Sweet shout-out

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Fellow columnist at the Grand Junction Free Press Judith Curtis-Mardon wrote such lovely compliments about me in her own piece that came out today. Local humor writer (also with the FP) Steve Beauregard submitted his final column today, having decided that the not-so-glamorous life of the small-town columnist doesn’t quite provide enough food to feed a growing family, and Curtis-Mardon wrote a great tribute to his wacky and literary sense of humor. Along the way, she threw in a bunch of stuff about the other FP columnists, including yours truly. Sweet woman.

It’s one thing to write for the paper, but it’s another to be written about, and the Rocky Mountain high of seeing my name in print elsewhere than in a byline gave me such a good rush during my run this morning. It’s a very cold, very gray day out here in Grand Junction, with rain promised for the Thanksgiving weekend, but those always provide the best conditions for running. My favorite times to run are in the wet heat of a summer rain and under cloudy winter skies. This morning was perfect: 22 F, thick clouds, empty streets. Mmm. And of course, nothing beats a hot shower and a cuppa right after!

I’m at 43,586 on NaNo. Today’s session wasn’t all that great. I’m having a hard time getting a handle on this new character I’ve introduced. He’s a central figure in my protagonist’s life, but because he’s only now entering the book some of the dynamics have changed, and I’m having to get used to him. He’s actually one of the first characters I came up with when the book was still in its gestation period, and now that he’s alive, so to speak, he’s turning out to be an enigma.

Perhaps that’s a good thing. Not that writers should surrender control over their stories completely to their characters, but I rather like it when characters surprise me. Still, I’m watching out for this guy. He’s a piece o’ work, I can tell ya.

Column Comments

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I’m frequently amazed at how often I get compliments and raves on columns I’m not particularly happy with, style-wise, while those columns I think are so freakin’ awesome they should be immediately awarded the Pulitzer get nuthin’.

I wrestled quite a bit with this week’s column, “A President for All Americans,” not because it was an especially difficult topic but because I couldn’t quite figure out the flow of it. In the end I did finish it well before deadline, but I still felt that I hadn’t totally gotten a handle on my position. And you know what? I’ve gotten a lot of compliments on it. Weird, huh?

If you’re interested in reading some “testimonials” on my columns/writing, feel free to check out the new section on my Web site. Good for some laughs, anyway.

Column on the first night of the DNC

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If you’re interested, my column this week is about the first night of the DNC in Denver. Loved Michelle Obama’s speech!

I’m still bummed that I couldn’t go. A newspaper I was working for a few months ago promised credentials, but then backed out a few weeks later. I was willing to pay for my personal expenses, too, just to get into the convention hall and see it all live. Oh well.

How to be a columnist

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Ashley over at Feministe.us recently wrote a thought-provoking post that doesn’t really introduce anything we don’t already know about the gender-imbalance in the media, but which nonetheless should be read by anyone who thinks that the news is a “fair and balance” field.

I’ve always been loathe to toot my own horn, but lately I’ve been getting pretty good at it. I do think that I’m one of the best writers in local media, and while the competition isn’t especially steep, I’m proud of that fact. I am, however, very well aware that people still consider me as a “woman writer,” and not simply a writer, without the sex-based qualifier. I write a lot about so-called “women’s issues,” and don’t apologize for it. Unfortunately, while those issues are global and affect everyone, they’ve always been identified with our sex and therefore de-legitimized as “hard news.”

I do think that my editor does strive to have an equitable newsroom, and a glance at the masthead can attest to that. His community/Web editor and right-hand person is a woman, and half his reporting staff are female. While most of his Op-Ed columnists are male, I suspect that that imbalance has more to do with fewer women in the area submitting to the paper. I think that stems from a number of perfectly valid reasons:

  1. Women traditionally have far more on their to-do list than men. See any statistic about the number of hours women devote to housework versus those of men. (I solve that dilemma by minimizing the time I spend on housework. I vacuum maybe every two months, but as it doesn’t really reflect my quality of life nor my husband’s, I’m not too beat up about it.)
  2. A lot of people — men and women alike — don’t realize that the op-ed page is open for submissions from anyone in the community with something to say and the basic ability to craft a logical sentence. Now, mind you, that last part isn’t necessarily as easy as it sounds, but theoretically the barriers to admission, especially here in this relatively small town, are fairly low.
  3. I strongly believe that women have a bigger tendency towards perfectionism than men do. Likely because we know that we’re always judged more harshly than our male counterparts, we’re afraid of looking foolish if our work is anything less than stellar. Now, granted, I always try and do the best I can with my work. However, I also recognize that if I wait until I create Shakespearean prose before I fire off a column to my editor, I’ll never get published. As my thesis advisor in grad school once wisely opined, It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be done. Anyone who’s followed my columns and features over the past year know that the quality of my writing can be inconsistent, but as long as I get my point across, I’m happy. And published.

