Don Rogers: Wisdom of the column
I want to write about writing commentary, easily the most interesting writing in a newspaper, magazine or online news site.
This form attracts the more serious thinkers, the folks wondering about better ways, the civically inclined. Every community’s glue.
Sure, a broader, duller blade of opinion readers overly concerns itself with partisanship, indulging more in outrage at “wrong” opinions than curiosity about the roots, insisting on agreement, all else be banned.
But this is really to say that commentary moves people. From polemical to personal essay, something of the good, the bad and the ugly that fascinates humans about other humans shows up here.
You can help shape our community’s quality of life, especially if you see a viewpoint missing, by writing one yourself. You have a voice. You can fill a void.
Our opinion section serves as a commons and fills with the contributions of neighbors. Unlike larger entities where this section mostly reflects the enterprise, ours reflects the community, or at least the portion of the community willing to participate.
We run all the community contributions we can, which is not the same as saying we run everything. Facts and evidence must check out with conventional, legitimate sources. We try to keep it within the mainstream guardrails factually for more grounded discussion than, say, on Brunswick street corners or at the start of county supervisors meetings.
Let’s note here that the very nature of science and indeed further discoveries of all sorts will change things, too. Guidance about whether to wear masks, the quest to find the source of COVID-19, what investigations eventually reveal or don’t reveal.
This stuff ain’t Scripture, after all. Just us messy humans in all our sin and glory. That’s life, imperfect and awesome.
THE FULL RANGE
There are many ways to write commentary. The most common and least of the forms is the polemic. The author stacks the deck of arguments to favor a position, usually a partisan one, while tearing down rivals and their arguments. Nearly all the political crap fits this category, which is too bad from my standpoint, though I understand its utility with today’s rank-and-file populists and progressives.
Polemics throughout history have had an essential role in revolution, advocacy, civil rights, philosophy, religion, art, democracy and retreats from it — pretty much all the major social changes around the world.
Among the practitioners are such vaunted names as Marx, Orwell, Voltaire, Tolstoy, Martin Luther. That’s far from a comprehensive list, which would include all effective politicians and most pundits. Cable TV and talk radio have pretty thoroughly debased what Jonathan Swift once made into high art.
I favor the personal essay at its best, in which the author grapples with life in a real way that illustrates a larger issue or question and at least some of its nuances. The form goes astray so easily, though. The piece with no point. The anecdote that drifts alone. The annoying repetition of I, I, I, I, like the beginning of an Ozzie Osborn song (“Crazy Train”).
But when it works, oh, here is storytelling at its very best, full of telling details and maybe a surprise ending and parting thought or feeling that lingers long after the reading.
I have less patience with strings of clever one-liners, one after the other, posing as coherent columns. Dowd and Coulter might be better suited to stand-up.
Many columnists tie themselves to national politics or anything under the Capitol dome in Sacramento, laser in on education or climate change, or maybe they’ll be experts on the Middle East or Asia more generally. God save us from the economists; the humorists and satirists come in too short supply.
More polymathic, or perhaps just unable to focus, I like to try on all the styles and go where other columns don’t, taking on longer and deeper views or at least different than what’s already out there.
The results often put me out there, I realize. The 100-year picture, sometimes layers of meaning even to what’s left unsaid, if you know what I mean and why should you? But a reader whose insights I admire recently caught on to a piece ultimately about hope amid despair, though it didn’t say so overtly. Yeah I fist pumped like Kurt Gibson in a long-ago World Series I know A’s fans will still remember as much as I do.
Lately, I’ve taken to writing in loosely connected chapters, playing with a technique more common to long-form journalism. I like the overall effect when I get it, and hey, next week’s a new chance to try again when I swing and miss.
Occasionally I’ll even have a go at the most out there form, what I’ll generously call prose poetry and what an editor whom I suspect doesn’t read the stuff less generously refers to as my “on shrooms” pieces. But ironically, maybe, some of the best, most thoughtful feedback over the years has come from those.
I know writing feels like work, but it’s really play in the sense of experimenting, trying new things, stretching ourselves. Like the rest of life, in other words, if you aim to live it rather than the other way around.
Try writing a piece yourself, and send me the results. Maybe we can publish your take on this crazy world.
Don Rogers is the publisher of the Sierra Sun and The Union, based in Grass Valley. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-477-4299
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