Tuesday, May 15, 2018
My editor at King Features always told me - "think about what you want to achieve with each column.
There are four main reasons, columnists write columns.
1) You want to persuade. You probably have delusions of grandeur if you think this is going to happen very often. You may actually give someone insight to a new way of thinking but if you want to change someone's political or moral philosophy, it's most like not going to happen. It's fun to debate these issues but it is rare that people can be induced to change long-held beliefs.
Perhaps you only want to persuade them to action - to vote, to adopt a pet, to support a charity. You might have more success here if they already have a positive leaning toward your suggestion.
2) You want to tell a story, hopefully, one readers haven't heard before. When I wrote about two boys who died in the Civil War, based on their letters home that had been loaned to me, I was thrilled with how those columns turned out. Those two boys had been completely forgotten in the intervening years. I was able to bring them back to life. I fell in love with them and so did my readers.
3) You simply want to provide what you believe is interesting information. After a 'possom began coming to my house, I did research on them and discovered they weren't the ugly vermin so many people think they are. They are actually rather fascinating creatures and I hoped more people would see them that way after I wrote my column. My 'possom, Cletus, still comes to visit quite often.
4) And this is probably your highest mission - you want to touch someone. When you can make a reader laugh or bring a tear to their eye, you've accomplished your goal. Sometimes, you make them cuss as they write a furious letter to you in response to what you wrote. Perhaps you bring back nostalgic memories that make them smile.
Sometimes you can accomplish two or three of your column-writing goals in one column and that is a great feeling.
When I sold real estate, my happiest moments as a writer were when I showed a house and saw one of my columns hanging on the refrigerator door. Making the effort to cut out a column and tape it to the door went beyond just enjoying them. I felt as if I had earned a trophy every time I saw one.
Thursday, May 03, 2018
Were you at Woodstock? Were you a soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan? Have you worked as a nurse in a trauma unit? Did you march for gay rights? Did you adopt a child? Are you a farmer?
A friend on Facebook told me today that he was bored. He has led an extremely interesting life so I tried to talk him into writing a book....not even for publication necessarily but to get the facts of his life down both for something interesting to do himself and to tell his tale to others.
In fact, I wish everyone would write a book, maybe not an actual book but a memoir of some kind detailing their memories. We think of autobiographies as being about famous people. We know a lot about the lives of our movers and shakers through history – kings and queens and presidents. But I think our lives, the lives of the ordinary people of their day, are even more fascinating.
I’ve been reading on the Wabash County Historical site about a family named Anderson who came first from Culpepper, Virginia and moved to Ohio from there. They traveled on horseback on the rough trails that passed for roads in that era, carrying their child with them. It was such a difficult trip that when they were within two miles of their destination, one of their horses died from exhaustion.
Their son then migrated to Grant County, Indiana. He arrived with a horse, saddle, bridle and thirty dollars to begin his new life. In 1847, he married and four weeks later, his log cabin was complete. He and his bride started housekeeping with a skillet, a tea kettle, one chair and a bed. The nearest town, which is now Somerset in Wabash County, had exactly two buildings at the time – a tavern and a blacksmith shop.
The Andersons prospered and eventually built a large house and raised fourteen children in it.
We know these fascinating tidbits, like what the Anderson’s took up housekeeping with, because someone bothered to write them down. Reading them now, we try to think what it would have been like to live surrounded by wilderness with only a few distant neighbors and under the roughest conditions? Who do you suppose got the one chair?
You might say, the Andersons lived the American Dream. They started with almost nothing but they worked hard and became solid and well-to-do citizens. Do you think it is possible to do that today? It was free land that allowed so many pioneers to succeed but we don’t have that stake now. Would many of endure that much hardship for the opportunity?
I have a book myself, written by my mother’s cousin. It is a story of the family’s history homesteading a ranch in Arizona. She had it published and bound, making a copy for each family member. It is one of my most prized possessions.
Think how you would feel if you found papers, be they letters or a journal or a book, written to and/or by your great-grandmother or grandfather, describing the town (perhaps the one where you still live but 200 or more years ago). How did they farm then and how did they cook? What were they taught in school? Did great-grandpa fight in the Civil War? What made them happy and what did they worry about. What did they do for entertainment?
If you would be thrilled to find such a treasure, then your grandchildren and great-grandchildren would be equally as thrilled to find a trove like that from you. We take our lives for granted because they seem common but they really aren’t.....not to the generations that come after us.
I told my friend to make an outline of the natural divisions of his life – childhood, school, relationships, work, fun. Then just begin filling in the details. I told him to write down whatever he can remember. It doesn’t have to be professional, it just has to be real.
You could do the same. Posterity will love you for it.