About once a year, a group email goes around among the editors at the Times and the town columnists to get everyone back on track with exactly what the town column should be — what’s allowed, what’s frowned upon, and the requisite reminder not to exceed 800 words. This year’s email conversation had me thinking about my goals for the column, why I do what I do, and who I look to serve in my role as town columnist.
Well, I’ve broken column writing down into five rules that I adhere to religiously (and for which I have a bevy of creative writing professors to thank).
1. Stick to the assignment. My assignment as I see it is to represent my town, my community, and this particular point in time. If someone were to find a batch of my columns in a time capsule 100 years from now, I would want them to know that the winter of 2013-14 was (really, really) cold and snowy, a lot of people were fascinated by owls, and the most popular fundraising method was through the sale of pancakes. Super important things. I also aim to be representative. We have a diverse population — young and old and socioeconomically vast — and inclusion is my goal. Sometimes I fail miserably at this goal, but…see Rule 3, and know that I really, really try.
2. Always have an audience in mind when you write anything — whether it be your wife, your third-grade teacher, or your dog. This clarifies whom you are speaking to, the voice you use, the words you choose to express yourself. My father established himself as this audience very early on in my column writing career. It helps that he appreciates my dorky sense of humor and my dry wit. He calls me each Thursday morning, newspaper so freshly pressed the ink could stain his fingers, and says, “Great column” or sometimes, “The column sucked this week.” Which is totally okay, because I firmly believe….
3. Every column can’t be an A+. Some weeks, you guys have so much fundraising and announcing going on that I don’t have a lot of space to pontificate (Dad’s voice in my head: “Good word!”). And honestly, some weeks I am so thankful for those press releases because I do have a real job and I don’t always have the mental space for those 800 words — oh my god 800 WORDS?! — and the best I can do is fill the page and send off the file in a puff of Internet smoke, then collapse from the effort.
4. Always be amazed. I’m amazed by the things I see, the words I choose to express them, and the distances those words reach. I like to mention goings-on of not only those currently residing, voting, and paying taxes here in the 02539, but also people who grew up here now far-flung across the globe, people who spent just summers here but hold this town so dear in their hearts, people who think of our little postage stamp town as home no matter how far their travels may take them. One time, a friend wrote from Afghanistan thanking me for a birthday shout-out. And every time my column is late to go live, I get angry emails from a couple of Texans who eagerly await their weekly dose of Dock Street gossip like two junkies who just can’t kick the Murdick’s Fudge.
5. When in doubt, return to Rule 1: the assignment. And why did I accept this assignment? Because I love my town — the buildings, the people, the history. And each column I write is a love letter to this town that my family and generations before me have called home. I tread on the same bricks as my great grandmother, Antoinette Maria Reading Walker Kelley Taylor, whose high heels clacked and giant earrings bobbed as she made her way around the corner from School Street for an ice cream soda each day, perhaps picking up a loaf of bread at National Grocer, which is now, a century later, a bar that I frequent with my friends. And my grandfather who returned from World War II to serve the town as selectman for decades. And my mother who learned about house charges shopping for bathing suits with her friends — and returning clothing upon Gram’s learning about house charges. And for myself, my readers, and our place in history, which is of equal importance to the passage of time in this place. We perhaps don’t live in the most dramatic time, but this time matters because it is ours. And when that time capsule is unearthed 100 years from now, our children will know I never saw that snowy owl, but on April 4, 2014, I came in at exactly 800 words.
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