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By Alex Horvath / The Californian
By VALERIE SCHULTZ, Contributing columnist
It's early Tuesday morning, the last possible moment to send my weekly column proposal to my patient editor, and I've got nothing. I keep a calendar of my column topics, and I've built a weird nest in the corner of my desk out of little pieces of paper with scribbles of ideas, but at the moment, I'm blank. I have the privilege of writing a published piece every week, which at least three people I know read, so it seems ungrateful to imply that writing is some sort of burden. The least I could do is have a fresh idea.
Of course, it's been over 10 years of weekly columns. But that's no excuse for the dry desert in my mind: Life goes on, the world changes, new things are invented and old things are discovered, stuff happens. Ideas are everywhere -- at the dinner table, in the news, in the workplace. They come during a sleepless night, from the curve balls of life, at the suggestion of a reader. Ideas abound. Every idea, however, is not a column. Some thoughts are only a sentence long. Some topics are exhausted in a hundred words or less. Some ideas turn out to be boring.
The search for a column idea can be like an excursion into the mind of the late Andy Rooney, who sometimes started his ruminations with "Did you ever wonder ... ?" He would riff from there. The columnist can fill in that blank in a general way -- Did you ever wonder how MacGyver became a verb? -- or in a personal way -- Did you ever wonder how much money I spend on insulin each month for my diabetic dog?
Columnists can borrow the Seinfeld approach: "What is the deal with ... ?" The general fill-in-the-blank might be something like: What is the deal with World Water Day? The dire need for foster parents? Mass shootings in America? And the personal, something like: What is the deal with these hot flashes? My gluten-free daughter? My dad's failing heart? I have written all these columns.
Sometimes people ask me if I am assigned topics by the staff at the paper. On mornings like this, I wish that were true. Every now and then I am asked to address a certain topic, but mostly, as a freelancer, I have the wild freedom to write about anything I want. What a blessing, and what a responsibility! I treat seriously the chance to appeal to a reader's heart, or to change a reader's mind, or to invite a reader's empathy. But this blessing is, every now and then, also a curse, because at this moment, in spite of my desperate casting about, there seems to be nothing new under the sun.
Columnists can seek to educate (genetic engineering in salmon), to commiserate (an adult child missing Thanksgiving), to provoke (the death penalty, or anything gay), or to amuse (flatulence). We look for ideas in world headlines, current events, the community calendar, historical markers, social trends, political fights, health matters or injustices of all kinds. We muse about personal tragedy, life milestones, meaningful experiences, significant relationships and, in my case, children, children, children. My poor daughters have been scrutinized and editorialized by their own mother. They have had every stage of their development examined in print, and they have been wonderfully good sports. While I'm at it, I should also thank, and apologize to, my suffering spouse, my extended family, and every friend I've ever had, a few of whom have stopped being my friend due to something I've written.
You can't please all the people all the time, as Abraham Lincoln, or maybe Bob Dylan, said. Which brings up the responsibility of the columnist to verify facts and quotes, a task the Internet has made much simpler than the public library resources I relied on at the beginning of my freelancing days. Apparently this quote is mistakenly attributed to Lincoln. Even if nobody famous actually said it, every columnist knows this. It is a lesson usually learned at some personal cost. We strive for honesty and clarity and good writing, but we are sometimes scorned rather than praised. It's in the job description: The praise is lovely, the criticism stings, and we grow thicker skins the more we write. We are grateful for the unique challenge and chance to say what we mean, to shed a little light, perhaps to connect with a reader in a new and helpful, or possibly thought-provoking, or possibly irritating, way. Readers are the reason columnists get to write columns, which should start with a decent idea, explore its implications, and end with some insight gained. By next week, I may come up with one. The desert may bloom.
These are the opinions of Valerie Schultz, not necessarily those of The Californian. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.