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Friday, November 25, 2016

On The Hunt For Ideas


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I recently tried to come up with a rough estimate of how many columns I’ve written. For many years, I wrote four a week, with maybe an additional stand-alone for a newspaper like USA Today. Some years I wrote two a week and other years just one. I may be wildly off the mark but as near as I can figure, that comes to over 3,500 columns and that is over 2,000,000 words.

Over time, writing columns has become a basic element of my life. I’ve never taken a “writing” vacation. If I actually go on vacation, I write about it. If something momentous happens, like my husband’s death, I simply describe about how that affected me. After all these years, I see life itself through a prism of the words that can illustrate it.

The most difficult part of column writing is coming up with new ideas. Once I know what I’m going to write about, putting 700 or so words together is easy. I used to tell my writing class students that I could write 1,000 words about a crumpled up candy bar wrapper if I had to. Then I challenged them to write a few paragraphs about some every day, unimportant thing and to try to make it seem interesting.. (Of course, Andy Rooney was the master of this style).

Sometimes, events occur that are natural subjects for a column. I’m grateful when I can say, “ah, well, that takes care of this week.”

It was always a standing joke with my family that every week I asked Mom and John for column ideas. Mom always pretended to think, then she'd say the same thing every time – “what about the weather?” Actually, sometimes I do write about the weather but if Mom had been dictating the subject matter for my columns, it would have been about the weather 50 weeks out of every 52. Indiana weather is changeable but it isn’t that changeable!

John sometimes came up with ideas but he spent so much time taking college courses that his columns would be more like intellectually-deep, peer-reviewed abstracts that only nine people would have understood or enjoyed.

I can’t use some of my best stuff because of embarrassing my friends. They will pull some particularly foolish stunt and immediately beg me not to write about it. Part of the risk of being friends with a writer always searching for column ideas is that your most humiliating moments will end up in the pages of a newspaper for all the world to see. I try to honor their pleas unless I get really, really desperate.

Often people I don’t even know give me suggestions for columns. My all-time favorite was when George and Donna Russell of Roann, gave me access to family letters they’d discovered that were written during the Civil War.

I wrote three columns incorporating the correspondence John and Andrew Scott had with their family back home in Niconza (Miami County) and barely scratched the surface of what they told about being soldiers in the Civil War. I fell in love with those boys and so did my readers.

Different readers, I’ve found, like different columns. Some get off on good old partisan political debates while others resent them. Some love the history columns and others think those are boring.  I had a reader tell me once that his eyes glazed over as soon as he realized a column was about the past.

I’d say the human interest or humorous columns are the ones a majority of readers like best and therefore, they are what I do the most of.  Sometimes you have to dig to get a column’s worth of information about people. Most of us don’t think our lives have been especially interesting but that’s not my experience. I’ve always thought I could get 1,000 fascinating words from anyone if they’d be willing to talk to me for a while.

Most people who write do it to touch others (only journal writing is for one’s self alone and even then perhaps most journal writers are looking toward posterity). You want to make readers smile or laugh or maybe, shed a tear. You want them to see a picture from an angle they’ve never seen it before. You may want simply to share information or even better, provoke someone to action, whether that’s to vote or write a letter to the editor or adopt a pet…

If no one is touched in some way by what you do, then you’re wasting your time. Some columns aren’t as amusing or interesting as you’d hoped but you have to be philosophical. Writing is like baseball. Sometimes, you get on base, sometimes you strike, out but you live for those occasional home runs.


Over two million words later, I still believe I reach some people, some times, and so the search for ideas continues.