Tuesday, June 08, 2004

One-Tree Forest II

Multi-part columns are rare, very rare – at least, columns that are explicitly multi-part, the first of the series ending with “To be continued” and the next with a Super Bowl suffix. The reasons for this are self-evident, which means I should be able to spend a great deal of time talking on this topic with columnists, since – like the finest courtroom lawyers – I certainly don’t want to ask any questions for which I lack predetermined answers. (Editor’s note: I know you're being ironic here, but do you think your readers, [if you ever get any] will by this point in your “column” cycle know you well enough to get it? I’ve known you, well, forever, and I don’t get you half the time.)

As I was saying before Dr. Jekyll intervened, a newspaper column is written to stand by itself (I am convinced, your honor). It must at least appear that if you have never read this particular columnist before today’s column, today's column still stands on its on, to the degree that any of these little Fortune Cookies of Journalism may be said to stand on their own...

It is now time for me to exert some discipline. Because a column is short, you can be pretty discursive – state an idea; wander away; come stumbling back – and still have happy readers, since most of us can get our minds around 600 words. But I think I am abusing that privilege. Let's get down to it: I want to add something to my last post. But as a “columnist” – even if I write a 1200-word post in one great gush of inspiration – I am struggling to break the idea up and make it seem to be two discrete columns. Oh, never mind.

Last post I talked about how columnists use family members as continuing characters, and that technique should probably be part of a larger category called Personal Disclosure – I, columnist, am taking off the journalist’s mask of non-self and revealing the fallible and struggling individual beneath. Here I am, real as can be. Thus a conversation ripens into a relationship, the columnist becoming someone with whom we can empathize and identify. (One day’s column: good. Columns read over time: better.) But because of the frequency problem, the columnist is engaged in a carefully modulated disclosure, since the columnist-reader relationship is, by definition, a long one, and thus the disclosures are often a series of small-scale observations and experiences from everyday life. Let us borrow a term from the world of the venture capitalist: There’s a “burn rate” for personal disclosure. You can use your life up, as it were. And that’s why the San Francisco Chronicle essayist Jean Gonick, who writes weekly as Ms. Gonick, is (I predict) an essayist and not a columnist.

Brain tumors, failed high school teaching, semi-crazed care giving to semi-senile parents, drug-addicted old boyfriends – all these she describes in an intense, painful, long-winded narrative that (I predict, phrase repeated for emphasis) I can’t see the wonderfully talented Ms. Gonick keeping up indefinitely. She is ransacking her life, profligate and self-wounding, and I don’t see how she can possibly maintain either the intensity or the volume. You can’t suffer and share open-endedly. At some point she turns these weekly essays into another book, I’d guess, and moves on.

Columnists don’t move on.

I recall Susan Parker, who intermittently writes for the Chronicle. At the center of her columns was her quadriplegic husband, and that's grim autobiography for readers to live with. She had a crew, as it were: two men who were employed full time as her husband’s helpers and a sassy neighbor lady filled with rather more folk wisdom than simple probability allowed – and who died not all that long after joining the cast. Susan Parker couldn't keep it up -- or wasn't allowed to, which IS the same thing. I recall Adair Lara, late of the Chron, and her emotionally starved and starving desert rat dad, but he was a character balanced in her columns by a bland but supportive husband... I'm way over budget. This long and winding road goes on forever, and I shall return to Adair Lara at my leisure. (Look up Walt Whitman quote on stretching, being lazy, taking time, etc. Another Dead White Man, sure, but a TOP Dead White Man.)

So, Ms. Gonick: Unless you start writing about flower gardens, household pets or trips to the store -- the tone lightening, the narrative arc subsiding – my Magic Eight Ball says, “Wonderful stuff. Not a column.”

Update: And here, through the magic of the Internet, that Whitman quote is. Perfect credo for a columnist, what?

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as
Good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

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