Don Rogers: You were born to write
We might talk too much about what we can’t do.
Thing is, it’s usually not true. Mom was right about being able to do whatever we set our minds to doing. We just haven’t tried yet, then failed, learned, trial after trial, failure after failure. Finally, some headway and at last, if we’re fortunate, that breakthrough.
At least that’s how surfing went for me: oh-so-slow progress through missing waves, getting crunched and dodging my own board, slipping while trying to stand, falling, falling, falling, digging in the tip of the board, balancing too far back, learning hammer-on-nose when not to paddle in, what closed out means, how to hold my breath.
Then, suddenly, it all came easy, like I always knew, memory of any struggle dimming, then gone. I no longer thought about the progression. I just paddled, caught the wave, and carved.
I’m not talking here about the highest reaches of talent, making pro sports teams, sitting first chair with the New York Philharmonic, proving the Rieman hypothesis, inventing the Post-It note, arguing Plessy v. Ferguson.
I only mean learning skills, some perhaps useful. Like coding, the guitar, plumbing, pickle ball, another language, accounting, snowboarding, bonsai, running for office, surgically repairing my right knee. We each can learn these things, all of them, though I might go with a first-chair surgeon for that last one.
We’re blessed in this era of education to be able to read, to count, to write — the keys to everything after. This is one thing America got fundamentally right: compulsory public education. If we’re exceptional, forget the clumsily phrased and enigmatic Constitution. This is why.
But the ability to tell a story might be inborn. We can spin tales long before we recognize a word on a page. We can tell lies around the time we’ve learned to walk, sell by kindergarten, woo in high school, rewrite and edit the story we tell ourselves about ourselves throughout adulthood. This might be the most important story we ever tell.
So of course it’s nothing to write short essays — letters, blogs, Facebook posts, commentaries we call columns in the local newspaper.
And we can do them very well. Beginning. Middle. End. Simple.
We already do a version around campfires, at the coffee shop, over dinner, on a sales call, between innings, during intermission, at work explaining to the boss why his or her brilliant idea hasn’t panned out, when we meet someone for the first time.
I’m always startled when someone says they could never do what I do after I’ve written a column that connected with them. Politely, they overlook the duds. That’s what the critics in our lives are for, after all, and they’re certainly not shy about it.
Maybe our own shyness holds too many of us back, and not just from writing. Can you hear that damnable voice about what others might think? I know it all too well. Judgment. Which of course is only God’s to render, not the critic’s, the reader’s, the crowd’s.
But every reader, every listener, each of us, knows the shape of a story. We all think in story. Writing is only thinking. Therefore …
As social beings, sharing our stories is a big part of how we learn and our society evolves, however haltingly. A newspaper column is just one more expression in this ongoing process, fitting in there between social media posting and academic white paper or memoir.
And the local paper/online news site still has the largest single audience of the people most engaged with their community and with the most influence on where we go from here. I’d argue this makes the Opinion section vital to our civic lives, and most especially the columns expressing views we don’t share. Those are my favorites, actually. I want to understand, not necessarily agree.
And you, yes you, have as much to say as anyone. No, you may not be the next Herb Caen or Maureen Dowd, but who is? And so what? This isn’t about first chair, but sharing. Sharing something of your knowledge, your unique point of view, your insight about an issue, your art, especially your soul. Something of that always leaks in, too, you know, which no doubt is what brings on shyness. Sharing can be hard.
Columns are a bit of work, most definitely. Real thinking is tough. What I love about writing is you don’t get to settle; you’re always pushing at the limits of your mind.
There is a secret, and I don’t mind sharing. It’s a lot easier than learning to surf, though it requires the same persistence and obsession. Yep, you know this, too: Rewrite, rewrite again, and again. Maybe again. All the while, focus on what you already know, and you do know. You were born knowing.
Now, French, well, you’re on your own there. I never could …
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.