Saturday, February 1, 2014

Confessions of a newspaper columnist


     I am celebrating an important career anniversary. Words and time fly.

     I have been writing “AND ONE MORE THING…” for three years. Every other week I come up with new a new column, and I take pride that I have never reused one — I have gotten close, though, and thought better of you, my loyal reader. You deserve more.
     The truth of the matter is that writing is hard work, and I do put my heart into each column wanting the next one to be more unusual than the last.
     However, you must never have an inkling of my struggle. What appears in print is just the right combination of words creating the grand illusion that writing is as simple as snapping my fingers.
     Upon first getting hired, I worried when Monday morning deadline approached my brain would be empty of ideas remotely of interest to myself — let alone others. I would stare at a blank computer screen in my PJs, panic would set in and being a columnist would no longer be the glamorous job I once had envisioned.

     It never happened.

     I’ll let you in on a little secret. What I do though, is write columns as topics come to me, and I keep a decent backlog. In fact, I could be deceased for two years, and you quite possibly would never know as long as the column appeared in Thursday’s edition.
     To be truthful, I have too much to say. I write social commentary, and I keep away from politics and religion. People who know me well can detect my viewpoints by reading in between the lines.
     I feel a tremendous obligation to readers. What I write about had better be the way I am living out my life. Otherwise, you would have every right to call me a hypocrite. My words would not be influential and worth their salt.
     I never take it lightly. I research before writing, interview face-to-face and follow all the steps getting my pieces correct. When I wanted to write a column about the tooth fairy — one of those “must write” ideas that happen during a nap — I talked with younger parents and children to find out the latest word on the elusive tradition.
     I run into people that I know, and often what I have written about tickles their fancy. And other times, I have had wonderful brief conversations with strangers — they are no longer — after they scurry around an aisle a second time to make certain they are reaching out to the columnist at the local newspaper.
   Readers tend to be my barometer, and I am curious if I am hitting the mark. Not only that, but I check the demographics — gender, age group and locales.

     The best newspaper writing advice that I ever received came from an unknown source: make your point with a punch and move on. I try to do that and leave the wordiness and lofty thoughts to others. That’s become my hallmark style.
    So where do those ideas come from?  
     My favorite topics tend to be simple ones — socks, coffee mugs and toilet paper — I can stretch out a mile of words—900 to be precise — using lots of puns and brainy phrases. It’s a giant word game that I play with myself.   
      The universal experiences we all share — learning new technology and dealing with annoyances — are popular.
     The most highly- rated column online shocked me: “The Presence of Children Keeps Adults Younger.” Apparently, I hit a nerve with parents when I encouraged them and offered compassion.
     I was obsessed with American Bandstand as a teen. When Dick Clark passed in 2012, I sat down in the doctor’s waiting room and wrote, “Dancing My Dreams with Dick Clark” faster than I can marathon dance today.
     Once I wrote a column, “Beauty is in the Eyes of the Beholder.” It was based solely on chats with Facebook friends one morning. I was pleased at how many thoughtful ideas I received, and from such a variety of people.
     I write quickly, and possibly in an hour I have the piece finished. A little editing over a few days will polish it. My voice flows naturally, and I capitalize on a conversational style of writing. I sound identical on the phone or in person if you were to talk with me.    
     Yes, it is safe to have a chat with me, or invite me out to lunch — please, do. You will remain anonymous in print, and our mutual conversation private.
     My husband is the only person who gets trounced upon in print  — all in fun, of course. He can take it. I love it when a former work colleague of his tells me that I am spot on — or better yet, one of his younger sisters. They know from experience how to get his goat.

      As a freelance writer, I have assignments for magazines and journals that I juggle simultaneously with newspaper work. There’s a wonderful “rush” from the challenge. (A book is coming soon, too; more shameless self-promotion is saved for another column.)
     Certain weeks get hairy with multiple projects in various stages, and that’s when I realize the pleasure I receive from writing, “AND ONE MORE THING…” It keeps me grounded, and besides, you are depending upon me like your morning coffee.

    Once again, the 78th column materializes out of thin air, and I have thirteen days before I have to deliver number 79.