Friday, August 2, 2002


Taking advantage of the Mosquito for (nearly) thirty years

When I first contemplated an essay about "My Relationship with the Mosquito over the Past 30 Years," it seemed like a slight stretch of reality. After all, I'm only five years older than the Mosquito myself. But when I gave it some thought, I realized that my relationship with the Mosquito probably does go back 30 years, or at least 27 or 28. When I was in grade school, I remember staying up late at night writing essays on topics like "Why I Love Roller Skating" and poems with couplets such as "Canoeing across the lake in Maine/I sniff the air for a hint of rain." I'd ask my mother to put them in the Mosquito drop box the next day, and invariably, it seemed, they appeared in print the following week. At the time, it simply never occurred to me that journalism was usually considered a professional endeavor and that topics were usually cleared with an editor first. I'm not sure where the notion came from, but from the ages of about 6 to 10 I treated the Mosquito like my own personal literary magazine, and the Mosquito never let me down.

My passion for creative writing in a public forum tapered off with the self-consciousness of adolescence, but I returned to the Mosquito soon anyway. At the age of 16, I wasn't showing a lot of ambition or motivation to do much of anything except visit with my friends. My parents saw the need for me to expand my intellectual and practical horizons a bit. Recalling my brief stint as a national spelling bee competitor in junior high, they suggested that I volunteer to be a proofreader for what was then the town's other newspaper, the Gazette.

My volunteer position as a proofreader lasted for all of one week, for the unexpected reason that after one week the editorial board decided to pay me for my efforts. So working as a proofreader became my first regular paid job, which delighted me to no end. Not only did I earn a check every week -- I, who didn't even have a checking account yet! -- but I was also privy to the previously unimagined cachet of being in an adult office environment. As I did my three hours of proofing once a week, I listened to the editors and other staff members exchange anecdotes about their husbands, opinions on town politics, and concerns about their children. The Gazette's publisher, Althea Kern, was single at the time, and many jokes were made over the fact that if she had plans on Wednesday evening, she often neglected her duty of contacting local cinemas for the weekend's movie schedule. So if the paper printed "Call theater for times" instead of running the actual listings, we newsroom insiders knew it really meant "Althea had a date this week." Mundane in retrospect, perhaps, but pure soap-opera-style intrigue to a 16-year-old new to the whole concept of office life.

Journalism and editing were both interests that stuck with me throughout high school and college. In my senior year in college, I realized it would be beneficial to fill out my portfolio a bit with some local reporting clips in preparation for job hunting after graduation, so over our long winter break, I offered my services as a reporter to the Mosquito. This is when they got me back for taking advantage of them with my myriad essays and poems fifteen years earlier: they assigned me topics like "Property Tax Assessment: What are the key factors?" and "Janitorial trends at the Carlisle Schools." Embarrassingly enough, I looked forward to seeing those articles in print no less than I had with "The Joy of Rollerskating" when I was seven.

A few years after college, I was working as a copy editor but still devoted most of my creative urges to writing personal essays. Once again, I took advantage of the Mosquito. Although I lived in Boston at the time, I pitched to the editors the idea of writing a monthly essay column called "Back Home," and they agreed to it. As one of my journalistic mentors observed dryly upon hearing of my new gig, "Who was it that said home is where they have to take you in? I guess your hometown newspaper is where they have to publish you." I used this monthly forum to cover everything from the less-than-bucolic experience of jogging amidst roadkill on Carlisle streets to detailed descriptions of my parents' idiosyncracies. I gave the column up after a couple of years, but during that time I definitely learned a lot about the challenge of being interesting and candid but also discreet while meeting a monthly deadline. Today I have a similar gig, writing a monthly column for a parenting magazine called "Parents & Kids." As my father noted recently, "The best thing about the way your career has evolved is that now you use your writing to make fun of your husband and son, instead of me."

For about a decade, I stayed away from the Mosquito. I wanted to think that my career had advanced beyond this small-town newspaper that, I still vaguely suspected, published my work only as a favor. Sure, 90 percent of the writing I sent off to other publications met with straightforward rejection, but at least that felt like an honest assessment of my talents. All those years of taking advantage of the Mosquito seemed to catch up with me; I wanted the professional validation of being accepted into tough, critical markets.

But less than a year ago, life took an unexpected turn when my husband and I were given the completely unanticipated opportunity to build a home in Carlisle. We moved back to town last fall, and I contacted the Mosquito less than two weeks later to ask if they could add me to their roster of feature reporters. Because although my writing career has gone fairly well in recent years — I work full-time as a corporate copywriter for a travel company, teach a course in creative writing, write regularly for a parenting magazine, and have sold various essays to national publications recently — the Mosquito still sometimes seems like the best outlet for my efforts. First of all, myriad interesting and talented people live in town, and being a feature reporter gives me access to fascinating interview subjects whom I might never have known about had I not been directed to them by the Mosquito's editors. Second, it seems to me that hundreds, if not thousands, of people actually read the Mosquito every week. I get more feedback when I write something for the Mosquito than when I'm published in The Boston Globe. I'm convinced that the Mosquito's distribution might be small but is devoted, whereas most of the Globe's hundreds of thousands of readers barely skim it every day. And lastly, I know I'm writing for a discerning audience, which means that I finally no longer feel like I'm taking advantage of the Mosquito, but rather putting my most powerful professional efforts into everything I write. Among the few thousand people in town are world-class scholars, authors, political commentators and journalists far more accomplished than I'll ever be. Knowing that they might be reading my work is incentive enough for me to treat every article as if it were crucial to my career.

And beyond that, I just love counting the Mosquito among my professional credentials. Sure, it's a little embarrassing to list a paper named after an insect on my resumé, but it reminds me of how the least grand aspects of our lives can sometimes be the most important. I'm proud of my thirty years -- or nearly that -- with the paper. It's been an honor, as much now as when I wrote grade school poetry. A byline is a byline, and I don't think I'll ever stop feeling a certain thrill at the sight of mine.

2002 The Carlisle Mosquito