AS IMPROBABLE as it feels that I’ve been a columnist for exactly half my life, it’s even more dubious that I’ve managed to get this far without any professional development whatsoever.
The only way I know how to churn out these word salads week after week, year after year is by tossing around a combination of rich subject matter, a thesaurus and buckets of caffeine around my head until my fingers fill up the word count.
This inexact strategy can always use some seasoning, and I was hoping to crib from qualified experts at the National Society of Newspaper Columnists annual conference, held this year in Manchester, New Hampshire.
Upon arrival, I hit Elm Street to do the first thing I do in every city: Stake out the scene by picking up the local weekly free paper, which is recognizable by its square tabloid format and how it’s always stacked next to the men’s bathroom. Manchester’s artsy alt-weekly is the Hippo, a perfect name to represent its large animal-in-the-room juxtaposition with the town’s historic conservative daily, The New Hampshire Union Leader.
If that rings a mental bell, it might be because Manchester is ground zero for the presidential primaries, and every four years the city turns into a major circus, er, circuit, for politicians and pundits, the Union Leader often breaking stories first.
- Yours truly (center) trying hard to keep my cool with New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd (l.) and NSNC president Lisa Smith Molinari.
In between elections, Manchester is a thriving, post-industrial tech town with a picturesque granite cliff, a hundred and one restaurants (give or take) and a mile-long, gloriously restored millyard along the Merrimack River.
Mostly, though, my view was the inside of the Radisson, where I was so excited to have my very own hotel room that I promptly used all the bath towels and kept the TV blaring at all hours.
(Why is Forrest Gump always on, with its constant sweeping mossy oak shots of Chippewa Square? I just can’t quit you, Savannah, even for a weekend.)
The conference started Friday morning with an intro from NSNC president Lisa Smith Molinari and massive vats of covfefe, I mean, coffee. My badge bore a special green ribbon that said “First Time Attendee,” which I feared was an invitation to the cool kids to flush my head in the toilet while chanting Dave Barry-isms.
Fortunately, the extent of my hazing was trying to keep up with lightning fast puns from Stamford Advocate humorist Jerry Zezima and University of Connecticut feminist theory professor Gina Barreca, author of If You Lean In, Will Men Just Look Down Your Blouse? Guffawing over a discussion about the travel ban appeal devolved very quickly into volleying around tennis terms (“It’s in your court now!” “That’s a back-handed compliment.” “I ‘love’ the way this conversation is going!”), I thought gleefully, Oh my, these are my people.
And they were, literally—I ran smack into Beth Ashley and Dick Spotswood of Northern California’s Marin Independent Journal, whose work I had admired and been inspired by during my first columnist gig 20 years ago at the nearby Pacific Sun.
(Free weeklies are apparently my career specialty, earning me sympathetic clucks by those still tossing word salads far past retirement age.)
Beth, who is 92 and still files her “Since You Asked” column every week, was there with husband Rowland Fellows, 93 and sporting a thin silver ponytail. The childhood sweethearts made the New York Times wedding pages when they married in 2009 after more than 70 years apart—how’s that for narrative arc?
Founded 40 years ago by a few lonely columnists looking to share war stories, the NSNC (pronounced “Eness-en-CEE” after the third cup of coffee or second glass of wine) hosts its conference in a different city every year and attracts a formidable line-up of special guests willing to speak of their time in the trenches. USA Today editor Jill Lawrence and the Boston Globe’s James Pindell sat on the political panel, and Chicken Soup for the Soul publisher Amy Newark invited ideas for the ubiquitous feel-good book series, for which I could not think of a single submission that didn’t involve swearing.
Pulitzer Prize finalist Derrick Jackson softened his talk about the crucial imperative of informed opinion writing in these times with anecdotes about his passion project, documenting endangered puffins to the coast of Maine. And no big deal, Saturday evening’s keynote speaker and NSCS Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement award recipient was Maureen Dowd, whose voice in real life is just as dryly hilarious and incisive as it is on the pages of the New York Times.
The importance of being earnest, entertaining and accurate was a common theme of the conference, and the columnist’s creed dictates that no one-liner should come at the expense of the truth. As comedy writer and self-proclaimed logophile Leighann Lord put it in all seriousness: “We are being trusted to be people of our word.” (Although in her “alternative dictionary” Dict Jokes, this funny lady defines “bedraggle” as a depressed bumblebee.)
I also found out that every other columnist suffers from occasional deadline-related dizziness and fends off obnoxious armchair critics who think they could do this job way better than you (and they probably could—for a little while, anyway, until they crumpled under the pressure of coming up with yet another thousand-word salad for hungry readers. In this business, my spicy peers informed me, stamina is everything.)
We all agreed that keeping up with the 24/7 news cycle is both a blessing and curse in that there’s never any shortage of material, but its shelf life can be as perishable as an avocado, which has a six-minute window between the week it sits on the counter hard as a rock and turning to brown mush.
“Readers are smaht,” iterated Boston Globe editor-in-chief Brian McGrory in his no-nonsense Southy accent the day after the Comey hearing. “If you can’t comment within a day of certain events, don’t bah-thuh.”
While many of attendees wrote for and from a national platform, a lot of us were provincial folk covering—and uncovering—stories in our own hometowns. The wisdom that touched me the most came from John Clayton, who hung up his keyboard after 20-odd years as the Union Leader’s award-winning columnist for a far more lucrative gig as the executive director of the non-profit Manchester Historic Society, which ought to tell you something about the pay grade two decades of experience brings in for even the country’s most renowned newspapers.
John lobbed the weekend’s winning pun that surmised exercising one’s “free speech” as a professional columnist is pretty close to how much you get paid for it, but what endeared me most was his acknowledgement is that nobody goes into this vocation for the money. It’s the glory and the free snacks, obviously.
Just kidding! Telling the tales of and for our neighbors and speaking truth to power in whatever ways we can is a way to serve our communities, John reminded, bringing a satisfaction he called “far greater than fame.”
“To sit down and open a vein every week to write about the place you live means you are personally invested,” he told us from the podium of the Millyard Museum, tearing up over the thousands of touching stories his hometown yielded over his long career.
“You reflect back to what’s important. You give a voice to the grit and resilience that makes a place its own.”
That’s what I try to do for y’all every week, though if we’re gonna go deep into metaphors I prefer rotten avocados than chopping up my own arm. And I’ve never felt prouder to represent Savannah than when receiving NCSC’s First Prize for Humor for a publication with circulation under 50,000. (How did I celebrate? With room service and a dance around my hotel room to the end credits of Forrest Gump, of course.)
As far as basic strategy goes, it seems my recipe hasn’t been too far off base from that of my esteemed peers: Write what you know, admit what you don’t, and keep doing it ‘til you die.