Monday, January 27, 2014

A very long time ago, I did an article on an obscure but amazingly important company, Ovson Egg. It's one of those articles which had its genesis in a bunch of other articles I did: Ovson had been the target of union organizers in the 1930s and 1940s, and the name kept cropping up.

Ovson was one of the biggest food suppliers in the U.S. prior to the advent of refrigerated food in the 1950s; the freezing or dehydrating of eggs was a major issue, because eggs otherwise would last only two or three days before going bad. Ovson was a major egg company, the way Armour or Hormel (major meatpackers) were for beef and pork, and I'd done articles which talked about Armour and Hormel in several other union articles I'd written. These companies resisted unionization like a country defending against an invading army: At one point in the 1930s, they bought more tear gas, pepper spray, riot guns, and grenades than the U.S. government! I'd helped clean up the Borden Food article (as a kid, I used to drink Meadowgold milk and Dairygold ice cream, both made by Borden), and Ovson Egg later became part of Borden.

The Chicago gangster Joey Glimco had become deeply involved with Ovson Egg in the 1950s. If he could control the company, he could skim massive amounts of money from it. After all, everyone ate eggs! And Ovson was, by far, the biggest egg company in America. Even if all Glimco did was control Ovson Egg and charge a single cent more per egg, he'd make tens of millions of dollars a year.

But there was no article on Joey Glimco...

Later, when I did my article on the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in Labor and Management, I discovered Glimco had been a major focus of the committee. He had supported Jimmy Hoffa and (along with Johnny Dio, another gangster I'd done an article about) had made possible Hoffa's rise to power in the Teamsters. During the Select Committee hearings, Robert F. Kennedy and Glimco had had a deliciously bitchy conversation which has made it into lots of history books about the mob and about RFK:
Kennedy: And you defraud the union?
Glimco: I respectfully decline to answer because I honestly believe my answer might intend to incriminate me.
Kennedy: I would agree with you.
McClellan: I believe it would.
Kennedy: You haven't got the guts to answer, have you, Mr. Glimco?
Glimco: I respectfully decline.
McClellan: Morally, you are kind of yellow inside, are you not?
Glimco: I respectfully decline.
So I started writing about Glimco, which no one else had done despite his prominence in the 1950s. I quickly discovered that he played a major, major role in Chicago history but was utterly ignored on Wikipedia. In doing my research, I found much more information that I expected. It took me a month just to plumb the Chicago Tribune and New York Times archives, and cost me a lot of bucks to download a lot of articles. It took me two weeks to arrange my research into some sort of form (chronological? nonchronological? topical?) that I liked and which conveyed the information well. (I settled on chronological, with a few backtracks along the way.) I needed to review my information, and plug holes, and that took another week.

I started writing the article in early June, and put it into my sandbox page on June 28. I did a little work on it for a week, and then stopped.

I stopped because the creative writing process isn't something you can force. I was having writer's block on this article: I was uncertain that the format I'd chosen was something that was working. I was unhappy with the huge amount of information I'd generated, and was considering dumping a lot of it in favor of a more stripped-down article. Plus, I was just depressed about stuff in my personal life, and writing about a gangster isn't really going to help that.

So I wrote articles about other things I was interested in -- Robert Kenner, Andrew Carroll, The 1940s House, and the Watergate complex -- instead. Even then, I got stuck on Watergate complex: The newspaper reporting on which building in the complex got sold and when is really slipshod, and I couldn't figure out what had really happened for a long time! As it turns out, I completed the article just in time for the August 9 anniversary of President Richard M. Nixon's resignation. (Wikipedia, however, did not approve the DYK for "Watergate complex" until it was too late to make the anniversary date. Ah well...)

I returned to Glimco after a long hiatus, figuring it was time to stop dicking around. Something happened deep in my subconsious with my creative juices and decision-making processes that allowed me to solve the problems I was facing with the article. In fact, I merely came to accept the tremendous amount of data I'd collected and to accept the structure I'd already decided on. But that's OK: First drafts are just that, first drafts. And you may end up discovering that the "first draft of history" is the right one.

It was a good decision, too. I discovered some new information, and added that to the article, improving it, adding detail to the vague parts and clarifying some things.

And that's how writing is done, for me anyway.

No comments:

Post a Comment