I would suggest that anyone — but women in particular — with something to say should sit down with pen in hand or laptop on the desk and just start writing. Don’t worry about the first draft. That’s why they call it a draft. It’s supposed to be imperfect; it’s to be your repository of random thoughts, musings, anecdotes, all related to whatever subject about which you wish to pontificate.

Want to write about the need for emergency contraception to be available to rape victims at all hospital emergency rooms in your area? Sit down and write whatever comes to your mind about the subject, even if it’s just a to-do list of things you need to do to pursue it: statistics on rape victims who end up being pregnant; people you need to call to inquire about the availability of the medication at their facility; laws in your state regarding this issue. Write down what you think about it, and why. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t all make sense just yet — that’s what the editing and redrafting is for. Remember that writing about a particularly thorny and complex issue is the first step towards understanding it. That’s why journaling has become so hugely popular. Writing down one’s thoughts helps to organize them and to enable you to glean some kind of insight from the random ideas in your head about them.

When you’ve finally exhausted all of your thoughts on the matter, and your brain feels like it can’t dump any more onto the paper or screen, put it all aside for now and let it “stew” in its own mess for a little while. Leave it aside for a day or so, and let it just sit in peace while it sorts itself out in your head. Like meditation, writing your thoughts down can help clear the decks in your head to see the issue more clearly. That doesn’t mean that you should abandon the brainstorming process — because that’s what this is — so if and when you think of something else to add in the meantime, go ahead and throw it in there.

Now, after it’s been marinating in your head and on your paper/screen for a couple of days, go back to it. Using those notes as a guide, start writing your column. Begin with a strong opening sentence, perhaps with an anecdote about how a friend of yours who was brutally raped entered the local ER and was not only advised that she couldn’t get emergency contraception, but that she would have to go to another ER across town in order to access it. Use powerful words, and avoid that dreaded, ho-hum passive sentence.

Avoid this:

Melanie was upset and angry at the doctor’s blithe attitude towards her dilemma.

And use this instead:

Melanie burst into tears of rage and frustration at the doctor’s blithe attitude towards her dilemma.

See the difference? Which do you think conveys best the emotion Melanie must have felt in the ER?

Now, I’m guilty as much as the next person about subjecting my readers to the passive sentence. But I do my best, as anyone does, and try not to let it happen too often.

Write your column as if you’re explaining your position on the issue to a friend. Some columnists write in an especially erudite manner — paging George Will! — and others write like the thoughtful, well-read, classically-trained academics that they are, e.g., the late, great William F. Buckley. Others write in a more casual manner, like the wonderful Nicholas Kristof. Everyone has a different writing voice, and the key is finding yours. That’s what will distinguish you from all other columnists, and hopefully garner you a loyal following.

I do think that I’ve yet to really nail down my own voice, but I’m getting there. The key is to write, write, write. Have others read your work and give you their comments and feedback. You don’t have to follow them, but at least consider what they have to say, especially those who read the type of columns you aspire to write.

Don’t let weeks go by before you submit your column to the editor. The New York Times and USA Today are extremely competitive markets for would-be op-ed writers, but most local papers allow a little more idiosyncrasy in their guest columnists. Even if you don’t think your writing rates publication, send it in anyway. Don’t, of course, send in crappy work that you haven’t edited, spell-checked and at least run by a couple of capable buddies. Don’t waste the editor’s time, as even in the smallest papers they’re probably inundated with work already. But just because you’re not Anna Quindlen doesn’t mean that your voice and opinion don’t deserve to be heard.

Nowadays submitting a column is super-easy. Most newspapers, if not all, allow electronic submissions. You can find the email address either on the page itself or on their Web site, or just pick up the phone and call the paper’s switchboard and ask them where to send an op-ed. Some newspapers take days to respond, while others — USA Today among them — will do so within 24-48 hours. Seriously. I’ve submitted columns to USA Today and the Chicago Tribune and received rejection notes (usually a line or two) by the following day, if not that day. It doesn’t mean that they hated it from the first line. It could just as easily mean that they didn’t think it fit their needs at the time. (That’s what I like to tell myself.)

