Twelve years in the same place, some lessons learned


I began writing At Large in November 1998, nearly 600 weeks ago. I did it at my wife’s suggestion. She thought a little more variety on the Editorial and OpEd pages would be good. Arguments over town budgets, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, the Steamship Authority, county government, and the speed at which streets get plowed after a snowfall can get old, she said, and not everybody is interested. Of course, when the same person writes in the same space 600 times in a row, there’s a real question about whether that is contributing much in the way of variety. I know that.

Along with the Editorial that appears across the way, it’s nearly 2,000 words a week, some of them better than others. Where words are concerned, there are lots of very good ones to use, but you’ve got to pick and choose. And then there’s the business of arranging them so they show themselves off to good advantage. Someone asked me — no, actually many people have asked — how long does it take you to write one of those? I always answer, sometimes a half hour, sometimes a month, it depends. Good ideas are a breeze. Indifferent ones are a chore, and they rarely end up making any music.

It’s been a learning experience, the whole way, so I’m going to list a few of the things I’ve learned. You can certainly ask why it’s taken 11, going on 12, years to learn these few lessons, and that’s because column writers fall into the trap of talking when they’d be better off listening, so they miss a lot, and consequently the weeks go by until the writer says, whoa, how did I overlook that?

For instance, contrary to what I may have thought when I started out — spurred on by my wife — the effort has not been universally appreciated. For years — the years before The Times website grew into the interactive hub that it is — direct and immediate reaction to what was published was rare. In those faraway days, most reactions, from friends and acquaintances met over the lamb chops at Cronig’s, were warmly encouraging. I might have noticed someone glaring from the vicinity of the organic Brussels sprouts, but I thought they had mistaken me for someone else. The disaffected harbored their finely honed criticism unexpressed. It inspired a false sense of well-being.

When The Times began inviting and hosting comments on to all the material published there, a whole new set of readers showed up to knock the gilt off the rose. And they did it with boots on.

The next lesson is that what seemed like a good idea at the time has come to seem, from time to many a time, not a good idea at all.

“Notified that I was now free to write three columns a week about almost any subject on earth, I was exultant,” the matchless, now retired, New York Times OpEd Page columnist Russell Baker wrote about his work, in “There’s a Country in my Cellar.” “After fifteen years of living under reporter’s constraints, I was at last free to disgorge the entire content of my brain. Somewhere between the third and fourth weeks, having written fewer than a dozen columns, I made a terrifying discovery: I had now disgorged the entire content of my brain, yet another column was due at once.”

It’s a problem, not having anything to say. Oh, I know, some of you will offer helpful advice. “Then please stop,” you’ll say, “for God’s sake, please.” But, after all, when is the columnist’s challenge greater than when he has nothing to say. When the going gets tough, the columnist gets going, drilling deeper, dusting off the discards, even considering telling cute stories about his granddaughter.

Here’s another hard-won lesson. It’s related to the previous one. When in doubt, write about dogs or cats. Nothing has wider acceptance than a good dog story, or a cat story in a pinch. I love it when you write about the dogs, people say. Oh, thanks (wincing). Who sets out to be an animal columnist? It may not have been the goal in 1998, and it still isn’t, but if you can’t please all of the readers all of the time, you can absolutely please most of the readers some of the time, with a good dog story. Keep this in mind, Maureen Dowd.

It’s just a column. It’s not the answer. That’s another lesson. There is a tendency to think that if you’re going to do this, especially if the subject is an important public policy question or, say, the issue of unleashed roosters, you ought to write the last word on the question. It’s important to remember, I learned, that nobody expects you to do that. Indeed, nobody really wants you to, and if you are surprised when the response is, “You’re nuts. Didn’t you think about this possibility?” then perhaps you’ve misunderstood what this whole column writing business is about. Keep this in mind, Paul Krugman.

Finally, thumb-sucking blather may not be the direct way to the hearts and minds of a columnist’s readers. The most recent demographical poll results, the just-released paper on sociological research, the psycho-neuro-bio-metaphysical intersection of current academic thinking, or your description of what the next 20 years of cultural change will bring — if you head off in those directions, you might just put the readers’ feet permanently to sleep. Some of them have told me so. Keep this in mind, David Brooks.