birds in a barrel's mission is to release creative nonfiction into the wild.

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.

Coming Clean

There is an event that happened to me in my 20s, but I still think about the incident, and sometimes use it with my students as an illustration of various actions to avoid.

When I was a freelance writer for the L.A. Times in the 1980s, I was also, for a few years, a researcher for readers via telephone in a department called Public Information. The three of us were situated in a bigger department that included Public Relations. On our floor was a gregarious young woman we’ll call Cindy. She had a way of chatting with everyone. And she lived, as a roommate, with a family she’d met at her church.

This family included a young lady we’ll call Sarah, a very talented rocker who’d taken the world by storm. She was passionate, energetic, a bit wild, and certainly thrilling in concert. She was well-beloved throughout the industry. Her first few records had done well, and now she was releasing her sophomore effort.

One of the estimable rock critics in the Calendar—we’ll call him Sam—-loved this singer’s talent and had given her mostly glowing reviews. He was a cherished advisor to the family, and thought her talent and future were unlimited. But—he wasn’t crazy about the new album. He didn’t hate it—he just had some quibbles, felt the artist wasn’ t making full-steam progress, and shared his thoughts with a few of us in the department about Sarah’s apparent set-back.

And one day, in that sotte-voce, conspiratorial way we have of sharing gossip, I told Cindy Sam’s thoughts about her roommate’s new album. I don’t know why I did—except that gossip is one of the “sins” I struggle with, and I deeply respect people who never succumb to this damaging habit.

I didn’t think much of the incident—until a few days later, Sam called me over, visibly upset.

“Sarah just called me, crying. She said she’d heard I don’t like the new album. She was so upset. I don’t understand. Do you have any idea how she might have heard that?”

Panic racing through my body, I hoped my exterior was calm as I said. “Wow. I don’t know how she heard. That ’s a drag.”

I escaped as quickly as possible. And first worried about myself and how I’d be “marked” if I confessed the truth. Then I realized this wasn’t about my concerns—and I had to confess.

I think I did it the next day. I was almost paralyzed with anxiety, and fully expected Sam to yell at me or worse, grow cold and snuff the friendship we shared. He was a bit of a father-figure to me and I couldn’t bear that bond broken.

I must have looked stricken and afraid. Fortunately, instead of anger, he looked at me with acceptance and forgiveness, and talked to me calmly, mentoring me even in the storm. “It’s very important people we review don’t hear about it in advance. Yes, I’m going to write a mixed review. But she needs to hear about it from the newspaper—not from some advance word. It’s just the way it works.”

I don’t know that Sam would even remember that event years ago. But I still think about the thrill of a secret as I told the juicy “news” that wasn’t mine to tell, the shame and then cover-my-butt instincts when my got caught, and the eventual mercy of the one most affected.

 

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