Wednesday, March 24, 2010

True and Not Too Political

Did you know I used to be a newspaper columnist? Shortly after I was married in 1989, the newspaper for which I worked as a graphic designer and occasional feature writer, offered me the opportunity to write a weekly column. The main reason, aside from earning a degree in journalism and working as a reporter, feature writer and the managing editor of other publications, was that my office was right next door to the newspaper’s managing editor.

It was another case of WHO you know being every bit as critical as WHAT you know.

At the time, we lived in northern California, and my husband worked at the Pacific Stock Exchange, which meant he had to be in downtown San Francisco by the opening bell. (The stock market operates on New York time). This gave us what we called an “oh-dark-thirty” wakeup call. I only had to put my car in DRIVE and coast down the hill to downtown Montclair Village to get to my office, and so I always got an early start.

My office was in a quaint, two-story building separate from the newsroom, and I shared the space with the managing editor. We had a lot in common. Aside from our chosen fields of study and our experience as editors, another thing we had in common was our love of getting to work early, before all the mayhem. Each morning, we drank tea and ate pumpkin muffins purchased from the village bakery below us, and had lively conversations about current headlines and neighborhood happenings.

One day, when I believe we were talking about the Milli Vanilli lip-syncing scandal, my officemate burst out laughing at something I said. (Wish I could remember what it was). “Michele,” she said after choking on her tea, “You should write a column.”

Per her instruction, the next day I placed two sample columns on her desk. One was funny (about baby showers) and one was serious (about my sister being called to serve [in the first] Gulf War). Apparently, they were just what she was looking for, and she gave me the job as a LIFESTYLE section columnist.

“There are two rules,” she said. “Number one is that your material has to be true. This isn’t a venue for publishing fiction. And number two is, don’t make it too political.”

I called the column “First Person Plural.” It wasn’t because I was schizophrenic. It was because of my new life with my new husband, when I went from being a “me” to being a “we.”

I/we followed the rules for a little over two years. Everything I wrote—stories about our life, our dog, our garden, coworkers, softball and volleyball teams, disc golf, the Grateful Dead (!), etc.—was true. Sometimes I couldn’t resist dipping into the political waters, especially during the great social debate about sexual harassment evoked by the Supreme Court selection of Clarence Thomas; however, I always added something personal—something indicative of my/our LIFESTYLE.

I developed a respectful readership. Most (but not all) of my mail was positive, and sometimes—because of the headshot above my columns—I was recognized on the streets of the East Bay in towns like Berkeley, Oakland and Piedmont, California.

I’m no longer a columnist. These days I write both blogs and books. (BTW: My second published book is a collection of my columns with updated commentary. It’s called The Things I Wish I’d Said). Because I’ve recently finished a book manuscript, my third novel, I have more time on my hands to blog. This is why you’re hearing from me more frequently.

Writing blogs to a blogger is like doing pushups to an athlete. It’s just a little literary workout. And being a blogger is a Twenty-first Century name for being a columnist. The ideas and leads come the same way (in the shower) and the process is the same (sitting at the computer and typing). The differences are there are no deadlines, I have no editor, and I have no rules.

Also, I don’t get paid.

I’m still writing about my life, hoping always to find a reader who might relate to a story or find a smile. Everything is true, although I admit sometimes I do stretch or alter certain facts for the sake of . . . for the sake of, well, I don’t know. Since I’ve become a fiction writer, I’m much more comfortable with making shit up.

But this is true: Starting in third grade, my teachers told me I was a “good writer.” I then came of age during the Watergate scandal, and after I saw All the President’s Men, I wanted to be an investigative journalist like Woodward or Bernstein. In my middle age, however, I’ve grown terribly weary of politics and think the current political climate in this country is a disgrace. It feels like a waste of time and energy to discuss political issues. People are so passionately attached to their opinions, there’s rarely room for intellectual conversation.

That notwithstanding, yesterday I took a chance and put in my two cents about the health care debate. The blog generated many, many hits and, as far as I can tell, lost me only one “fan.”

Meanwhile, I’m not sure what I’ll write about tomorrow or the day after that . . . but it will most likely be about my kids or my friend Beaver or my role as a soccer mom or novelist or resort owner or jewelry designer . . . whatever comes to me in the shower.

And for the most part, it’ll be true and not too political.

1 comment:

Ann Elle Altman said...

WOw, I didn't know that about you but the book seems really interesting. I put it on my wish list and when I can afford it, I will buy it and do a review of it.