If your piece doesn’t get printed, no worries. Keep writing. Writing only gets better with practice. Read the paper, have conversations with your friends and co-workers about issues of the day, and remember to take notes about things that particularly catch your attention. Write more essays, and keep submitting them to your favorite papers’ editors. Publishing is all about being persistent, after all. Eventually, you’ll find the forum where your voice fits best.

Vanity searches and the usefulness of Google Alerts

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A couple of my columns for the Free Press over the last month or so have made their way to the greater social consciousness, specifically one about Nader and another one about Generation X. The latter was especially popular on a news aggregator site and generated a decent amount of comments and feedback, not all of them good. Still, it was great to get the publicity, and any freelance writer at the beginning of her career can tell you that even bad publicity can be good for your business, as long as the publicity is focused on your content and not on your person.

In any case, the Gen-X one prompted me to do a quick Google search on the article. Lo and behold, I found several blogs and other aggregators that had picked up the column and had cut-and-pasted it in its entirety onto their sites. Now, technically, this would be considered violation of copyright, even with the attribution or links to the original article on the Free Press Web site. However, as I’m fairly unknown and am still working this whole freelance writing thing like mad, I don’t generally spend too much time worrying about it. I have written to a couple of the sites and asked that they at least link to my Web site or blog. It’s the least they can do considering that they’ve basically scraped my content. I’m a pretty easy-going person, though, and won’t worry about it too much until I get all J.K. Rowling-rich-and-famous and can hire a team of attorneys who’ll do all the copyright infringement fighting for me.

However, one little neat trick I learned while doing all this Googling is to sign up for Google Alerts of my name. I already do this with subjects I’m especially interested in for work or research or even just for fun, such as comfort women, Flight of the Conchords, Singapore World War II, and others, but this particular Alert just pops up when my name gets mentioned elsewhere on the Web.

Check out this addictive feature sometime, especially if you’re beginning to create a name for yourself and want to know what people are thinking/writing about you. Sure, it’s a bit of a vanity exercise, but you’d be surprised at where your content ends up. Most of the time, it’s all harmless, and people just want to continue the discussion you generated with your original article/blog post/column. It’s always good to know what others are saying about you and your work. And yes, it’s a great way to keep track of scrapers*, on whom you should definitely keep an eye in the future.

*Scrapers: People who “scrape,” i.e., steal your content, from your blog or Web site and post it on their own. This gets more worrisome if your content only gets partially scraped so that, say, your outbound links are eliminated, including to your site or the original article. It can also be of concern if the scrapers are posting your content to pornographic or otherwise illegal sites. If you have the time to monitor this, you might consider doing more comprehensive Google Alerts so that you catch violators as they accomplish the dirty deeds. Once you’ve found evidence of copyright infringement, don’t hesitate to contact the blog host (i.e., the administrators for Blogger.com, WordPress.com, LiveJournal.com, etc.) and let them know that one of their members is violating their terms of agreement.

Nicholas Kristof, you're my hero

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I first heard about Kristof when he became the New York Times’ Tokyo bureau chief. I was living in Japan at the time and read an interview with him and his wife and colleague, Sheryl WuDunn, in the Japan Times. He now writes a biweekly column for the Times about humanitarian crises around the world, frequently traveling from Africa to Asia in his quest to uncover and highlight some of the most egregious acts man has ever committed against his fellow human beings.

Yeah, he’s my hero. In an interview with Guernica magazine, he briefly touches on the challenges of balancing his responsibilities as a journalist with that of being a private citizen who cares about people. When is it appropriate to “cross the line” between being a reporter and being an activist? If you read any of his columns over the last few years, you’ll quickly realize that Kristof doesn’t appear too bothered by this delicate balance. He’s written passionately about the crisis in Darfur and the sex-slave trade in Cambodia. He’s also produced videos about his work, including a response to reader questions about how they can help out with some of the issues he addresses in his columns. He’s not just filing the facts; he’s also vocal about the need for Americans — both ordinary citizens and our political leaders — to become more personally involved in some of the most horrifying crises facing our world today..

I’d love to see my own little column in the Free Press do just that. I’ve always positioned myself firmly in the left side of the political spectrum and have never apologized for doing so in my column. Still, the idea of using the column as a platform for highlighting issues that are otherwise ignored by the mainstream media appeals to me. Not that the issues I tackle (immigration, feminism, minority rights, etc.) are necessarily under-the-radar, but I am tired of seeing the same five people speaking on behalf of millions. Especially if those same five people are the same five white, privileged people.

