Parting Shots

VENTURA, Calif. — Following are reflections that don’t fit in the reportage articles from the weekend’s annual conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.

A proud moment came in helping select the year’s scholarship contest winner. Paul Bowers of the University of South Carolina — the other USC, was the running, old joke — looks like a good reporter, in that he does not look like a reporter at all. He’ll be a junior but looks and to some extent acts like a freshman, inquisitive but quiet, trying not to stand out.

The National Society of Newspaper Columnists Education Foundation uses a couple of members to winnow through the submissions of three sample columns each. Then a celebrity (for us) judge chooses third, second and first places among those six. [On the professional level, each of the seven categories’ judges goes through all of their own entries.] Paul’s happened to fall in my pile. I told the coordinator that the overall level of my set of entries was very good. The worst that could be said about them was the writing in some was flat and others were too self-absorbed, but that was true of some professional published columnists.

Third, second and first nominees were obvious, Paul’s being at the top. The central judge’s comments paralleled mine — he was both a good writer, employing wit with accuracy, but he also did original reporting and knew what how to deploy his research. The information on him published after he won noted he already had served an internship of sorts at The New York Times.

I am not gloating that somehow I “can pick ’em.” It’s just that any regular reader or card-carrying editor daily comes across so many examples of poor writing that other people hold up as satisfactory or even good that I’ve begun to doubt my own judgment.

Turns out that I’m OK.

• • •

Conferees spent a fair amount of time listening to the concept of branding and expanding our brand. Even if this is fervently believed and not merely the latest career self-help tool, succeeding or complementing networking, I remain unsure of its viability.

Lots of people in the room, and the stars who addressed us (Bruce Cameron, Steve Lopez, Jeffrey Zaslow and Jon Carroll) have moved past Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour minimum practice of a skill set for proficiency. Separate from that, except for their judgment of what makes a good column, Cameron, Lopez and Zaslow have made their name each on a single column. Each of these three already were famous in their home communities and among fellow journalists as being the top of their genres. But they became household names with just a few hundred words apiece:

This simply is fascinating. My favorite among them is Carroll, for writing five a week and hitting more than missing. Carroll said in Ventura he has been writing the equivalent of two mystery novels each year. After a Jon Carroll column you smile, you might guffaw, your step definitely is lighter. But nothing he has written has been made into a movie, TV show or expanded into a book and then a movie or TV show. (Carroll does have a book of collected columns.)

Which goes to show that news or opinion writing is a poor economic model. Why not let the pressure go, admit it’s not viable. But confirm it still is fun so keep doing it as a hobby or stronger than that, an avocation. Make your living, get your health insurance, in another trade.

I don’t see that as either fatalistic or pessimistic. It’s realistic yet not grimly so. I could raise orchids and show them at the county fair for similar gratification.

I write. Others can write for fun, too. It’s easier without the pressure. It’s more honest, in that you’re not second-guessing a too-theoretical market. I address subjects, here in Brick, what I don’t find in print or online (though perhaps I’m looking in the wrong places). My dad I fancy would like what I write, were he alive, so most of this is for him, too.

I let it go, and I got an honorable mention in a nationwide column contest. Not a coincidence. I’ll enter next year and may lose because the judge doesn’t understand my work or perhaps my submissions are rotten in the next year. I think nearly all my columns in 2001 were lousy; I was angry and had difficulty lightening up. It can happen again, and again I could loosen up the following year.

Come easy go easy, as archy the cockroach was told by a moth:

our attitude toward life
is come easy go easy
we are like human beings
used to be before they became
too civilized to enjoy themselves

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