrick O'Grady Says:

        Headline writing was the best. The reporter covered an event, condensed it down to a few hundred words. The editors simmered it down a bit more. And the headline writer tried to make everybody go all like, “Damn, I gotta read this story!” with a handful of well-chosen words.

        And I dunno how anybody cranks out three 700-worders a week. When I was firing on all cylinders I did “Friday’s Foaming Rant” once a week at and “Mad Dog Unleashed” 18 times a year or so for BRAIN. And I can guarantee you that they were not all gems. There was a lot more dung than diamonds in that pile.

  4. SAO' Says:

    There’s a ton of wisdom is just about everything Shawn Mullins writes, but this one has stuck with me over the years.

    I said “I don’t reckon I’ll be makin it big,
    You know it’s hard to get rich
    off a bunch of coffee house gigs.

    And he said “Yeah, but ain’t it a blessin’
    to do what you wanna do?”

  5. Shawn Says:

    I bet you would have been rich if High Times would have hired you as a ‘toonist. Although perhaps you would have burnt out.

    Speaking of doing what you love:

    • Patrick O'Grady Says:

      There were just too damn’ many really good cartoonists and not enough places for them to work. National Lampoon kept a bunch of them in beer and bacon for a while, as did Playboy and The New Yorker..

      The underground scene had more geniuses than you could shake a Rapidograph at. Nobody was as consistently funny as Gilbert Shelton, and he eventually fled the country, as did Robert Crumb.

      I think I was just good enough to do what I did, when I did it. The luck of the Irish, no?

  6. John A Levy Says:

    Patrick, as one of the people that purchased ” The Season Starts When?” I am constantly amazed at the unique perspective you presented to us old Guys and the wide load people that ate and drank to excess in the off-season. Still on my bookshelf. Maybe because of my tilted, slightly off-center views both the words and the pictures bring a smile to my face and the odd idea into the little gray cells. Love the Blog and the perspective it brings. The state of bicycle racing and the bike industry, is not a major part of my life. So do what you gotta do. I will follow out of interest and curiosity.

    • Patrick O'Grady Says:

      Thanks, John. I’m retired, not expired, so expect something — Cthulhu alone knows what — to pop up around here from time to time. Who knows? I might even start drawing again. But man, I’ve been doing that a long, long, long time … so long that I can’t remember ever not doing it.

  7. peterwpolack Says:

    “But I just wrote 700-some-odd words, and for free, too, simply because I love doing it.”

    And your readers love reading it.

  8. khal spencer Says:

    Speaking of words…

  9. Tony Geller Says:

    My college roommate retired from a full professorship at Berkley* to work as a free lance cartoonist. Make of that what you will.

    *with a generous pension, I suspect.

    • khal spencer Says:

      If UC had the same retirement calculator we had at LANL while it was UC, that was pretty darn good. It was twice as good as our old Univ of Hawaii plan, which is one reason my better half and I both jumped ship. Plus, living in Honolulu was difficult (crowded, expensive, isolated).

      LANL ditched that plan when it was bid out to the Military-Industrial Complex in 2006. I know the folks who came in after 2006 got pretty good 401 programs, but no pensions. Given the way the stock market is in a tailspin right now, I’m all in favor of pensions and socialist security.

  10. Pat O’Brien Says:

    All this begs the question, and Chris probably agrees, where is th3 novel? I know, you’re retired. Me too, I get it.

    • Patrick O'Grady Says:

      No novel from me, Hoss. There are plenty of bad novels out there already, and I’ve read my share of ’em. I’m strictly a short-form kind of guy. And some days I can’t even get that right.

  11. khal spencer Says:

    You want to know something funny? I just got my Twitter account suspended. Someone posted a tweet saying that in her search for justice, Liz Cheney would follow Donald Trump to the gates of Hell. I added that when she gets there, she should give him a swift kick through those gates. Twitter, apparently where no one took a class in rhetoric, accused me of fomenting violence and locked my account.

    • Shawn Says:

      Suspended from twitter huh? I guess you can now say you are in a club that Trumpy is a member of. No worries though, we still care about you and your professorial ranting.

      Liz following Trumpy to hell? Apparently the person believes he should be going to hell anyway. If Liz was on her way down, it would be to make sure that the girls with the forks were there to greet Trump, and then to make sure the gate is locked.

      I’m curious to see how Liz does in August. If the folks of Wyoming are smart, they’ll realize that they have a senator that actually has some cajones. She still has her conservative beliefs. She just doesn’t have the stomach to swallow the crap that every ignoramus without a clue feeds to the GOP.

      • khal spencer Says:

        “…if the folks of Wyoming are smart….”

        I wonder what our old pal Charles Pelkey thinks about that statement.

        • Shawn Says:

          Uh. Yeah I guess I could have clarified my obtuse statement. Perhaps I could say “If there is a semblance of GOP voters that can see the crayola writing on the wall and actually think for themselves, they’ll realize that they have a senator that actually stands for political integrity.”

          Charles probably would chuckle and mutter under his breath, “a naive viewpoint indeed”.

    • Patrick O'Grady Says:

      Ho, ho. Fuggin’ Twitter. You may recall that I left my account active but never use it. Now and again I scroll a ways down BRAIN’s bikey Twitter feed in the homepage sidebar. Good Gawd Awmighty, it makes me want to hurt people, a lot and all the time. I think I’m better off without the social media.

      Speaking of BRAIN, did you see Steve Frothingham’s piece on Trek cutting Gary Fisher loose? Another old bike guy out on the street, and he’s got a better mustache than I do.

  12. Herb from Michigan Says:

    I get most of my news feed here and certainly the best laughs and great “sayings” that I steal and use to consult/insult with the best of em. Thanks POG for staying an “ink stained wretch” as you often put it. I enjoyed your audio work a great deal too.

    • Patrick O'Grady Says:

      Gracias, Herb old scout. The podcast was an interesting diversion but burned a ton of daylight and I never could quite figure out what it wanted to be. It didn’t seem to get a lot of traction and so I wandered away. Maybe one of these days I’ll wander back.

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