A Man for All Cats

VENTURA, Calif. — Jon Carroll of the San Francisco Chronicle may be an anachronism twice over, writing a humor column five times a week. That makes him a columnist hero. Sure I like some of his pieces better than others, which might mean he’s uneven. But it’s likely more of a matter of whether I’m interested in his topic in a particular day.

Some of Jon’s sagacity:

My favorite: “A question you ask yourself is, ‘Will people understand that?’ The answer is that some of them won’t. I’m not writing for the person who won’t get the joke, I’m writing for the person who will get the joke. Do I know how many people that is? No. Ultimately you write for yourself.”

“If you’re writing five columns a week the single most important factor to longevity is curiosity. … All you have to do, then, is ask questions.” Carroll brought up curiosity again and again. It’s also what drives Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, who just a few years ago spotted a homeless man playing a violin with just two strings and without a hat or open case for handouts.

“You always want to be Number 11 on your editor’s list of problems,” Carroll said. “They never get past Number 3.”

His cat columns are among his most popular. “I’m not writing about cats,” he explained. “I am writing about the experience of pet ownership.”

Newspapers have not understood the Internet (Carroll was online beginning in 1986, before there was a World Wide Web). They saw it as a rival or as a promotion tool taking one back to the paper edition.

In answer to a question, Carroll explained why the notice of his e-mail address at the end of his columns is, well, peculiar. The editors were going to “take two-three lines from my finite space so I made it my own,” adding that the “pull quotes” are supplemental word play as well, where most everywhere else the larger-print billboard quotes are merely a direct quote from the column.

“I really like playing games with the reader. You should try anything” to keep your work fresh, a vital concern for someone writing five a week for decades.

“Always give somebody else the good lines. Otherwise, you look like a jerk. … Maybe something didn’t happen exactly the way you write it. But only you and the other person [in the story] know that.”

I ask a chicken-or-egg question. I note that a humor writing workshop leader advises picking a topic then considering which of a number of formats might best illustrate it, a fake quiz show, a letter home, a q-and-a, whatever.

But Carroll says,

“I try to let the format be dictated by the topic not the other way around. I don’t outline. College [courses] have it all wrong [with recommending that]. I think topic sentences are wrong. I work best by just starting out. You should try all these different formats, different styles. If you write short sentences then write long sentences.” If you don’t do vary it up, you get stale, he said.

Carroll in his hour presentation Saturday morning noted he was trying to avoid points he’d make later in his speech accepting the Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award. I took only a few notes by pen that evening.

His evening award-acceptance remarks were clever — too writerly for My Beloved who got lost in his turns of phrase and missed his points. I think I caught most of them:

Carroll was grateful that for a change an unsyndicated columnist like himself won. Syndication can soften a writer, he said, who with such a wide audience tries to appeal to a broader set, which can soften his or her language.

“Print just may be a 500-year-long fad, since Gutenberg, that is. The Dark Ages lasted about 500 years, too.” The next age, beginning now, is some sort of post-print era, perhaps.

The good news from the Internet is that it “proves that prose is not dead.”

“Bloggers don’t know that writing is hard.”

“Blogs often are just opinions. And I find just opinions are boring. Stories are where the fun lies.”

“The problem with Twitter is that it has no context, no [room for] attribution. [Young people] don’t know that ‘Mrs. Stephen Fry’ is a parody, that [British comic actor-writer] Stephen Fry is openly gay.” If you don’t have access to that information, Fry’s satirical points are lost, Carroll said, which may be Fry’s point. (I check Twitter, and learn the keyword is ” MrsStephenFry ” and grab a sample tweet: “I’m sick of my neighbour going on about her 3 llamas. All day long it’s yak yak yak.”)

Carroll said there’s two types of people who work for newspapers, those who want to save the world for democracy and those who enjoy explaining things — “the journalists and the writers.” The two groups do the same thing, and both are needed: “We sort things out.” Gertrude Stein called Ezra Pound “‘the village explainer,’ well, that’s what we do.”

“The job we engage in, writing, is both noble and necessary, but with that context. … We have an obligation to be bold. We have an obligation to risk failing.”

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