What you don’t know

“We can absolutely turn that around for you by tomorrow,” my then-boss told the client. “Right, Elaine?”

I had no choice but to agree. Our client, riled up by something in the news that day—something, I probably don’t need to add, that was entirely outside our scope of service agreement with her organization—wanted an op-ed. It had to get written that night; no one wants an opinion piece about last week’s news. I understood that. I also understood that when you deal with clients, you occasionally encounter unreasonable expecations, ditto deadlines.

What I didn’t understand was…well, anything at all about the subject.

Today, that wouldn’t be a problem. But back then, the ink was barely dry on the check that funded Google. A web search yielded me some information, but not nearly enough to satisfy my yen for specificity. I like to paint pictures with words, but in this case, I was painting blind.

My client wanted me to write about the evils of circumcision. Just to be clear: we’re talking male circumcision. Just about the only person less well-suited for this writing assignment would be a lifelong resident of a convent. But there we were.

Now, I have written about many things I didn’t initially understand: like derivatives, back in the 1990s when even some of the people selling them didn’t quite know what they were. But at least then I had colleagues who could educate me. This…well, it really wasn’t the kind of thing I fancied discussing with the ladies in the office, and certainly not with the men.

My boss knew she was throwing me into the deep end. I think she kind of enjoyed the idea that her lesbian writer would be stuck in the office most of the night thinking about penises. (She was definitely that kind of person.)

I called my partner, who used to deal with them on a professional level (get your minds out of the gutter—she was a paramedic). She explained the situation to me, referencing various items of clothing, and I managed to bang out 600 or so semi-coherent words. Sadly, the media didn’t share our client’s outrage; the piece never got published.

You’ve all heard the old adage “write what you know.”

When you work for other people, sometimes you have to write what you don’t know, too. It’s not the most fun ever, but it’s a living.


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