by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
February 8, 2007
ABOUT WRITING A COLUMN
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- A few weeks ago, I found myself in a Brooklyn wine bar participating in the Sunday Salon - where creative writers are invited to read their work. The audience was young and hip and I was remarkably out of place.
One man read a chapter from his memoir; it was about getting married in Vegas while high on heroin. A woman read from her novel-in-progress; it was about confronting a sheaf of her late father's poems. There was a short story about the clientele of a coffee bar. And then there was me, a columnist from Vermont who alternates between writing about her life and progressive politics.
The experience started me thinking about column-writing and what it means. It's a good time to think about it - the field has recently experienced the loss of three of the art's very best practitioners - three very different writers, three very different personalities: Art Buchwald, Donald Murray and one of my idols, Molly Ivins.
Buchwald, who died at 81, was perhaps the most well-known. He was certainly the wealthiest of the three. He wrote humor brilliantly for decades, gently making fun of the powerful in Washington. In future years, though, he may be best known for his graceful death, which could serve as a model for all of us. When his kidneys failed, he cheerfully checked himself into a hospice, turned his room into a salon, and, when he didn't die after a few months, checked himself out, went home and continued writing and partying.
Murray, who died at 82, was a journalist and writing teacher. For many years he wrote a sensitive, deeply-felt weekly column about aging for The Boston Globe. Politics occasionally crept into his work, but from the viewpoint of an old World War II combat veteran who didn't want to see anyone else go through the hell he experienced fighting his way through Europe.
His niche was the perils and problems of growing older, and he took his readers on that journey with him. We, too, experienced some of the agony of his beloved wife Minnie Mae's slow decline from Parkinson's, her death, and the brave new sad life he created for himself afterwards.
Ivins, who died too soon at 62, wrote from a progressive stance with a biting wit that took no prisoners. She was a six-foot tall, red-headed, unapologetic, Texas left-wing icon syndicated in more than 300 newspapers. She was pure fire. She wrote about issues. She wrote to tell the truth. She wrote to kick the butts of people who bullied the less powerful. But she did it in a way that made people laugh, and she had a great time doing it.
Quoting Ivins is better than describing her. These are some of my favorites, taken from a memorial written by Matthew Rothchild of the Progressive: Of the Reagan Administration, she said, "Half of it was under average - the other half was under indictment." Of Pat Buchanan's culture-war speech at the 1992 Republican convention, she said, "It read better in the original German."
Writing a column is a responsibility, a creative act and a gift. To do it well, it helps to have a defined world-view and the experience to back it up. As Ivins said, "I believe in the Bill of Rights the way some folks believe in the Bible."
The gift all columnists get back is priceless: readers.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, and the debacle of the Bush Administration, it might be considered indulgent to write about anything but politics and the events that affect people's lives.
Ivins didn't often write about herself, but when she did, she had a damn good reason - like her campaign to get women next to a mammogram machine. It took the shadow of death to get Buchwald to start writing about the experience of living through his own wake, and about coming to the realization that death can be fun. Dying, he said, isn't hard compared with getting reimbursed by Medicare. Murray's life, of course, was his central topic.
For me, there's always a been a tension between politics, outrage and my refusal to allow the George Bushes of the world to contaminate my daily life. I write out of anger - over war, over hypocrisy, over the Bush Administration - and I write out of love - for my family, my country, my town, my daily life and - always - for the love of a good story. I continue to struggle for beauty and meaning in the world. Art is long, as they say, and President Bush, according to Ivins, is only a shrub.
Which brings me back to the wine bar. I read two pieces from my book. The first was about Andy Warhol coming to Brattleboro. It bewildered the audience. I could see from their blank faces that they didn't know much about Warhol's early underground days, or even what the phrase "small-town values" meant.
So just for the hell of it, and to knock the complacency out of them, I read a piece about the Iraq war - one I wrote in April 2003. It's a strong, passionate piece, an angry condemnation of the war. And, sadly, it's as relevant now as it was the day I wrote it.
Did I reach them? I don't know. I know I woke them up. As Ivins said, "To the barricades, team. And for Lord's sake, don't leave your sense of humor behind."