This column is about writing a column. It’s my invitation to you, the reader, to come backstage for a little tour. A tour of … my brain. Interesting? Perhaps. Spooky? Likely. Worth the price of admission? Let’s not go nuts. Ultimately, though, that’s for you to decide. Come along …
Each writer does it differently, first off. “To each his/her own” is nothing if not entirely applicable in the world of writing. Some writers keep meticulous journals and jot down notes throughout their days, notes on people or situations they find interesting, material they think could be sculpted into illuminating commentary on the human condition. They’re disciplined. They’re insightful and thought-provoking. They’re what writers like me call “humongous dorks.”
Truth be told, I secretly admire those writers. I’m envious, even. To find a way to practice writing on any kind of regular schedule is difficult enough if you live with just a laptop in an echo-free room in Patagonia. Introduce the trappings of real life—kids, groceries, oil changes and the like—and you’re lucky if you get four or five solid minutes in a row. I recognize that there are writers who are adorned with the trappings of real life and still carve out regular writing time. They’ve hardened their spirits against something that continues to plague me: Wikipedia.
It’s the bane of my writing existence. Let’s say that by some magical chunk of unbelievable luck I have an hour of free time during the day. I’m automatically drawn to my computer. The urge to write is writ large in the circuitry betwixt my brain and my fingertips. So I open my computer, I open Word, I open …damn Wikipedia. By the end of the hour, I know all about anarchy in America in the early 20th century. I know how spark plugs work. I know the names of those on West Ham United’s first team squad. What I don’t know is why, once again, I let that repository of collective knowledge knock me off my square. “I’m a writer, damn it,” I mumble, “not a researcher of random shit.” Though if that were an actual job, I’d certainly apply.
Next, a topic. What to write about, what to write about? There’s a general misconception, methinks, that the reader believes the writer brain is overflowing with interesting and even enlightening things to impart to the public. Or else, why write? Right? Ha. Maybe one out of every 10 pieces I write—whether that be a Nooga.com column, a short story or lame-o attempts at getting my novel off the ground—is driven entirely by the muse. I love when that happens; don’t get me wrong. That’s when I really feel like I thought I would feel every day after I decided to become a writer. But then, I learned a long time ago you can’t wait on the muse. You just have to write.
Now, picking a topic for an opinion column is a little like picking out your favorite grain of sand off your favorite beach. There are so many things to have opinions about (not to mention write about) that it short-circuits my brain—to the point where nothing out of literally everything in the entire world seems good enough to write about. This is where we writers get involved in pitched existential battles that take place inside our skulls. Do I make this one about something serious? Gun control? The future of the country? Something lighthearted or maybe an interview with somebody local? Round and round and round.
Then comes the easy part. Writing it. And when I’m done, I send it in. And then it goes up and the entire world, ostensibly, can read it.
Advice I’d give to any aspiring writer, but also advice I hardly ever heed, is, “Never read the comments.” Simple enough on the surface, but I’ve never met a writer who doesn’t want to know what his/her readers think about what s/he wrote. Even if one is expecting to be utterly shredded. The longer I write, the more I find it to be true that a negative reaction to one of my columns is much preferred to no reaction at all. That is to say, when it comes to the comments section underneath anything I write, I first look for “Brilliant!” “Beautiful!” “Bravo!” This is rare. Then I look for the mean stuff. The “What idiot gave this even bigger idiot a computer so he could write an idiotic column and make idiots out of the rest of us?” It doesn’t feel good, but at least the reader read the piece and had some kind of emotional response. Not the one I was going for, but I’ll take it. It sure beats silence.
Oh, and I forgot to mention one thing. Endings. Sometimes, it can be really, really hard to write the perfect ending.
Paul Luikart is a writer whose work has appeared in a number of places over the years. His most recent book, “Animal Heart,” is available now from Hyperborea Publishing. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.