October 4, 2013
Ahhh, can you smell it, class? Is the faint odoriferous trail of wispy waftings tickling your nostrils? Are you inhaling it fully and hungrily, as if to fill your entire being with …
OK, we may be sniffing different things here.
You, for instance, may be smelling the satisfactory end of your journey through Vincent’s Famous Columnist School. But for me and my nose, we are recognizing the savory stink of the upcoming final exam.
Before we can reach that place, however, there is one more class to experience — and this one is the most important, because we will deal directly with the task of writing an actual column.
One thing you should know right off the bat is that, when you look back years later on the very first column you ever had published, you will cringe. I’m talking a full-blown facial contortion that is marred by a deeply furrowed brow, wrinkled up nose, crimson-colored cheeks and even a sticking-out tongue.
Yes, it will be bad. Believe me. My first column back in 1986 was about William “The Refrigerator” Perry of the Chicago Bears. He was good. The column was bad.
But you should not desist. Instead, you should persist. That’s the mark of a good, aspiring columnist — unless, of course, every column you write after your first results in the very same facial contortions. And if they spread to your boss, well … perhaps you should re-enroll here at VFCS.
Something else you should know: You may end up taking your column-writing talents to a number of places, and that’s OK. In fact, it helps broaden your fan base. For instance, your professor’s column began in 1986 in Burnet, Texas, and has since been read in places like Monroe, Ga.; Bay City, Texas; New Albany, Ind.; Rockport, Ind.; Flanders; N.J.; Parsippany, N.J.; Binghamton, N.Y.; Vestal, N.Y.; Lumberton; and now Elizabethtown.
In each case, my column was a weekly staple of the community until such time that I was run out of town. LOL … I joke. I simply chose to move.
Anyway, a column is made up of three main parts — first, there must be an idea. Those can come from a variety of places, like out in the community, or a phone call or while you are thinking in the shower. The second part is the actual writing of the column, which you will find takes the longest of the three parts. And third, there is the post-publishing defense of your column, which is a good thing. You’ll see why in a moment.
In order to avoid blowing my own horn, I will give you an example of how a good column was birthed by another scribe …
Many years ago, there was a columnist for The Louisville Courier-Journal by the name of Dave Kindred, who would occasionally take the University of Kentucky to task for not playing state rival Lousiville in basketball.
Now, hell hath no fury like a Kentucky basketball fan scorned — or so I’ve been told — and Kindred got a call from one who threatened to pie him if he did not cease and desist, to which Kindred reportedly said, “Make it chocolate.”
Soon after, Kindred heard his name called, turned and — you got it. POW! Right in the kisser. Chocolate, of course.
Something like that isn’t all bad. The pie at least proved that he was stirring emotions out in readerland, which is a must in the column-writing biz.
But here’s what makes a good columnist a great one: Even as the chocolate was dripping down his face, Kindred was surely thinking about how he could use the incident in a future column. That should be true of any columnist worth his or her by-line. If a columnist somehow manages to drive off a cliff, his or her last conscious thought should be, “Gee, heckuva column here if I survive!”
However, even for the best columnists, the column is often a grind — even at once a week. An idea will often reach out and slap a columnist in the face, but sometimes the clock ticks away mercilessly toward a deadline while the writer tries to scramble for a topic — as well as fortifies himself against rising panic that there’s going to be an embarrassing white space in the paper under his name and photo if something doesn’t happen … and fast.
This is a good time for one of those quick moves to another state. Ha! Again, I jest!
But in all honesty, students, let me tell you that column-writing can be a love-hate relationship. It can be the classic ride on a tiger — you’d like to get off, but you can’t; it’s like inviting a gorilla into your home — it takes over; it’s a nympho-maniacal mistress — fun for a few nights, but tough over a lifetime.
At times, you will think to yourself, “I have a column due tomorrow and no ideas, so why am I sitting here being nice to my cousin from Charlotte?”
Now, here’s the reason we do it: The reward of a column that works is the response it generates — negative or positive. If what you write garners nothing more than a mute readership, then perhaps it’s time you search for another line of work.
So there you have it, class. Your learning time at VFCS is now done. All that remains is your final exam, which will be next week. Until then, be sure to go over each of the previous class lessons in preparation for the 257 questions that will arrive in front of you next Friday (again, just kidding).
Oh, and if you’ve enjoyed this class time, be sure to send me a tip (monetary, please). If not, make my pie sweet potato.
— W. Curt Vincent is the general manager and editor of the Bladen Journal. He can be reached by calling 910-862-4163 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.