Brick Bats Reportage

A Columnist’s Scrapbook

The following is my president’s column for the June 2011 edition
of the monthly newsletter of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.

The NSNC Conference, three days out of 365, is a highlight of my year. Apparently, I mustn’t have a life. Actually, I do have a grand life, and NSNC has been a huge part of it. So there.

The conventions are a blast. I have a huge amount of fun, meet extraordinary people I wouldn’t know otherwise, and learn a lot, narrowly and broadly, about writing. Every time.

Detroit will be my 13th conference, going back 20 years; I’ve had to skip a few. With that many, I’ve gathered five secrets of getting the most out of them. The tips aren’t secret, and they work elsewhere.

  • Know your limits
  • Set your goals
  • Be flexible to ignore your limits and goals
  • Don’t be shy
  • Take notes

This is a weekend workshop, not a cruise, though a few years have included boat rides. Which is to say, we’re the envy of other journalism groups so far as imparting solid knowledge amid informality and improvisational prankishness.

Besides the speeches and hijinks, you’ll get column material from our host cities you can’t have expected. You travel to NSNC conferences. For a vacation, call AAA. Paul Theroux said it better: “Tourists don’t know where they’ve been; travelers don’t know where they’re going.”

Limits. Stamina is a better term. These 60 hours pass quickly. As I want to get the most from them I tend not to stay too late in the hospitality suite. Goals: You come to our conference mainly to learn. You might gain more insights if you flex and stay past your limit in the suite, or go off-plan in other ways.

Every year, we old farts remind one another to reach out to first-years. Every year, a few newcomers still wonder why NSNC veterans are not making a big to-do over them. There are a few answers. First, we do reach out to those with unfamiliar name tags. Second, we can’t wait to spend lots of time with the great people we already met. Third, that road goes both ways: Don’t be shy.

At the 2009 conference in Ventura, Calif., two column contest finalists came up to me between sessions. Why are you typing, they asked. I’m taking notes, I said. They gave me funny looks so I explained, I don’t want to forget this great information; this is how I get my money’s worth from the sessions. Frowns of doubt. “I’m live-blogging.” That got it. (And I was posting.) Tweets, notes. Similar enough.

I take notes because I don’t want to lose a shred of information, even from sessions that don’t apply to me, because someday they might. Plus, I review notes within hours to add the jots I didn’t think to write initially.

I have 12 years of notes. Here are highlights.

• 2010, Bloomington. Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement winner Carl Hiaasen having two three-word bits of advice: “Stay pissed off. … I donít know how anyone stays fresh as a columnist without waking up each morning with a feeling of injustice, of anger.” Second, “Ass in chair,” as in write daily, even without inspiration. Another memory:, the huge, multicolored but otherwise anatomically correct pillows of Dr. Debra Herbenik of the Kinsey Institute.

2009, Ventura, Calif. Lifetime winner Jon Carroll of the San Francisco Chronicle calls his motivation “curiosity,” as did Steve Lopez of the Los Angeles Times. To hear them, it’s a cousin to Hiaasen’s rage. These guys, and other speakers, note that telling stories is more effective than merely expressing opinions.

2008, New Orleans. The bus tour of the damage still evident from 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. Listening to Times-Picayune staffers relate their experiences. Not just writers. Hearing a photographer tell how he persevered for some special shot, yet stopping to help someone, still inspires.

2007, Philadelphia. What are those people doing, tossing pennies on Ben Franklin’s grave? I didn’t just observe, I asked people who were doing it, then a cemetery worker and finally Stu Bykofsky of Philly’s Daily News. Turns out it’s a tradition. Plus, getting heads is good luck. Dave Barry says writing jokes takes meticulous crafting, and it’s work.

2006, Boston. The Saturday excursion to the homes of John Adams and his descendents. Meeting Arianna Huffington. As in Philadelphia, being able to walk among historic buildings gives pause. That and strolling past the New England Aquarium’s windows and seeing how friendly male seals were — with one another.

2005, Grapevine (Dallas). Lifetime winner Pete Hamill noting how he advises newsroom proteges to read short stories and poetry. Seeing the Book Depository with some of history’s aging witnesses.

2003, Tucson. Finding myself too bashful to shake hands with Lifetime winner Andy Rooney. Serving on a panel discussion for the first time. Meeting Ray Hanania of Chicago.

2002, Pittsburgh. Seeing so many Andy Warhol works in his museum helped me finally see his work as not shallow. A suburban New York City columnist started talking after a panel discussion, during the Q-and-A, about writing about 9/11 nine months earlier. When he described riding a commuter train to the real “Cop Land,” a suburb where law enforcement personnel lived (like in the movie), how empty the passenger cars were, and the recollections of the conductor, my wisecracking colleagues and I got teary eyed.

2001, San Francisco. Hearing Jon Carroll say, “We lost our taste for ambiguity.” Browsing in City Lights Bookstore, spending hours in Golden Gate Park — we came a day or so early.

2000, Washington. The NSNC got an affordable rate at a Ritz-Carlton! Our weekend overlapped a visit by Yassir Arafat. Security everywhere. The Washington Post’s Marguerite Kelly having all of us for dinner at her remarkable 19th-century home, her graciousness proving that D.C. is truly a Southern town.

1999, Louisville. Meeting a hero, Don Kaul, realizing he writes his column like the rest of us, one leg at a time. Sitting next to (still) infamous editor Greg Moore at Churchill Downs. Free samples of Maker’s Mark. I still have my miniature Louisville Slugger bat.

1991, Huntington, W.Va. My first NSNC conference. Hearing good advice from Mel Helitzer, then sitting at his table at lunch. He sold me and signed his book Comedy Writing Secrets, which in 2003 I cited in my master’s thesis on humor columns. Also in West Virginia, meeting Bill Tammeus, then of The Kansas City Star, who introduced me to Hmm Notes for idea generation.

The Detroit schedule is posted at, but when it comes down to it who knows what surprises will happen? I know for certain good things will happen on plan and off.

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