The lowliness of the long distance writer

Today’s column marks 325 Sun columns published to date, roughly 180,000 words, a proper moment to reflect on my experience of the last six years and of writing a regular column, overall.

An opinion piece is a peculiar (some might say lowly) animal, and a short-lived one at that. Unlike great novels or histories with story lines and wisdom which pass through many generations (think of Dickens or Balzac), the duration of a weekly column can be counted in minutes, or if particularly memorable, days. This is its nature; eclipsed by the rapid passage of time and events, a column’s endurance is proportionate to its relevance.

Writing for a local, hometown newspaper means coming face-to-face with my readers on a regular basis. I run into you in the produce aisle at the market, on line at the bank and post office, ordering green tea at the coffee shop…everywhere! “I like your columns, Larry,” some of you say, which pleases me, but I learned long ago not to ask which ones, sparing all alike the discomfort of forgetfulness. While the impact of a given column may linger, its content fades more quickly than newsprint yellows.

This ephemeral quality is singular to columns, and without it I suppose I’d never be able to move on to writing the next one. Though my subjects are often deeply felt and at times all-consuming, traversing from one topic to another is as much the life-blood of the weekly writer as it is for the weekly reader.

I enjoy reading the work of other columnists and sensing how they cope with the relentlessness of the form. In general, a limited word-count is imposed by editors and advertisers with only so many inches to devote to rambling opinions. In my case I stick to about 550 words, enough to fit a half-page and not require the reader to “jump” to another page to finish reading what I have to say. I enjoy the challenge, not unlike that posed a painter working on a canvas of fixed size. This discipline insists on creativity, and vise-a-verse: to write plainly in an entertaining and readable manner whilst paying unswerving attention to beginning, middle and end, never exceeding the space available.

When it comes to content, I’m enormously grateful that my editors give me free rein. I can contain my words, but must confess to being largely incapable of containing my mind and its enthusiasms. Topics find me; I need not search for events upon which to opine. When The Muse “whacks me upside my head” I write, and send my work in batches to the paper, building up a queue for publication. Before I began writing weekly columns, I challenged myself to write a daily poem and did so for two years. Through that discipline I found stamina, self-insight and confidence.

This brings me to intention, for a columnist without intent is lost. In my case I harbor no pretensions to greatness, fame or fortune. I enjoy the prospect of leaving a body of work behind so that my grandchildren and their children might know who I was and how I thought. But my primary intention, forgettable as it may be, is to find meaning and illuminate it in such a way that you, dear reader, are drawn to seek meaning in your life.