A career as a storyteller requires, ahem, 'expertise'

I am often asked how one makes a living as a freelance writer. My knee-jerk response: Get real good at starvation.

Truth is, there is no manual for this profession. Had there been, I would have snatched it up 25 years ago and today I'd have fingernails. Oh, I know, there's a certain romance to being able to say to people, "I'm a writer," but that quickly fades when returning home to find that your one remaining can of SpaghettiO's is months past the "sell by" date.

Fact is, I had to stumble through a dozen or more jobs and false starts before I came to a painful realization: To pursue my dream I had to embrace unemployment before I could become self-employed. It wasn't until I was 37 that I hurled myself into the void and the disquieting knowledge that I would never again receive a regular paycheck and would have to pay for my own health insurance (and that of my family to come).

Before tumbling off my personal fiscal cliff into a life of inventive scribbling, I had taken stabs at the following jobs: Fuller Brush man (one month), golf course locker-room attendant (three weeks), men's clothing salesman (five days), professional golf caddie (three months), insurance salesman (one day), blackjack dealer (four months), newspaper sportswriter (18 months), assistant magazine editor (one year), magazine editor-publisher (10 years), college English instructor (four years).

You can see that my progression of jobs was gradually leading me to my true calling, but only after I'd taken a half-dozen left turns when the road map said I should go right.

I tested somewhere between pathetic and disgraceful at all professions that weren't connected to language.

At least the caddying job led to my first writing assignment. I was looping for a college teammate in the Mexican Open when he shocked both himself and me by lapping the field and winning by six strokes. One of our interested spectators was the editor of Golf World magazine, who thought it odd that I'd just finished studying Dostoevsky and Chaucer in graduate school, only to be wearing a pea-green jumpsuit and checking wind speeds in Guadalajara.

The editor had been an English major himself back in the day, so during breaks in play we would discuss the literary merits of "The Brothers Karamazov," and whether Steinbeck or Faulkner had a more poetic take on the American experience.

The editor asked me if upon returning to the Pacific Northwest I would be interested in penning an article on my caddying stint for his magazine. I was elated.

When three months later that small national magazine carried my byline, and the following week's "Letters" column offered a complimentary note about my effort, I was hooked. This was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, if only I could figure out how to get paid for the work.

I acknowledged early in the game that my talent for penning fiction was limited, but that I didn't need to write make-believe stories to scratch my itch. True stories, honestly told and with a certain flare, would be good enough for me.

In time I realized that the trump card I could play over and over again in Las Vegas - one that wasn't held by any other freelance writer in any other city - was the locale of my stories.

Unlike my hometown of Spokane, Wash., or even St. Paul, Minn., or Cincinnati, nearly everyone in America and beyond our shores is intrigued with Las Vegas. Readers are inclined to believe most anything they read about our town because our stock in trade is the unbelievable.

That is not to suggest that I made up stories about our city and sold them as nonfiction, because embellishment is unnecessary in a place that packages hyperbole and fantasy like Boise bags potatoes.

Just knowing from the get-go that an editor has a fascination with our locale is a tremendous advantage for a writer. No matter the length or breadth of an assignment, I always try to wrap a little neon around it.

A writer in Las Vegas has a buffet of topics to choose from, providing he or she doesn't get pigeonholed as an entertainment writer, or an investigative reporter, or an expert on desert tortoises. So whenever an assignment came my way, no matter the subject, I crossed my fingers behind my back and professed to have some knowledge of it.

In the days well before the Internet and the miracle of Google, I wrote a piece on the proper way to plan and carry out a Jewish wedding, even though I'd never been to one. I also passed myself off as an authority on bass fishing at Lake Mead years before I hooked a small-mouth and cooked it on the grill.

Perhaps the biggest bluff of all was my authorship of a book that delved into the lascivious activities of folks in the adult industry. When I was introduced by a radio talk show host as "The Dr. Phil of Las Vegas, a man who knows everything there is to know about sex in Sin City," my wife doubled over in laughter.

Little lies you can sometimes pull off. Whoppers are trickier.

Longtime Las Vegas resident and author Jack Sheehan loves this city, with all its wonder and weirdness, and thinks it offers the richest menu of writing material on the planet. Email him at jshee32110@aol.com or call him at (702) 277-0660.