Wissot: Columnists who sure know how to write
Last month, during a ceremony at Coors Field, the Vail Daily “won 26 awards, 15 of them for first place, in the Colorado Press Association’s 2021 Better News Media Contest. The awards, spanning advertising, editorial, photography, and design, earned the paper the sweepstakes award for Class 2 among similar-sized publications.”
In layman’s terms, what that simply means is that for 2021, the Vail Daily was judged to be the best paper for its size in Colorado. It should be noted that the judges were from an independent body, the Michigan Press Association.
As a contributing columnist to the paper, I’m proud to be associated with an exceptionally gifted group of writers whose talents are eminently worthy of recognition. Since the time I was an English major in college, I’ve loved flat-out good writing in its many fictional and non-fictional forms.
I can be moved as easily by a sports story in Sports Illustrated as I can by a short story by Alice Munro. For those reasons, I’d like to share with you why I think some of the best column writing anywhere in the country can be found on the pages of this paper.
Andrea Chacos won first place for “Best Humorous Column Writing.” Of her humor columns, the judges simply said, “Priceless, great writing.” They also praised her for being able to find the time to write a column while “dealing with 3 kids at home during a pandemic.”
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In presenting an award for “Best Serious Column Writing” to Nate Peterson, the paper’s editor, the judges remarked, “Really amazing stories being told here. The passion is clear. The writing is strong. Great work.”
When you’ve been writing for the Vail Daily for over two decades as Rohn Robbins and Richard Carnes have, your trophy shelf is filled with writing awards. Robbins brings a light conversational tone to the usually dry subject of the law in all its complexities. Reading his column is like having him standing next to me in a bar explaining over a beer how the legal system works. Clearly well-versed in the law, what makes him so readable is his use of stories, anecdotes and humor to make sense of a perplexing subject that in the hands of a less able writer would cause a clueless soul like me to tune out two paragraphs into the column.
Carnes is the paper’s resident bad-boy columnist. Possessing a wickedly sarcastic sense of humor, he uses his rapier wit to ridicule the mendacity, hypocrisy and pomposity of fools with power. When he wants to, Carnes trades sarcasm for poignancy. Read a recent column of his titled “Another milestone bites the dust” to see what I mean. The column is about his return to the small Texas town 100 miles south of Dallas where he was raised for a 45th high school reunion.
Carnes writes about going with his now 63-year-old high school classmates to his hometown’s ClifTex Theater, “the longest existing movie theater in the state of Texas, showing the power of storytelling through celluloid since 1916.” They scheduled a private showing of “Smokey and the Bandit” and laughed themselves silly watching Burt Reynolds and Sally Field participate in two hours of ridiculous car chases. He says at the end, “there’s a special beauty reserved for the little things that never change in life.” I gather he means going to a 106-year-old movie theater with high school buddies on the cusp of Medicare to enjoy a stupid movie together again. Sweet.
Columnists find separate paths for formulating a coherent expression of something we are feeling. T.J. Voboril’s path is that of a poet. He writes poetic prose. Poetry isn’t meant to be gulped quickly. It should be sipped slowly. That’s how to read T.J.
What I admire most about Mark Lewis is that he’s relentlessly calm in addressing controversial issues that often trigger our deepest political prejudices. He isn’t interested in being the loudest voice in the room or a cheerleader for partisan factions. Lewis prefers blue reason to white noise, logical deductions to hysterical rants, factual accuracy to opinionated ignorance. I suspect he would agree with Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s dictum that “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”
But I really don’t know because I’ve never met him.
In fact, I’ve never met any of the other columnists writing for the paper. We don’t gather for a Monday morning coffee klatch where we exchange ideas and decide who is going to write about what. I learn about their opinions at the same time you do when I read their columns.
In the five years that my columns have appeared in the paper, Nate Peterson has never asked me to put a lid on my blatantly liberal opinions. I can only assume he’s shown the same consideration to the Rev. Susan Thistlethwaite whose career as a pastor, professor and president emerita at the Chicago Theological Seminary makes the paper the perfect pulpit for her powerfully passionate opinions on the dangers that amoral political conduct poses to democracy and the fragile fabric of civil society.
When I submit a column to the paper, I relinquish control of what happens to it afterward. It’s mine to write, theirs to publish, and yours to interpret. Readers get the last word by sending a letter to the editor and the paper determines which of my words you get to see. While Peterson refrains from tampering with the message in my columns, he won’t hesitate to red pen and remove words that demonstrate my “tendency towards tawdry tastelessness.” It’s what the editor of a paper that wins the most awards in a statewide media contest is paid to do.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at email@example.com.