A few summers back, while talking to my Mom on a Saturday night, I mentioned that my wife and I were packing for our vacation the next day but that I still hadn’t written my Jewish Week column for the upcoming issue and was feeling the pressure.
“Why don’t you skip a week,” said my Mom, who has since passed away. “Make ‘em miss you.”
After some initial resistance, I took her suggestion.
The following Saturday night, during our chat, my Mom, who lived in Annapolis, Md., and who generally received and read The Jewish Week on Shabbat, said she’d noticed that I didn’t have a column in the paper.
“That’s right,” I said. “I took your advice.”
“So you mean you’re not writing anymore?” she asked sweetly.
It’s just that kind of reaction that keeps columnists up at night; miss a week and you’ll be forgotten. Yesterday’s pundit. Over the hill.
The incident comes to mind as I start my 19th year in this post. And while math isn’t my strong point, I figure that I’ve written 900 “Between The Line” columns to date, give or take a couple.
While it’s not exactly a milestone like 3,000 hits in baseball, it’s a number that suggests I should be getting the hang of it by now. But a wise journalist once noted that “your last piece doesn’t help you write your next one; you’re always starting from scratch.”
So I thought I’d pause to reflect on this self-appointed task of column-writing before getting back to one of my personal goals, hoping to reach the 1,000 mark over the next two years.
What makes for a successful column? I’d say it’s one that informs, entertains, and/or challenges the reader’s way of thinking; a failure can take many forms, especially an essay that is predictable and doesn’t add to the discussion.
What I’ve found over the years is that while some column ideas come to me easily, most times I spend all week chewing over what to write about.
Back in the ‘80s, when I was in Baltimore and writing a weekly column as part of my job at the Baltimore Jewish Times, I asked a friend who was a columnist at the Baltimore Sun how he managed to write three 800-word essays a week.
He said it had its advantages. “I figure I can only spend two days agonizing over what to write about,” he told me. “You have to worry about your column all week.”
He was right. My less-than-scientific theory is that the worry factor always expands to fill the allotted time slot.
Of course the ideal column, like most good writing, looks effortless. The trick is to make the reader think you just sat down and composed your prose in one take and without breaking a sweat. I know some columnists who can bat their copy out in an hour, on deadline. Not me, though. It can take me anywhere from two hours to two days to give birth to one of these babies. And if there is satisfaction, it comes not in the writing itself but only in having completed the task…until the next week, when the cycle starts all over again.
Some weeks I know just what I want to write about and what I want to say; other times I’ll choose a controversial topic as a way of finding out just what my position is. It calls to mind a quote attributed to Grantland Rice, the early-20th-century sportswriter famed for his elegant prose: “Writing is easy, you just sit at your typewriter until blood comes out of your eyes.”
One example that comes to mind of wrestling with an issue was last fall, when I wrote about the dilemma for Jewish newspapers on whether to publish same-sex commitment (and now marriage) announcements, weighing tradition vs. tolerance, with much depending on community standards of acceptable norms.
Some columns, like that one, generate a good bit of discussion and debate, others seem to drop into a dark hole, never to be heard from again. What gets a big reaction these days? Just about anything on the day school tuition crisis, abuse in our community or questioning Israeli policy, for starters. And there seems to be appreciation for personal pieces, when one makes himself vulnerable, attempting to close the distance between writer and reader. I especially appreciate the responses I’ve received to columns I’ve written about events in my own life, both joyous and sad, and on my childhood in Annapolis.
Then there are the comments like the one from the fellow I met at a Shabbat dinner who told me, quite pointedly, “I liked the column you wrote… three weeks ago.”
“As opposed to the ones I wrote before and after?” I asked with a smile.
The response was an awkward silence.
Oh well, you can’t please them all.
As always, I welcome your comments, critiques and suggestions, like the one I keep from the reader who told me to stop writing satires “because let’s face it, you’re just not funny.”
Thanks for the candor.
Now what should I write about next week?…