My bloggin’ buddie Ben Mitchell has done a series of posts that are really helpful for those awful doubts all of us who like to write have in spades. Ben’s latest post, My Writing is of the Highest Quality made me think of this story.
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We’ve all had them. The Boss from Hell. Anna was mine.
Thirty years ago I worked for a woman who was known to swallow subordinates. People who worked for her often left the state just to get away from her. That’s how I got away, and I started a trend, actually.
Anna was smart, dedicated, a work-a-holic. She expected perfection. Documents were edited by four or five people, proofread by everyone from the most senior lawyer on down to the lowliest paralegal (me). Nothing could go out to our clients with a substantive mistake, a grammatical error, an incorrect comma or extra space between words. Worse, Anna didn’t mince words. She didn’t spare feelings. Working for Anna was a daily “sink or swim” situation. And she always seemed to want to fill your pockets with rocks.
Still, for me, the job was a gift. I had been working as a legal secretary, a job I hated. But, the head partner of the department thought I was funny (which as we all know correlates with being incredibly intelligent). So he offered me a promotion, asked if I would be interested in taking a job as a paralegal, a “professional.” I would be part of the team of professionals in the legislative and regulatory division of a law firm. I would learn all about Washington from the inside.
I would get paid less, work longer hours, and get no overtime. What a deal!
I snapped it up though. Because a big part of it was learning and the rest was writing. Writing boring, humorless stuff, yes. But writing is writing. And getting paid to write? Well, it doesn’t get much better than that, does it?
But Anna was unenthusiastic. She didn’t want me. She didn’t want to have someone else, even her boss, choose her assistant. But we were stuck with each other.
It took five years for her to laugh at one of my jokes. But I digress.
So I became a legislative assistant on environmental issues. My job was to analyze legislation, attend hearings, know what all the different Senators and Congressmen thought about legislation, predict what would happen to a bill. And I wrote memos to our clients to enlighten them.
But first they had to get past Anna. The clients, they were easy. The boss? She was damn hard.
She didn’t mince words. She tore apart sentences, decimated analyses. She always knew more about the issue and the Congress and what position each member was taking than I did. It was, well, challenging. And annoying. It was often hard not to collapse in angry tears.
But for the most part, I understood that I was getting the best training I could get. How many of you have had each and every word you wrote for 10 years brutally dissected? I did. And it was never pretty. But I learned.
Still, even a person like me who desperately needed that job has her limits. And I reached them when, during one period, Anna would inexplicably throw my draft memos back at me saying “WHAT IS GARBAGE???!!!” This question was not good for my ego.
I couldn’t quit, I needed the job. I couldn’t go over her head, because, well, I like to fight my own battles. But clearly, I needed to do something.
So I rooted around in the files until I found a memo Anna herself had written about one of my issues. It was years old, but the factual information was still spot on. I needed to change a couple of little things, the Senate Bill number, the names of a few of the Senators, and voila! Anna had written my memo for me.
When I gave it to her, Anna shouted “What is this GARBAGE?”
“Actually, Anna,” I responded, “You were so unhappy with my last memo that I got this old one out of the file. You wrote it; I just changed the bill number.”
Anna was silent for a minute and then said,
“Well, you write better than I do; I expected more of you.”
From that day on, she was respectful and pleasant. She learned that it was OK to laugh at my jokes and that I would still work hard, regardless.
* * *
The Boss from Hell. Anna was mine. Or was she the one that taught me the most? She certainly taught me more about writing than anyone else I’ve ever known. She taught me to be careful, to pay attention, to look at every word. So was she really the Boss from Hell, or the Editor from Heaven? I can never decide. Probably both.
But she is still my friend.