On Oct. 1, The Vancouver Sun published a cover letter Hunter S. Thompson wrote on that same date 52 years earlier, in which the “gonzo journalist” asked for a reporting job at the newspaper. A colleague of mine at the Detroit Free Press posted a link to the letter on Facebook and called me out, asking whether I would have hired Thompson.
I indicated that I might have, but I am not sure Thompson’s potential coworkers would have welcomed him aboard. Thompson died in 2005, but his writings remain relevant and still attract attention. His cover letter, published in “The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955-1967,” said in part:
“I got a hell of a kick reading the piece Time magazine did this week on The Sun. In addition to wishing you the best of luck, I’d also like to offer my services. …
“By the time you get this letter, I’ll have gotten hold of some of the recent issues of The Sun. Unless it looks totally worthless, I’ll let my offer stand. And don’t think that my arrogance is unintentional: it’s just that I’d rather offend you now than after I started working for you.
“I didn’t make myself clear to the last man I worked for until after I took the job. It was as if the Marquis de Sade had suddenly found himself working for Billy Graham. The man despised me, of course, and I had nothing but contempt for him and everything he stood for. If you asked him, he’d tell you that I’m ‘not very likable, (that I) hate people, (that I) just want to be left alone, and (that I) feel too superior to mingle with the average person.’ (That’s a direct quote from a memo he sent to the publisher.) …
“As far as I’m concerned, it’s a damned shame that a field as potentially dynamic and vital as journalism should be overrun with dullards, bums, and hacks, hag-ridden with myopia, apathy, and complacence, and generally stuck in a bog of stagnant mediocrity. If this is what you’re trying to get The Sun away from, then I think I’d like to work for you. …
“I can work 25 hours a day if necessary, live on any reasonable salary, and don’t give a black damn for job security, office politics, or adverse public relations.”
It’s clear he could write, and I like to see anyone use “hag-ridden” correctly. Thompson also made it clear he might be what we call high-maintenance. This catch-all term covers everything from people who smash coffee cups against the wall, to despondent reporters who get writer’s block, to those who just peel the skin off everyone around them.
For an editor to work with someone who requires constant maintenance, there has to be a great return in the work. Even then, some editors will take the well-mannered, slightly above-average reporter over the infuriating and occasionally brilliant journalist — if they can tell the difference.
Would that letter have encouraged me to call Thompson and see what he had, or to set him aside for someone less challenging and less talented? I don’t know for sure, but I hope I would have been intrigued enough to take the next step. And that is the main purpose of submitting a cover letter — to get the editor to call you in for an interview.
As for the editor who Thompson wrote to at The Vancouver Sun? We don’t know for certain, but Thompson never worked there.
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Coming Tuesday: Join me and Poynter’s Colleen Eddy at 3 p.m. ET for a free live chat about how to establish limits with your employer.