This week’s column is the 780th installment. I began spouting off this way, at Molly’s suggestion, in the first week of November 1998. I had been committing a weekly editorial for several years before that and do still, but she said they often sounded bossy, and the subjects were boring. (Wives throw what Wally Backman, speaking about Hall of Fame right hander Nolan Ryan, called “good hard cheese.”) Why don’t you write something more varied and occasionally fun, she said. You don’t want readers to think you’re a bossy, boring person. (Was she saying that I should try to trick them?)
So, since the first week in November 1998, I’ve added between 1,500 and 2,000 words, taking the Editorial and At Large together, to the weekly MVTimes output, one part bossy and boring, the other, well, you’ll have to decide. I’m not pretending that all the words were fresh and new. Words, images, similes, metaphors, and all the rest are completely recyclable and consequently earth friendly. And anyway, it’s never about the words so much as it is about the way you string them together and whether, when you’re all done, they say something.
Readers, referring to At Large, sometimes say, Oh, I loved that thing you wrote, maybe two weeks ago, what was it about? I have no idea. The subjects of this weekly criminality have been so many. They’ve run from dogs, the odd cat, to children, to friends, admirable but now dead, to ice skaters, newspapermen, budgets, sailors, wood splitters, books, painters, admirable young people, dope and alcohol abuse, traffic jams, weddings, graduations, words, newspapering, the Yellow Pages, podiatry and politicians, hurricanes, admirable old people, astonishing young people, love, to judges and police, to cyclists, to music and funerals and birds, Christmas parties and ice cream, to sailboats and ice boats, tides, water temperatures, no’theasters, miscreants, malcontents, the insufferably happy and, to be honest, whatever happened by. The list goes on and on, and if readers can’t remember a column they read and liked, I say, welcome to my world.
More often folks ask, how long does it take you to write one of those things? The answer is, naturally enough, hard to pin down. Sometimes, I suspect there’s an intervention, not divine certainly but probably karmic. When that happens it’s an hour, tops. Like butter. Sometimes, nothing karmic going on and in the grip of deadline desperation, it happens a word at a time. Think Portnoy’s father. Nothing moving.
Usually though, it’s like getting dressed in the morning. You go into the closet. I’ll take that blue shirt and those tan pants, the gray sweater and the brown shoes. For me, it’s shall I take that blue shirt or the other blue shirt, those tan pants or the other tan pants. I’ve a long list of potential topics in the Reminders app on my iPad, but cramped and inelastic as I am, while the topics vary, the approach usually doesn’t. I long to embrace change, but it’s so unfamiliar. The typical grappling on such occasions will run anywhere from two hours to a week and a half.
Lots of people ask, how do you come up with stuff to write about? As you may have guessed from the list above, there are a lot of fish in the sea. I don’t think that these questioning neighbors — some I know pretty well, some I don’t know, at least right off, but they’re awfully pleasant — have been torn by uncertainty for weeks until we collide in front of the heirloom tomatoes or at the post office. It’s a surprise for her as it is for me, and she takes the opportunity to put the question. On such occasions, one usually sends out scouts frantically looking for hoofprints or broken branches, some clue about who it is and what to say to start a conversation. Don’t these tomatoes seem both expensive and misshapen, I might offer. My fellow shopper, taking an unexpected tack, says, in effect, never mind tomatoes, what were you thinking when you wrote that thing about how your daughter gets phone calls from boys and you intercept them? I can’t believe you think that you can keep an eye on a teenager’s friendships by monitoring phone calls. Were you trying to be funny? (I don’t answer, because there is absolutely no face-saving answer to that question.) What about Facebook or Twitter or Instagram? That’s what they’re using to communicate, and that’s what you should be writing about.
(Pardon a moment’s interruption here. There’s that word “thing” again. People are always saying to me, I loved that “thing” you wrote. I hated that “thing” you wrote. I didn’t understand that “thing” you wrote. Did you really mean that “thing” you wrote? How can you mean that “thing” you wrote? Where do you get the ideas for the “things” you write? Now, I’m sure there’s a better word for those “things,” though I can’t think of what it is right now. But, it’s not “thing.”)
More than anything else, what I should have written about is the most common suggestion from friends, neighbors, and readers. Unfortunately, they tell me what I should have written about after I wrote what I wrote. It would help if they worked a little harder and made their suggestions in a timely way. But, thinking a layer or two more deeply, an awkward problem reveals itself. Suppose these kind, interesting people, blooming with ideas, had suggested a topic and I had failed to step up to it, wouldn’t that make our future rendezvous, wherever in Cronig’s or at the dentist’s office it occurred, terribly uncomfortable?
What they don’t often ask – I suspect they are too polite – is, what makes you think anyone wants to read what you write? To that question, I have the answer. I don’t. I just like doing it, and I’m lucky enough to have the chance to do it.
Plus, as Russell Baker said, “yesteryear’s swashbuckling newspaper reporter has turned into today’s solemn young sobersides nursing a glass of watered white wine after a day of toiling over computer databases in a smoke-free, noise-free newsroom.” And, I ask myself, who’d want a sentence of 15 years to life like that? Or, as my older son often says, you don’t want to be that guy.