The following is my president’s column for the May 2011 edition
of the monthly newsletter of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.
Had a bizarre dream the other night, that World War III had started. I saw Dianne Feinstein, she having moved up from senator to secretary of state or vice president, holding a news conference. She announced the U.S. ambassador to Turkey had died in a suspicious plane crash.
A column might be found in that.
In writing down the dream, it became a “hmm note.” This was advice from the 1991 conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, held in Huntington, W.Va. The convention, my first, had great speakers, yet the Hmm Note concept came informally from columnist Bill Tammeus, then of The Kansas City Star.*
We ended up at the same airport gate Sunday afternoon for our Midwestern flights. Bill was alone in a row of black chairs, writing a column. He was not writing notes in the narrow reporter’s notebook, nor an outline, but full paragraphs with a ballpoint. Some stores still sell paper and pens.
I asked him the novice’s question of how he got ideas. Bill said he tried to write down every time he came across something new or unusual, or when he’d think something that seemed clever, anything that would cause a “hmm.” Not as in, “Hmm, that would make a good column,” as might be expected, but simply, “Hmm, that’s interesting.”
Hence, Hmm Notes. Most would not pan out, but the rest become columns.*
Columns and blog posts can come from anywhere. The Hmm Note is just a good tool to keep in the writer’s toolbox.*
Fuel Up on Facts
How are Hmm Notes used? First, let them rest. Five minutes is enough for some, others can age years, cached in a filing system. Then, start writing and see where it goes.
While brainstorming, though, it’s not long before I need fuel. A sandwich, a coffee refill. Often I need to fuel up on facts, even for humor pieces.
Fuel now often starts with cautious use of Wikipedia, then Google for identified sources to cross-reference.* This can be the time for a quick phone or email interview with a specialist.
There’s other tasks involved in the writing: The choices made for frame or voice and attitude or tone make or break a good Hmm Note. Framing is my favorite tool.
As frames, Art Buchwald would drop a serious argument into a couple shouting on a disco floor, or two gents on a park bench beset by pigeons.* (This column is in a mirror frame. Am I disguising a political discussion as a how-to piece or am I using a political discussion to illustrate a how-to piece?)
Last, deadlines hang over us all, even bloggers: Jots often face obsolescence. Isn’t it silly now to argue over President Obama’s birth certificate?*
Here’s that brainstorm on my dream: Is the United States in World War III already? And would it be taking the role of Germany in the 1930s?
We’re the Axis of Nice
On the former point, we’ve been in a succession of wars since 1990, essentially all on foreign ground, and few have ended. On the latter, we believe we’re helping these countries, and didn’t grassroots Germans believe pretty much the same thing? Germans at the time needed little persuading that all Jews were vermin. But isn’t there a number of Americans encouraged to believe all Muslims are terrorists? Yet the U.S. has allies to help us in these lands defeat dictators and promote self-rule and human rights as well, as controlling one influential anarchist — we’re the Axis of Nice.
Whoa. it’s time for research. And a coffee. (In this column, I have asterisks to indicate ‘most everything I looked up.)
Feinstein: In my dream, she was an older version of the San Francisco city leader who in 1978 held an impromptu press conference to announce the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. My memory of that on TV needed confirming. Then, I needed to go through online histories of the two world wars. Last, refreshers were needed for Iraq I and Iraq II, Yugoslavia, Osama bin Laden, Afghanistan and Libya. ********
I’d be embarrassed to publish this. Research guts the Axis of Nice. World wars don’t involve every nation, but many more than now would have to participate. Hitler’s noble cause was a sham. In our era, these Near Eastern peoples do need the assistance of the West, militarily, economically and politically.
Boredom is another factor in column building. Not the writer’s but readers’. Constructing a column requires judging how much background detail to include, even a light column over starting the lawn mower for the first time in spring. The sweet spot just before TMI, too much information, is tricky to place.
Judging by politicians and pundits these days, someone could sell World War III being in its 21st year and not bother with even fact-based humbug.
Yet columnist Christopher Hitchens recently was quoted as having said, “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”*
Although he’s a student of politics, recent decades refute his tautology. Little is ever dismissed. Based on stories that persist about past presidents, the credentials of Barack Obama will be questioned long after he leaves office.
The only way concepts can be validated is to test them with imagination and zing them with verifiable facts. That so many people want to believe unsubstantiated bunkum, when facts now are easy to find, may be the tragedy of our generation.
If it’s not World War III, then would Nineteen Eighty-Four’s “perpetual war” better match my dream to facts?* The world of George Orwell’s famous novel was built on Perpetual War, with our Oceania against either Eurasia or Eastasia.* No common enemy. No clear path to victory. Soldiers and resources are used, confirming the cause in reverse.
This might work. It explains Iraq and Afghanistan.* Libya joins them in not having a clear long-term goal — who’s in charge after Gadhafi? America’s allies vary a bit in each of the current wars. Recent news from Washington has concerned managing the federal budget.* Heard any talk about military expense cuts? Wasn’t that common, both in news and commentary, to say nothing of comedy? Wasn’t defense spending behind Republican Eisenhower’s concern about the “military-industrial complex”?* Remember the $640 toilet covers that Lockheed sold the Pentagon in 1987?*
Perpetual War can explain the West’s military actions and some economic decisions since the Cold War cooled. The flaw in the logic of my dream remains, though. The Axis of Nice really is fighting despots and an anarchist.
* Every time you see an asterisk, an angel gets his wings, and they show where I looked something up for accuracy. Below are endnotes, all of which are in hyperlinks in the text above.
- On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King, 2000. http://www.stephenking.com/library/nonfiction/on_writing:_a_memoir_of_the_craft.html
- http://youtu.be/oUB-RCNBDnk — Feinstein announcement about 2:20
- http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2011/04/14/nato_clinton_gadhafi_civil_war/index.html From AP: Clinton: NATO Nations Agree That Gadhafi Must Go
- http://benpollock.com/brick/2010/11/02/war-paths/ for Perpetual War