Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Notes From My Knapsack 9-2-07
Jeff Gill

Oh, the Writer’s Life For Me

With the Lovely Wife at her ahem-th high school class reunion, my name badge proudly said “Spouse” and had no incriminating ancient yearbook photo (ok, I’m ancient, the photos all look young, fine).

So I spent a fair chunk of time noshing my way through the “heavy orderves” or whatever you call the faux food they serve at these things, and drank some blessedly excellent coffee while watching the crowd get tipsy.

Life of the party, that’s me.

But as my dearly beloved found quite a few of her friends to talk to (shouting over the entire “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack, which should date us quite as precisely as C14 testing), there was another spousal unit who walked over to my little table and sat down.

He introduced himself, and explained which of the bus stop gals were his wife, and then said “so I hear you’re a writer?”
The way he said it meant this wasn’t entirely a bad thing from his point of view, so I admitted that this was, in fact, one of my many job descriptions.

The reason for his interest was that their son was graduating from high school this year, and he wanted to become a writer. Did I have advice?

Hmmm. How far down platitude road should I go? I’ll confess to starting with a real creaker: writing isn’t something you become, it’s something you do. If you want to adopt writing as a persona, like putting on a Hallowe’en costume, the next step is to start drinking and smoking so as to be more “authentic,” and spent lots of time in darkened rooms, brooding.

If that’s being a writer, I’ll be a painter, thank you very much. But plenty of people take on the role of writer, but end up with a few napkins worth of clever observations stuffed in a drawer, and no more. Writers write, and if you want to get better, write more. You may not be very good in a poetic or literary sense, but anything you actually write (or type) will be better than brilliance that never escapes your cranium. So I said.

As a dad, he liked that. OK, so writing is something you do. He does write for his school paper, and he’s done some creative writing workshops, but what he really wants is to be a columnist. How about that?

Always ready to crush the hopes of the young, I leapt to the observation that there are maybe twelve people in the entire United States who make a living from writing columns. Most of us are doing it a) for free, because we like being in print, and some publication has space to fill, or b) get a modest (say, two pizzas worth) stipend, or c) are working as a reporter of some sort and have worn down our editors to the point where they give us a column, as long as it doesn’t take time away from the real work.
True, if you’ve built up a strong track record as a journalist or author, you may get a decent offer to write one or two or even three columns a week, but I refer you back to the twelve versus 300,000,000 problem. Good luck, but you’d better have a “make a living” plan to go with your aspirations for columnhood.

The dad pointed out that I’d mentioned “editors.” His son had written for some publication for a while, and had said that what he definitely wanted was to write a column that “just said what he thought,” like . . . mentioning a well known sports writer who had a column in the large newspaper of that city.

“He has an editor. Trust me on this one, his stuff gets edited,” I told the curious father. The ideal of “writing whatever I think” is one of those classic “wishes that should never be granted.” The sad fact is that few of us should be allowed to put our thoughts, as is, right into print, and editors are not least unappreciated for the fact that they occasionally prevent us from committing the sin of putting our unadorned thoughts on the page.

More to the point, everyone gets edited. Raymond Carver, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ellen Goodman, Maureen Dowd (ok, I think they must not edit Maureen), Robert Novak, Thomas Friedman – everyone gets edited.

You can learn from editing, too, unless you’ve drunk the narcissistic beverage of “my every original thought is a gift from above.” May God indeed help you if you think that.

Will Dad tell the son these wise words? Who knows, but he gave me a column I’d been meaning to write for a while, and my tally sheet tells me that this is also my 500th column here in Licking County. Thanks for reading and even writing to me occasionally!

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; no, he doesn’t enjoy being edited, but like a colonoscopy, knows that life has some necessary evils to a greater good. Write him at knapsack77@gmail.com.

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