Memories of Student Journalism

Patricia Rozema

On Friday I was interviewed by the University of Ottawa’s student paper, The Fulcrum. The interviewer was a first year student, and I couldn’t help but recall my own student journalism days, many many many years ago.

I was a writer for the University of Toronto student papers, The Varsity, The Gargoyle and The Newspaper. This was back in the late 1980s and early 90s, so there were no websites back then, and even email was a rarity. Many would type out their articles on typewriters! Gasp! I know!

I wrote mostly arts reviews, and rarely something more serious. I wrote about 40 articles for those journals back in the day, and at least one was included (without my permission, I will add) in some Japanese coffee table book about an art installation I’d reviewed (“Ball Crowd Illuminates Riotous Architecture”, The Varsity, Oct 2, 1992). The rest were of variable quality, but each had the fullness of my attention. The experience, without a doubt, helped me to develop the skills and discipline to become a professional writer.

My very first editor was Isabel Vincent, who went on to Canadian journalistic fame. The article I wrote for her was a review of a new TV show called Star Trek: The Next Generation. I’d concluded that the show would probably not have a long run. I was quickly pigeonholed as the “Star Trek guy”, and was subsequently sent out to review a couple of Star Trek conventions. Yeah, chicks dig guys who write about Star Trek. Right?

My old high school friend Simon Houpt was my subsequent editor. Simon, of course, is now a superstar arts writer for the Globe & Mail, and author of Museum Of The Missing: A History of Art Theft. I remember that one of Simon’s thrills was occupying the Gargoyle office once owned by David Cronenberg when he, too, was a student journalist. The lineage of such things is deep and important.

(A decade later, Simon and I would meet Ted Turner in the men’s room of a movie theatre. Simon would go on to interview Billionaire Ted in an article that briefly caused a little stir in American print media. I mentioned the meeting briefly in one of my wrestling columns at the time.)

I recall fondly my first “big name” interview, which was arranged by Simon. It was with film director Patricia Rozema at the so-called “Festival of Festivals”, which is what the Toronto International Film Festival was called back then. It’s quite the giddy thing for a naive 20-something to be cast into the world of glamorous film festivals, with a catering room, press pass, press kit and everything! I would go on to review the TIFF for a variety of magazines years later, as my career matured.

Ms Rozema was very helpful, as she could probably tell how nervous I was. She told me to stop recording and check to see if the tape recorder was actually working. Now that I myself am sometimes interviewed, often by inexperienced journalists, it’s something that I find myself doing: asking the interviewer to check on his recording device. I was such a pathetic sod, that at one point the interview turned into a therapy session as Ms Rozema attempted to console my broken heart, recently made so by an ended relationship.

I’ll never forget something she told me during the formal interview. She was talking about how people search for meaning through family and by doing good deeds, leaving their mark, etc. I asked her then what her purpose in life was, and she replied, “To make beautiful things through my art.” At the time, I thought it was the stupidest, flakiest and most self-obsessive thing I’d ever heard. I’m not so sure anymore.

I’ll also never forget the reception that my interview received, so typical of idiotic, self-important youth. The first line of the article was, “Patricia Rozema is a beautiful woman in every respect.” Predictably, the newspaper received letters of complaint that I was “objectifying” her. Insert rolling eyes here.

One of the curious things about student journalism, especially at a big and important school like the University of Toronto, is that you never know who your coworkers will become. Another old friend of mine, Matthew Vadum, was big on the student journalism scene and now makes it big on American TV and print. Another gadabout in those days was Hal Niedzviecki, who has certainly carved out a niche for himself in Canadian culture.

Back in the Varsity days, I worked alongside many future big names. Two necessarily come to mind: Naomi Klein, who is now one of the most famous women in the world; and Tim Long, who is now a writer and producer for The Simpsons. (And I will personally attest that long before the Powers That Be noticed him, Tim Long was a reflexively hilarious writer and a naturally hilarious fellow.)

As a result, despite whatever small success my writing has afforded me, I hope you will forgive me for never quite feeling up to the task. Look to whom I must constantly compare myself!

So what’s the lesson here? There is none, except to say that so much of student experience separate from the formal academics plays a role in shaping one’s skills and path in life. I wonder who the young woman who interviewed me on Friday will become in 15 years.