Monday, June 14, 2004

"You stand at the blackboard, daddy .... A cleft in your chin instead of your foot"

Call it synchronicity and serendipity if you have a strong vocabulary and a spell checker. Call it coincidence and good luck if you don't.

But don't call it late for dinner.

Within mere days of my using Adair Lara as an example of a columnist who shared -- or seemed to share -- personal intimacies adding up to personal pain, and who kept it up in print for years and years, what to my wondering eyes should appear but a Lara piece in the Sunday Chron on her own bad daddy, the scabbed wound she picked at in so many columns. In the essay, Lara makes clear why that particular self revelation worked for her. Her dad sat in the desert to which he had fled and wrote with no one to hear except, perhaps, one daughter.

We were looking in the same direction. Like my dad, I was word struck, afflicted with the rage to scribble.... I shared my dad's bookishness, romaticism, the idea that writing is not as important as life, but more important.

One way or another, a writer needs a writer's past -- it's simpler, isn't it, if the work is inevitable and not a matter of choice. But Lara's friends and family said who's this guy you're writing about?

I didn't listen, to (my sister),or the facts, or dad himself. I wanted a father. And not just any father: a poet. A prophet. A renegade. That's how I portrayed him in column I wrote for 12 years. When my mother read it, she didn't recognize the man who left her alone with seven kids and never sent money home, the man who'd destroyed her dream of family life.

Lara concludes:

Was he the alcoholic and abandoning father, or was he the brilliant self-taught carpenter, the man who died with a wallet full of library cards?
Which is true? Maybe both, maybe only one, maybe something else entirely. It's my childhood, my father. I get to choose.

And so I have yet another idea about how disclosure works in columns. Lara took her father and made him something useful, and if I recall correctly, that insight was always there in her columns. Here's the pain and here's the gain that goes with it, and the slope of the column is plusplus, and life is worth living and what does not destroy us makes us strong...except Lara may have been living the cliche, but she did not write the cliche. And, anyway, as Leslie Fielder once wrote (I think) every plot can be boiled down to a cliche.

One writes a column caught in a web of influences -- audience/frequency/continuity. Columnists who disclose, or seem to disclose, anything personal and painful but who always come out ahead keep going going going but are never gone.

Here's a link to Lara's Sunday piece.

The father you choose: Denial or deification?

Adair Lara is, of course, gone actually. She lost her column-writing job a year or more ago, and now she is a staff writer, buried in the Chronicle's "soft" pages, and I go months at a time without stumbling across her byline. (Which pains me. When I was with the Chronicle, my work was also buried in the "soft" pages. I didn't get how little the "serious" people cared.) But thinking about her career, I find more more more questions to ask. Why did she lose her column? She can write a nice sentence. She can shape 600 words. I am trying to think like a top manager: Let's imagine she has X number of faithful readers. But let's imagine management coming to the conclusion that if you subtract Lara from the paper, you don't lost that X number of readers because research shows those readers will return to the paper for other things. You replace her with Annie Nakao, an "ethnic" columnist who will write about the Bay Area's nonwhite residents. Maybe these columns will be labored and obvious because this will be column-writing as beat, not column writing as personal exploration. Maybe only Y number of readers will be attracted to this column, but maybe they will be new readers, readers who would otherwise drop their cut rate trial subscriptions. The equation is X +Y, not X-Y. Since a newspaper contains a finite amount of space, you can't have both Lara and Nakao -- or so the managers reason. Maybe that was the basis for dropping her. It's possible that the less popular can be the more profitable when readerships for "soft" features overlap.

Another possiblility: Here's an opposite reading. Let's imagine the editor or publisher as auteur, someone who has an aesthetic view of his newspaper. Ignoring any and all implications for circulation, he doesn't like a certain kind of columnist because she/he offends his Platonic ideal of what a newspaper should be. Maybe it was a purely personal decision. Or maybe the reason lay somewhere between. A top editor didn't like Lara's column and concluded he could find something that would fit his notion of a "true" newspaper -- and would attract more readers in the bargain. These are questions with general application because when I talk about a columnist's audience, I must not forget that colleagues and supervisors are also an audience, and their opinions matter, too. I think I'll poke around a little and see if I can answer these questions. For who would decline to talk to a scholar, trusting that any remarks would be lost in the obscurity of the refereed article in the scholarly journal!!

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