April 18 was National Columnists Day and a time for journalists everywhere to unite in solidarity when our jobs are under fire politically and economically. There is both pride and a bit of masochism to subject yourself to having your life and opinions in print every week. You need a compelling story line with a beginning, middle, and end with a few laughs, tears, insight, or inciting incidents along the way. No matter the subject, however, there is always enormous power in “I.”
The first person does not reflect the position of the paper, or anyone else. It is my personal experience and take on life. When I introduce myself as a writer with a column called Kiss & Tell, it causes some people concern. I let them know as long as they are not related to me or an ex-boyfriend they can go ahead and mark themselves safe on Facebook. As columnists, we mine our own lives for material.
One of my favorite non-fiction writers Mary Karr states this self-revelation as such, “In memoir, the heart is the brain. It’s the Geiger counter you run over memory’s landscape looking for precious metals to light up. A psychological self-awareness and faith in the power of truth gives you courage to reveal whatever you unearth, whether you come out looking vain or conniving or hateful or not.”
The searching question we are posing, and asking our audiences to silently answer, is as my talented colleague Karen Fredericks asks in her humorous weekly cartoon, “Is it just me?” Am I the only one who doesn’t know how to change a toilet cover, uses mint dental floss to truss a leg of lamb in a pinch, mistakes lavender furniture polish which should never have contact with skin as a body polish (okay, maybe I am unique on that one), has had my heart broken, trust destroyed, fretted over belly fat, felt a hole in my soul which can never be filled due to a loss of a parent or pet, been enraged by egomaniacs who mistreat people, felt the intoxication of new love, found joy in a perfectly scented garden rose, been befuddled by dating terms like bread crumbing and catfishing, aggrandized or diminished myself, think an IRA is a lovely man who created some of the greatest showtunes in our time, has a family Thanksgiving tradition of drinking tequila in a bathtub (again maybe unique to me), lives with enormous regrets about the past and undiminished faith in the future, conducts Wicca full moon rituals, feels my good friends are literally my life’s blood, hosts a hula hooping class in my front yard when I need workmen to show up on time, or will stab your hand with a fork if you try to take away my end-of-day glass of Chardonnay?
All of these things I have explored in Kiss & Tell. One of the sad but true facts of life, and I am equally guilty, is that when we read something which we love, we rarely take the time to comment. It is like a restaurant meal where we demand to see the manager to say, “The food is delicious and the service and atmosphere top notch, thank you.” But when we are angry or offended, we immediately need to publicly lash out.
Some of the most gratifying moments of my column career have been when readers reach out to let me know that what I wrote tapped into something inside them that either mildly amused or deeply affected them on a core level. I also get hate mail. It may be actual mail or email or letters to the editor. I know you are supposed to be thick-skinned in this line of work, but I am not, and I think that is what makes me a good writer. If they accurately reflect my message and disagree, no problem. But many times, they take out of what I have written something which does not at all accurately reflect me or my intentions.
We columnists aim to be clear, to be brave, to use our platform wisely, to illuminate our connections in this crazy, disappointing, amazing, magical, unpredictable thing called life. It is the power of when the “I” becomes a “We.”