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.

The Death of the Newspaper Salesman

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More layoffs are in store for a venerable, award-winning newspaper, the San Jose Mercury News. As a journalist this concerns me personally, as I make part of my living by crafting and providing fresh, well-written news and features for various publications, including newspapers. The fact that the Mercury News is affected pains me even more, as the pub is such a well-respected name in the business. Their staff won Pulitzers back in the day for an expose on erstwhile Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ “ill-gotten wealth” (a popular term in the Philippines nowadays) that many cite as the beginning of the end for the man and his corrupt administration.

Still, is anyone really surprised about news such as this? Newspapers have been losing readership for years, even more so since the Web really exploded in the late 1990’s. I read the Grand Junction Free Press during the week, The Daily Sentinel on Sundays, and occasionally the New York Times, the Denver Post, or the Rocky Mountain News. That is, if they’re lying around at the coffee shop for free. But for the most part, I get my news from NPR and various sources on the Web. My favorite news sites after NPR is actually the Sydney Morning Herald and the Philippine Daily Inquirer. The latter is fairly obvious, while the Morning Herald is just an extremely well-written and thoughtful broadsheet, with insights about the world from a non-US lens. I devoured the paper during the time I spent in Sydney several years ago and came home with a bunch of clippings. It’s a useful and informative look at world events from the perspective of a Western nation that’s not the US, one with an eye towards Asia and who recognizes that the Asia-Pacific region is where we’ll see the most action over the next century.

But again, I read that online. While I love the tactile nature of newsprint (minus the inky smudges they leave on my fingers and any white fabric within touching distance), it’s much cheaper and easier for me to catch the day’s news and analysis online, where I spend most of my day anyway.

Today’s journalists and other media professionals, including freelance writers who still derive most of their income from offline sources, would do well to begin learning more about writing for the Web. Whether it’s starting a blog at your newspaper or on your own, or perhaps starting your own Web site focusing on anything from snarky political commentary to selling your baseball cards, the best way to soak up the free education provided by the wild wild Web is to just jump in and join the fray. Start your own media empire. Create the kind of content you’ve always wanted to read and write, as opposed to the tightly circumscribed text you’re required to churn out for your boss or editor.

Don’t get caught up in any romantic fantasies about The Front Page and the dying art of newspaper writing. I love it as much as the next journalist, but I’m pragmatic enough to know that the future of information sharing, even literary journalism, lies in the electronic frontier. The last thing you want to do is to get left behind while the rest of the world spins away in that digital vortex without you.

Two in one!

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I got two bylines in the local paper today: my regular weekly column and a feature article on Frank R. Hayde, a friend of mine who recently published his first solo work, The Mafia and the Machine: A Story of the Kansas City Mob. (He co-authored a book about Zion National Park a few years ago. It’s available for sale at all U.S. National Park bookstores as part of the Story Behind the Scenery series.) Frank’s currently a park ranger at Colorado National Monument but had somehow managed to find time to research and write a history of the Kansas City Mafia and its ties to local politics.

And I complain about not having enough time to do everything.

Had a fantastic conversation with Tom Acker, a professor of Spanish at Mesa State College and a well-known immigration activist. KEXO, the only local station that broadcasts Spanish-language programming, is threatening to pull all of that if they can’t bring their advertising revenues for the programs to $15,000/month. They’re asking for a monthly “sponsorship” of $500 from at least 20 businesses in order to keep the lights on for Alex Martinez and Esmeralda Martinez, the two DJ’s who run the shows. Acker is a fantastic resource for just about anything you want to know about immigration and the local Hispanic community; I’m feeling a little overwhelmed by the magnitude of the issue, the fact that — according to Tom — 20% (!!) of the local population is Hispanic (when I thought we were talking single-digits here) and that they’re so invisible, despite their purported numbers.

I hope to learn more as Tom introduces me to others in the community familiar with the issues at stake. I have a feeling there’s a huge amount of information about minority issues in our region that remains hidden — deliberately or not — from the rest of us.

