Before I was a blogger, I was a columnist. I wrote columns for a couple of different college newspapers, as well as wearing an editorial hat or two, and I enjoyed the work. Sure, there’s the joy of getting paid for your work, although it was never much, but writing columns was just plain fun. It was even worth the occasional aggravation.
Now, those of you who’ve read your average college newspaper might ask yourself, “What the hell kind of aggravation could a columnist have?” That’s a fair question, and before I actually did the job, I would have said not much, because nobody reads columns anyway. Except, that’s not true. People do read them, believe it or not. Being a columnist was in many ways good preparation for blogging specifically, and navigating the Internet in general, because I learned quickly that people react to the weirdest things in print in the weirdest ways.
During my first year as a columnist—I was also the opinion page editor for this newspaper at the time—I had to get an unlisted phone number because of threats I received late at night (before caller ID was widespread, darn it). One of my other columnists had a stalker for five months, even after various security personnel got involved. I once spent 45 minutes being harangued by a gentleman for printing pornography in the paper because I chose to run a column about contraception. That guy was my favorite, because after he wound down, I told him I would be happy to print a letter or even a guest opinion from him on the subject, only to be told that he couldn’t do that because his name would be on the letter and he didn’t want to open himself up to ridicule. Of course, he didn’t mind heaping allegations on me and my staff, all of whom had their name and picture on every column they wrote. To top everything else off, I wrote a column that made my then-girlfriend so angry she didn’t speak to me for three days. She married me anyway, so it couldn’t have been too bad, but still.
Some of this stuff wasn’t as fun as it sounds. However, with a little perspective, I learned to appreciate it for what it was. The audience I was writing for, by and large, didn’t respond to pure sensationalism. Writing shock material just to write it had very little effect, although it occasionally had some interesting side effects, such as the time I pulled a column because it skated a little past criticism of then-President Clinton and into calling for his assassination, which I understand is something of a faux pas. No, people tended to get riled up over articles that called into question their basic principles, or what they thought those principles were. I found that writing inflammatory material was almost de rigueur, but writing thoughtful material could land you in hot water. Not always, but enough to make things interesting.
After a while, once I got into my second tenure as a columnist at a different newspaper, I even started to see it as a backhanded compliment. It’s easy enough, after all, to simply dismiss something you completely disagree with from the get-go if it seems like the same old hot air from the same old blowhards. You tend to dismiss them out of hand. What happens, though, if somebody drags out the same old arguments but says something that makes sense to you, something that makes you go, “I never thought of that?” That’s a little harder to dismiss.
Maybe, if it makes enough sense, you start to question a little. You start to wonder, “Hey, if this dingbat’s right about this thing, maybe there are other things here that are right, or at least not as wrong as I thought.” You start to doubt, and doubt is a slippery creature. In cultures where doubt is not a prized commodity in its public, feeling it, even if just a little, can be seen as a threat. And what do we do when we’re threatened? We flee, or fight back. That’s nature for you.
So, when I would get assailed for a column, I looked at it as a compliment, even more than the responses from folks who agreed with me. Regardless of whether the intellectual content of what I’d written was high, or even there at all, I felt privileged that someone felt strongly enough about it to respond, even when the response was dunder-headed in the extreme. Many were, but some weren’t, and those were the best of all. To get a response from someone who took the time to make an argument for another side and bring logic and reason to the discussion… sheer gold.
Writing a column—or a blog, for that matter—is an exercise in shouting into the darkness. You hope there are others out there, people who are willing to find common ground, even if they don’t agree with whatever viewpoint you’re spouting. Columnists and bloggers are just like any other writers in that they have something to share, and sharing only works when there are others to share with. At its best, this particular practice of writing columns and blogs and essays is an attempt at building communities out of words and ideas, sending these passages out like fireflies, hoping to light the way for us to meet up and sit a spell. It’s a lot of fun, and sometimes it works, but even when it doesn’t…well, all writing is an act of hope, isn’t it?