My first column appeared in The Coloradoan newspaper in Ft. Collins, Colo., on Jan. 18, 1985. With a couple of interruptions – when I moved from Colorado to Michigan and then to Oak Park – I’ve penned, or keyboarded, approximately 1,500 columns (in Michigan, I published three times a week for a couple of years, and I wrote a monthly column in Chicago Parent magazine for about eight years in the 1990s).
Twenty-five years is a long time to have something to say, but, as you’ve probably noticed, I always have something to say. Dan Haley is the only columnist I know who has written longer (30 years, I believe, this August), all with one newspaper.
Dan is a fine local columnist, and he’d like me to be a local columnist, too, but I’m … well, something else. I range. You might say I’m a free-range columnist. My subjects cover the spectrum from the almighty to the mundane, from the intellectual to the emotional, from soup to nuts (a cliché every ink-stained wretch has likely fallen prey to).
A columnist, of course, should avoid clichés like the plague (oops). If you can’t develop a distinctive voice, readers will wonder why they bother. One part voyeur, one part exhibitionist, one part performer and one part preacher, we can’t afford to be conventional thinkers. We find a slant that others haven’t thought of – or they’ve thought of it but never heard anyone actually say it in public. Some aren’t sure you’re allowed to say it in public. A columnist, occasionally, has to push the bounds of “decency.”
Many say a good columnist needs to find the universal in the particular, which is true, but you also have to be able to distill the particular from the universal. I call it my “unified field theory” of column-writing (with apologies to Einstein).
That’s one reason I write about national politics. It’s on people’s minds around here, and it plays out at the local level (as we saw with the takeover of Park National Bank). The tectonic plates grind here as they do anywhere else when the rights of the individual run into the interests of the common good (e.g. the Oak Park handgun ban and the OPRF stadium lights controversy).
Much of what I write drives conservatives nuts, but I’m always surprised how many continue to read this column. Maybe that’s because I’m not really writing about them so much as to them.
I’m an iconoclastic, overly idealistic, excessively romantic, hyper-opinionated, free-thinking, hot-headed, obsessive progressive who can’t keep his mouth shut (or his pen capped), but I never assume I know all the answers and I never give up on the possibility of genuine dialogue with the other end of the political spectrum. We need conservatives as much as we need progressives. Through dialogue we bring out the best in each other.
Mostly, though, what I’ve tried to do for 25 years is share how I make sense of life. In order to become a better columnist, I had to become a more complete person, hopefully a better person. None of us is on this journey alone, and if I’ve provided any perspective or insight – or just made a reader feel less lonely – then I’ve been successful.
I have no idea how many people read this column each week. Like teachers and preachers, you never really know what impact, if any, you’re having. But impact isn’t the reason to write. A columnist writes because he or she has something to say and says it in a way that makes readers want to pay attention.
Often it’s more a matter of raising questions and stimulating people to think – or articulating what readers already think but have never been able to put into words.
The best compliment you can give a columnist is to say you read him or her. The second best is to say, “I’ve never looked at it quite that way before.” Agreeing or disagreeing is not so important.
I’ve been lucky to have a column space in four different newspapers over the last 25 years. That’s a privilege I don’t take for granted, and I’ve never gotten lazy. Every column goes through at least three drafts (even the reprints) because the first draft always sucks. And I still get a kick out of seeing the final draft in print each Wednesday.
I don’t know how much longer I’ll have this forum, but I do know one thing. I’ll always have something to say.