What is a column anyway, and why do we have them?
Don’t ask me. I just write ’em. The author never knows, although famous ones can come up with a convincing speech if the price is right. Yep, they make it up.
For my space on Fridays, sometimes I have a seed of an idea that breaks earth with some patient plowing. Sometimes a torrent bursts forth and I can barely keep up.
A piece can arrive pretty much whole, from beginning to end, punch line in mind from conception. Or I might have only a bare image to sketch around, noodling as I go, sometimes in long hand, sometimes on the keyboard.
Today’s image was a memory of a close play during noon hoops when the ball went out of bounds. I signaled “Our ball!” All the fellas headed the other way, accepting none of my judgment.
“He’s a columnist,” one scoffed. “The facts don’t matter. It’s all just opinion.” Everyone laughed, the bastards.
News has changed, at least newspaper coverage of it. We’re evolving, haltingly to be sure, from the flat “what happened yesterday” to exploring how we live our lives in relation to everything going on.
I like it. The “what” has never interested me nearly as much as the “how,” the “why” and especially the “how we’re affected” by issues and events.
The speed of our mediums must have the most to do with this. Let the mindlessness embedded in television and tweeting handle the flow of “what.” Drink from a fire hose if you must.
How do you make sense of it all?
I’m looking for context, perspective, understanding not only of the issues but why people who see things differently than I do see them that way.
Those insights go beyond the modern discipline of journalism, a pale variant of the scientific method in which questions are asked, evidence collected, and a supposedly objective set of quotes and facts arranged in hopefully artful ways.
We’re talking about human beings, so the exercise in objectivity ultimately is impossible. We readers are wise to understand that, by the way. The best we can hope for really is fairness.
Columns, for me, open a richer world. Untethered from the “science” of the journalistic method, commentary can offer the very weakest form of literature.
To paraphrase a favorite quote, journalism will get you facts. Literature scratches at the truth.
That’s the essential difference between science and art up there in the ether, too. I’m talking more about intent than result here. But I love the paradox that cynics capture best in saying, “Huh? You mean you lie to tell the truth and use the facts to lie?”
Well, sure. That’s an Aesop’s fable and an investigative piece in Rolling Stone, basically.
My noon ball buddies are absolutely right that in writing a column, I have freedom to make stuff up. But it’s really that I can be direct with my own conclusions about what I know factually, or think I know.
This genre, after all, is not a novel or a short story. My ruminations come from traditional journalistic mores. I’m still in the nonfiction section, in other words.
I read columns for understanding I can’t get from stories. I enjoy the columnists with a talent for one-liners, and I like to read pieces written by someone with special expertise or interest who also can turn a sentence for a lay reader like me.
Why do I write these things? I dunno. It’s been part of my job for the better part of 25 years, so I’m kind of in the habit, I guess. I also think it’s important, or at least useful, for you to have a sense of who presides over this cir … I mean, well-oiled machine (yeah, that’s it) where you keep up with our great community. This really is a great community. I am writing a column, so I can just tell the truth here.
At root, though, and I’m sure I share this with most columnists and other writers, I’ve always been compelled to write. I can’t not write might be the best way to put it. Sometimes I wish I couldn’t not practice law or couldn’t not be an investment banker. But there you go.
And guys, that ball was last touched by Scotty, not me. I swear it. I declare as a journalist, hand over heart, that this simply was a fact I observed and duly reported.
Meantime, the columnist very much appreciates the moment, mockery and all, to tease into a bit of (over)thinking out loud that fills this Friday’s space for such.
I may not be entirely clear about what a column is supposed to be. But I know when it’s done.