When I got the job as trainee at the Swedish custom publishing company what now not only seems like a long time ago, but is a long time ago, I didn’t really know what I was hired for. The five of us, varying in age and sex – two guys, three young women – had different backgrounds, which was the whole purpose of the exercise.
The company was ultrainternational, ultranational, with representatives of over a dozen different nationalities on staff. The times were good, we had nice offices across the street from the Royal Palace in Stockholm, and we were a pretty hot ticket in town.
We had people at least from Croatia – or with a Croatian background and language skills – Denmark, Norway, France, Germany, Argentina, Finland, Peru, Estonia, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the US, and the Czech Republic.
But most of them had one thing in common. They were all journalists.
I had originally applied for the job thinking that I knew something about magazines, having translated a hockey magazine from Norwegian into Finnish, and from Swedish into Finnish, but I never considered myself a journalist. Since I was a business graduate, a marketing major, with a keen, and documented, interest in advertising, my plan was to market the magazine concepts we’d create.
I was no journalist. And I kept telling everybody that.
The company was small, though, with 35 or so employees, and everybody had to pitch in with everything. And besides, as a trainee, I was supposed to be doing a bit of everything to get a feel of the company.
Most importantly, even though I said I wasn’t a journalist, about a week into my employment, I was asked to write my first piece. The interview person was an insurance executive, but also a former hockey player (and a Swedish champion with Djurgården) so Janne thought it was a nice gig for me.
Off I went, and came back still sweaty and nervous, but with notes that I turned into an article.
The company had, according to the letterhead, offices in Stockholm, Lund, Chicago, and an affiliate in Hong Kong. And a new office was to be opened in Copenhagen.
Chicago, our copy editing office, was a two-woman operation. We’d send our stories “The Chicago Office” and go home. While we were sleeping, Val and Stephanie went through the pieces, and edited them so that the next morning when we were back, there was probably an edited version, with comments and questions, waiting for us in the mailbox.
I sent my piece on a Friday afternoon. Val was known to be nice, but tough. And good, a very good editor. Her word was The Truth.
When I checked my email on Monday morning, this is what I found in my inbox:
From: Valerie Mindel
Subject: Here you go
Date: May 2, 1998 7:21:04 AM GMT+02:00
To: Risto Pakarinen
Good job! Val
What do you know.
A couple of months later, after summer, Janne was standing at my desk again. He was the leader of my team, and the one to allocate the resources in his team. He was wondering – and he pulled his hand through his hair – if I’d be interested in being an editor on one of the magazines, assisting the managing editor. Of course I was.
Then a couple of months later, the managing editor took off on a sabbatical, to write his novel, so Janne asked me if I’d be interested in taking over the project. Sure, I said. I was also an editor on another magazine, and writing more and more. Not because I necessarily wanted to, but because it was kind of understood that we’d do some writing in-house.
What always intrigued me was the discrepancy between the pride my journalist colleagues felt for their profession and the public image of their profession. When I had left the Canadian Embassy a few years earlier to move to Stockholm, a colleague of mine sent me an email when he, jokingly, I think, said that I was making a move from the second-most despised profession to the most-despised profession, moving from “politics” – even though I wasn’t a politician, but a public servant of Canada – to journalism.
Well, I wasn’t a journalist, anyway.
I did like to write, though. I always had. When I was ten years old, I wrote pages and pages of hockey play-by-play commentary in a notebook of mine, in longhand, of course, imitating the famous Finnish broadcasters, and their cliché-filled style.
Always Sweden against the Soviets, by the way. And the Soviets always won.
I learned to read when I was four, and then read like a madman. Sparked by the stories I read, I then wrote my own books, or plagiarized others’. Lets just call it imitating very very closely. What I’d do was sit at my mother’s old typewriter and type away passage after passage off books, making Reader’s Digest versions of them.
I wrote essays in school, and got good grades, but it was just something I did when asked. A girl in my school won the Junior Finlandia my junior year in high school. I didn’t even know such a thing existed. As a kid, I “wrote plays” with my friends at family get-togethers. Well, the manuscripts weren’t fully edited or finished, but the story structure was there. And the love of a story.
But I never kept a diary, and after high school, I didn’t do any creative writing for years. I was a business man, a marketing man. Sure, I helped a family friend with his brochure, and came up with a slogan for him, but that wasn’t writing, the way I understood it.
My first published piece was a short Q+A with Dan Lambert, a Canadian hockey player who had signed with a Helsinki team. “Canadians abroad” ran in the September 1993 issue of Scoreboard, a Canadian magazine started by a friend, but long since gone. It had four questions:
“So, what are your first impressions of Finland and the game here?”
“Did you do any research before coming here, talk to any players who had been to Finland earlier?”
“How does your wife like Helsinki?”
“What was your route to Europe and do you consider this a stepping stone in your career?”
I think Val would had been a little tougher on me, but my buddy, Alder, promptly printed that piece, and my next one on Teemu Selänne, published in October 1993. “Teemu Selanne: a hero in his homeland” chronicled the life and times of the new Finnish superstar. There are no quotes in the story.
My next published story was one of two I had written for the 1994 NHL International Challenge game program. It was a short piece on Teemu Selänne, this time with quotes. The other one was a similar interview with Teppo Numminen, Selänne’s teammate on the Winnipeg Jets team.
The reason I had written those pieces, that I had had the confidence to even suggest to anyone I could do them, and to later even apply for the job in Stockholm was that I had been translating those hockey magazines for years. And when I realized that nobody else ever saw, or cared about the original files, I started to take more liberties with my translations. Just doing it in my style.
The confidence may have been based on a false premise, as I was tricking myself into thinking that I had written all those great and not-so-great articles, when I really hadn’t. The premise was false, but the confidence was real. Maybe it was that confidence, and a romantic idea of a traveling man – and the example of a friend who had published his travel diary – that made me type a 14 000-word travel diary during my week-long trip to Vietnam in 1996.
That first story of mine had been a 400-word little piece, which I had had trouble writing long enough. Two years later, I found myself writing profiles, and enjoying it. And two years after that I found myself back in Finland, now as a managing editor of seven customer magazines.
I was no longer a marketing, business guy. I had become a magazine guy.
And then I became a blogger. Then I started my own hockey magazine and when I shut down my magazine two years later, I realized I had become a freelance writer by profession. I’ve written a book, published three (two were collections of previously published short pieces). So now I write, and I write, and I write. If not on an assignment, then here, or working on that great novel of mine.
I still hardly ever call myself a journalist, but, instead, I always say I’m a writer. It’s like all these other people, Val, Janne, Alder, Wife, they knew it all along. They knew better. They didn’t have any second thoughts. If you write, you’re a writer, simple as that.
What’s difficult is to say no to things. But, no, I’m no longer a marketing guy, and I don’t want to be an agent anymore.
So now, finally, when I hear myself say I’m a writer, I believe it. I’m not saying I’m a great writer, or a legendary writer, but yes, I am a writer.
So I write.