Homebound

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Still at home, still feeling weirdly lethargic. The prednisone may be to blame, perhaps combined with the lingering fatigue from all the tests that I subjected my body to last week. Oh, and the ten-hour, one-way drive to and from Scottsdale. (Although, really, I shouldn’t complain…for numerous reasons, B. did the entire drive both ways, so he should be feeling it as much as I. The man is a saint and the best husband ever. And no, he didn’t pay me to say that.)

Did discover some awesome blogs while trolling around the Internet this morning. Deborah Siegel, a feminist academic and author, keeps a funny, informative blog with bits about feminist happenings on the Internet and beyond. Her new book (published just a few weeks ago), Sisterhood, Interrupted, sounds fascinating, so if you’re in the market for an intelligent, insightful take on the contemporary feminist movement, check her pub out.

She’s also turned me on to Blogging Feminism, a blog of sorts chronicling the various feminist-related blogs around cyberspace. I haven’t had much time to explore it much, but it looks to be a combo blog/activist community shared by several writers, with the intent to discuss and critique the use of blogs as a means not only of personal expression but to exchange ideas about feminism and how the movement can blossom in the globalized, virtual space of the Internet.

Yet one more site I discovered (not a blog) is Skirt! magazine, a feminist journal based in the Southeast that I wish I had known about when I still lived in the city that haunts me to this day, Columbia, South Carolina (deep sigh). Anyhoo, I love that it has personal essays as well as academically-oriented writings on so-called women’s issues. I love that many of the writers are from the South, a region not especially well-known as being a bastion of feminist critical thought. And I love that, in its skirt!alerts page, the editors urge readers to “invest in the memory and work of the late journalist Daniel Pearl” by contributing to the Daniel Pearl Foundation.

Speaking of which, a book I can now take off my reading list is Bernard-Henri Levy’s Who Killed Daniel Pearl? Seriously scary book, almost as much as Mariane Pearl’s account of the kidnapping and murder of her husband. It’s written in a decidedly odd way, as if Levy had scribbled everything down in real-time, in a stream-of-consciousness exercise, and then submitted the whole manuscript to his publisher without editing a word. That’s not to say that it’s not good, although the style can be a little confusing at times. But Levy does have some frightening theories about the possible suspects behind Pearl’s murder that begs the question, “Now, why are we in Iraq again and not pursuing Pakistan?”

MRA

Crusty Face

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That’s me, post-allergy attack. B. and I went to Scottsdale for some tests at the Mayo, and while things turned out pretty much as we’d hoped (well, the tests came back positive, so it didn’t exactly turn out the way I hoped…which was that everything would come back negative and I’d forget in the ensuing euphoria that I’d just spent five years and thousands of dollars thinking I had a disease that I actually…didn’t), the finale wasn’t so memorable.

You know how, every time you go in for any kind of procedure, everyone around you asks, “Are you allergic to [insert medication/ingredient here]?” My stock answer is always, “Not that I know of,” because it’s true. I know I’m allergic to cats, and I know I don’t react well to soy and a million other products, but I usually assume that the doctor or tech or nurse is not going to be shooting me up with cat dander. So, yeah, I don’t think I’m allergic to [insert medication/ingredient here], but that’s just a wild guess.

Did you know that wild guesses can bite you in the ass?

So as it turns out, I’m allergic to the iodine contrast media they use in CAT scans. And here I thought that the enormous amount of barium sulfate solution they had me guzzle down in a short period of time just before the scan was the worst of it. At least the nausea subsided fairly soon after I hopped on the table. My allergy attack, however, was just biding its time before it exploded fairly alarmingly all over my poor face.

Long story short, rather than celebrating the end of my visit to the Mayo with a nice dinner at the hotel and maybe a DVD, we ended up rushing to the ER. We spent several hours sitting around in an examining room, waiting for the prednisone to take effect. (And the irony was not lost on us…the fact that, earlier in the day, the good Mayo doctor had cautioned me against using steroids, that I should avoid them as much as possible, and that they should only be used as a last resort. And I nodded eagerly because I hate, absolutely despise steroids, and was only too happy to have a medical professional validate that belief. But when it comes to my poor face…ahhh, just pump me up, baby, ‘cause I’m so vain.)

