Friday, October 30, 2009

Horror story

With Halloween lurking, I believe it's fitting to share the scariest moment in my freelance career. Back in the Early Aughts, I'd been assigned to write a profile of professional golfer Tom Lehman for a now-defunct magazine called 85255 (the ZIP code of a tony North Scottsdale, Ariz., suburb). The interview would take place at Tom's house, and would be simultaneous with the photo shoot--never ideal because of the mayhem, but you take what you get.

The interviews with Tom and his wife went smoothly, and the photos, including a shot of the whole family jumping on their backyard trampoline, were perfect. Energized and excited, I hopped in my car to drive home, and started to play back the interview tape so I could brainstorm the story.

It was empty.

I turned the volume all the way up till it was hissing. Nothing. To my utter and complete horror, I saw that I hadn't flicked the switch back from using it in "phone in" mode from a prior telephone interview. The cassette hadn't recorded a single word.

Heart pounding, I pulled onto the shoulder of the desert road, and frantically scribbled chunks of remembered dialogue and anecdotes on my yellow legal pad while they were still fresh in my head. (Mercifully, I had jotted a few notes during the interview, though not nearly sufficient to write a 1,000-word story.) I sat there for an hour, racking my brain to try to recreate the past hour's conversations.

Amazingly, augmented with a brief call to Tom's wife the next day to clear up some timelines, my scrambled roadside effort was enough. (Had I not discovered my error till a few days later, it would not have been.) Evidence, I suppose, that God looks out for widows, orphans, drunks...and freelancers.

I no longer own that old-school microcassette recorder, though its lessons of doing a sound check and having hard-copy backup are scorched into my brain. My digital recorder, which I wrote about over the summer, offers the peace of mind of a visual level monitor. But until I've completely transcribed an interview, and backed it up in my Time Machine, I have to confess: This experience always haunts me, and always will.

Do you have your own horror story, about a nightmare client, evil assignment or deadly deadline? Enter it into the Freelance Writerville II Scary Freelancing Story Contest (registration required)--in addition to fame and fortune, you could win a $10 gift certificate to Amazon!


  1. EGAD! What a total nightmare! That is pretty bad.....

  2. I never knew! Your story was so awesome, one of my favorites..along with Gary McCord...what a pro you are...never breaking a sweat! I love how you turn your so-called failures into some of your best successes! : ) One of the reasons I've always admired you! -Kara

  3. My first day in radio sales-late 70's....I'm in a room full of old men waiting to hear the promotion. My boss runs out of the room to grab the cassette, leaving me to explain. I pitch away enthusiastically, finishing triumphantly with: "And, Mr. Parkinson thinks its a Great Idea!" "No, I don't". "Who are you?" "I'm Mr. Parkinson." At that moment, my boss walked back into the room and I wished the earth could have opened up and swallowed me whole. Thanks for the therapy session here!

  4. adchick--that's a good one...I mean a bad one...I mean, ouch!