Thursday, June 10, 2004

The Blog Made Me Do It

My intention was to write column-length pieces three times a week, just as one would in a newspaper, but it turns out I'm posting more often than that -- I just can't resist these little anti-Reagan throwaways. That's the nature of the blog. It's not that you write when you want -- any insomniac can do that. Blogs are the facile writer's crack pipe: You publish when you want and at just the length you want. As it turns out, I have acquired a reader other than my wife, a friend from work who made a casual comment that enabled me to impose my URL on him. He liked my 25-word Reagan "tribute" and sent the URL to a friend of his who responded that it was too bad there wasn't a column under the catchy title and the two-sentence lead.

Ah, grasshopper, there's the point. Columnists (I conclude)come up with fragments that may -- or may not -- grow into 600 words. Obviously you can take any idea and torture it out to 600 words, and the two key words in the first compound of this compound sentence are "obvious" and "torture." It seemed to me that for the last quarter century of his career Art Buchwald was trying to pump up his premises to achieve column length. Art Hoppe did the same thing, too, at the Chronicle. Jon Carroll is a better columnist than Buchwald or Hoppe for at least two reasons. When he pads, he pads elegantly; there is pleasure in the voice at work. And (my point) he acknowledges that some ideas burst with pumping up. And what bursts, shrivels. He is willing to stop his main idea at 500 words and append some other joke or comment. I suspect he'll go on DatebookBackLeft forever -- though that's not necessarily a prediction his quality won't fade. Buchwald and Hoppe went on long past their prime. It seems to me that once a columnist gets a certain momentum, a certain popularity, a corporate inertia takes over and he/she is kept in the rotation right up to the edge of death. That was true of McCabe, Delaplane, Hoppe and Caen at the Chron. (Let's invent a category: Near Dead White Men Still Walking.)

This is a question for editors: Why do columnists survive past their shelf life?

These miscellaneous thoughts arise because of Jon Carroll's column in today's Chron, a classic from 1987, in which he writes about column writing. Here it is.

About Being a Columnist

These are the gems I am looking for as I peruse the great world of column writing! The columnist is self-conscious, aware of his audience. Unfortunately, I've discovered that if you ask a columnist to point you toward such columns, she/he can't or won't. In his classic column Carroll complains about readers who can't remember what a particular column they liked was about. So, too, columnists -- grinding, grinding, grinding -- tend (I think) to empty their minds of the memory of specific columns. (Didn't Hemingway say something about journalism ruining real writers because of the brain fatigue from all the forgetting a journalist must engage in?) Anyway, I am delighted to find a nice bit of columnist-on-the-couch dropped, hot as a biscuit, in my lap. Carroll notes several things, including the "meltdown" that occurs in the minds of newspaper readers: Who wrote what? They aren't sure!! And -- thus back to the kernel from which this little essay burgeoned -- he notes that sometimes you run out of idea before you run out of space. But when that happens in blogging, you just sto

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