It’s not so bad now. My face no longer feels as if it’s in flames, and it doesn’t look like I’d submerged it in boiling water. The steroids — fortunately, it’s only for a few days — appear to be working, although the Benadryl sends me into sleepy fits. I fell asleep at Borders the other day with a cup of coffee in my hand! But s’okay. I suppose this is my punishment for being so damn vain.

On a different note, I discovered a new love: Punk Planet magazine. And of course, seeing as I’m just discovering it (at the aforementioned Borders in Scottsdale), it’s only fitting that it turns out to be the publication’s last issue, owing to severe financial difficulties the org went through following the abrupt bankruptcy of its distributor. Damn damn damn. I love these indie mags, and it seems that each week, another one bites the dust. I love the irreverence and the reviews of original music, films, zines, and books, art that I would never have discovered otherwise. I love that there are other people out there who are just as confused, seekers like me who have a hard time believing that this is all there is. People who sometimes have this overwhelming desire to just crawl under the covers and see if the secret of life is hidden somewhere in the fraying threads of our decades-old pillows. People who have no fucking clue why we should even care about 1,000-thread count sheets, when all we’ll do is sleep off another empty day under them.

MRA

Journalism at its best

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Yes, it’s been a month (over!) since I last posted. And no, I don’t want to hear about it.

And now for something completely different…

One of the freelance writers whose career I follow (and am constantly inspired by) is Mridu Khullar. She’s an Indian journalist based in Delhi, a city I love for its vibrancy and life, made all the more stark by the daily reminders of the impermanence of both. She used to publish a weekly (?) e-newsletter for freelancers called WritersCrossing, but now she’s focused solely on her work and occasionally finds the time to post on her blog.

A little while ago, she decided that she wanted to concentrate her career solely on writing that would make a difference, stories that were close to her heart. She’s since done a fantastic job, publishing stories on the aftermath of the Asian tsunami, the plight of India’s HIV widows, and, recently, a woman-only newspaper in India.

Khullar was interviewed on NPR‘s On the Media regarding that last story. It’s a relatively quick listen, about two minutes long, and is worth listening to, especially if you’re interested in international women’s rights and their contributions to global and local media.

And one more media-related story: I saw A Mighty Heart with B. on Friday. I’d read the book a few weeks ago in anticipation of seeing the film and was blown away not only by the narrative, but also by Mariane Pearl herself. Self-possessed, fiercely intelligent, with a phenomenal strength that Angelina Jolie could only hint at, she comes across as in her book as being in firmly in control of her emotions, despite the rapidly crumbling world around her.

B. and I were in Africa at the time of Daniel Pearl‘s kidnapping, and I remember being mesmerized — as was everyone else in the world — by the story as it unfolded over the following weeks. By the time the news broke that his body had been found, we had been in India for five weeks and were preparing to leave. I’m not sure why I was so compelled to follow the story, besides the fact that we were hyper-aware of al-Qaeda everywhere we went (rumors abounded when we were in Dar es Salaam that bin Laden was hiding in Tanzania, and then the same rumors followed us to Delhi). I imagine I felt the same as most everyone did, captivated as we were by this young, idealistic, handsome idealist who pursued the truth and died because of it.

Asra Q. Nomani, Pearl’s colleague and [unfortunately] a minor character in the film, wrote a sad review of it for the Washington Post, lamenting the disappearance of Pearl both literally and in the film. It’s a thought-provoking article, and while I don’t necessarily agree with all of her points (I do think that telling the story from Mariane’s point of view was necessary, allowing the viewer a glimpse of the desperation and frustration the searchers must have felt, with Danny having vanished without a trace), she obviously cares very deeply about the tragedy of her friend and former colleague.

The film reminded me again of the power of the media, and how at its best it illuminates the finest of the human race while revealing truths lesser men and women are too afraid to confront. The idea of creating dialogue to heal the ills of the world is the main thought I carried away from both the book and the film, and I think Daniel Pearl — the champion of dialogue as an instrument of peace — would have liked that.

MRA