Yeah, Kristof is a white, privileged journalist. (His wife, WuDunn, recently left the Times to become a wealth advisor at Goldman Sachs. Yeah, that Goldman Sachs. So no, they’re not doing too badly.) But I like that his columns are reminiscent of the articles that Mariane Pearl is writing for Glamour magazine. Pearl profiles a prominent woman activist in each of various countries around the world, and her columns are decidedly liberal and activist in tone, as befitting her subjects. Kristof does the same, albeit in a much larger forum, with an even greater and more diverse audience than Pearl commands. It’s a sad fact of life that the privileged classes are more likely to listen to a voice if it belongs to one of their own, but at least that voice is committed to speaking out about the forgotten majority. The un-privileged, if you will.

Nicholas Kristof, you’re my hero

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I first heard about Kristof when he became the New York Times’ Tokyo bureau chief. I was living in Japan at the time and read an interview with him and his wife and colleague, Sheryl WuDunn, in the Japan Times. He now writes a biweekly column for the Times about humanitarian crises around the world, frequently traveling from Africa to Asia in his quest to uncover and highlight some of the most egregious acts man has ever committed against his fellow human beings.

Yeah, he’s my hero. In an interview with Guernica magazine, he briefly touches on the challenges of balancing his responsibilities as a journalist with that of being a private citizen who cares about people. When is it appropriate to “cross the line” between being a reporter and being an activist? If you read any of his columns over the last few years, you’ll quickly realize that Kristof doesn’t appear too bothered by this delicate balance. He’s written passionately about the crisis in Darfur and the sex-slave trade in Cambodia. He’s also produced videos about his work, including a response to reader questions about how they can help out with some of the issues he addresses in his columns. He’s not just filing the facts; he’s also vocal about the need for Americans — both ordinary citizens and our political leaders — to become more personally involved in some of the most horrifying crises facing our world today..

I’d love to see my own little column in the Free Press do just that. I’ve always positioned myself firmly in the left side of the political spectrum and have never apologized for doing so in my column. Still, the idea of using the column as a platform for highlighting issues that are otherwise ignored by the mainstream media appeals to me. Not that the issues I tackle (immigration, feminism, minority rights, etc.) are necessarily under-the-radar, but I am tired of seeing the same five people speaking on behalf of millions. Especially if those same five people are the same five white, privileged people.

Yeah, Kristof is a white, privileged journalist. (His wife, WuDunn, recently left the Times to become a wealth advisor at Goldman Sachs. Yeah, that Goldman Sachs. So no, they’re not doing too badly.) But I like that his columns are reminiscent of the articles that Mariane Pearl is writing for Glamour magazine. Pearl profiles a prominent woman activist in each of various countries around the world, and her columns are decidedly liberal and activist in tone, as befitting her subjects. Kristof does the same, albeit in a much larger forum, with an even greater and more diverse audience than Pearl commands. It’s a sad fact of life that the privileged classes are more likely to listen to a voice if it belongs to one of their own, but at least that voice is committed to speaking out about the forgotten majority. The un-privileged, if you will.

X-Men (and -Women!) Unite!

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Apparently, the good folks over at http://www.fark.com (which I wish was actually named frak.com, but oh well) have linked to the column I wrote last week about the disappearance of Generation X, i.e., my people. Thanks, Fark guys! (Although I’m not Some Guy, as you describe me, but s’okay.)

Anyhoo, I’ve received tons of email today from Gen-X’ers all over the country letting me know that they’ve been thinking exactly the same thing. Yay! We’re not the Silent Minority after all. Seriously, where’s our version of The Big Chill? Why don’t we have a bajillion books and advertising dollars thrown our way? Where’s the recognition of us as a generation that drove the initial Internet revolution? Remember when my people suddenly showed the world that we weren’t just slackers, but rather creative revolutionaries who worked our asses off for the love of an idea rather than the pursuit of money? Oh sure, we have a few billionaires among us, many of whom became so nearly overnight based on nothing but those ideas, but for the most part, we proved just how hard-working, brilliant and passionate we are.

I love hearing from other X-ers about where they are, what they’re thinking, what they’re doing, how they’re living in the shadows of the Boomers that came before us and the Y’s bringing up the rear. Bring ’em on, folks! I want to hear more about where you are in this world, and why you think we’re the Coolest Generation ever, if not the Greatest.