Mulhall column: A milestone worth gratitude
It’s been six years since I began writing columns for the PI.
I thought maybe it had been five, but we all lost 2020.
There’s not a lot to writing a column, really, although in fairness I spent 2016 figuring the whole thing out. It’s not an English composition essay.
There was a time when a syndicated columnist would write for 30 or so years and hold on to a vintage IBM Selectric into the twilight of retirement, just in case the idea of publishing ever blossomed into something more than an anthology of past columns.
Of course, a nationally recognized byline and 30-year career make my six-year stint at the PI little more than a dalliance. Hardly a start, really. Even by PI standards. Nevertheless, I have picked up a few things along the way, mostly from readers’ feedback.
Many readers wonder how I find the time to write columns. I tell them technology has greatly expanded a writer’s mobility. Laptops, tablets and smartphones mean writing can occur almost anywhere, regardless of internet access. And that’s the way it should be, I think. Writing happens when it happens, not necessarily when you’re at an office or near a computer. I have written numerous columns on my phone, some from faraway places.
I’ve also learned that most people find writing difficult. I’m often asked how I do it, a question I think stems from the idea of writing 750 words, give or take, on a subject. Truth is, I too detest a word limit, but not for that reason.
A word limit is like defining the length of a piece of string. A string is as long as it is, and except for established editorial policy, so is a column. I usually write a lot more than I need. Chopping what’s written to get near the word limit can be a lot like packing all your college necessities into a ’66 Ford Mustang
Sometimes it doesn’t fit.
Others wonder where I come up with material. If you look at what’s happening in the world at any given time, column subjects are anything but slim pickings.
Even so, there have been months when I wasn’t particularly inspired to write about anything in the news. Oddly enough, sparkless news cycles sometimes triggered the columns I enjoyed writing the most. If everything’s fair game, and even for the occasional columnist like me this is generally so, there’s always a subject to write about, and occasionally a very good one.
Based on state and local election results, the stances I’ve taken haven’t always prevailed. Wolf reintroduction, Ascendigo, 480 Donegan … My track record on many such issues is dismal.
Nevertheless, those who take the time to talk to me about my column are usually quite supportive. True, the late Rusty Ford minced no words telling me not to quit my day job, but the torch and pitchfork crowd seems to have politely acquiesced to my column’s continued presence on the PI opinion page.
I take that as a sign many folks, at least locally, listen to views that don’t dovetail with their own, and as far as constructive discourse is concerned, that’s a good thing — beyond encouraging when you consider that a binary political party system may not actually be as universally polarizing as it usually seems.
The biggest takeaway is this: Reader feedback is one of the best things about writing a column.
In September 2020, I wrote a column titled “An Unlikely Poet” about James Dickey’s novel “Deliverance.” A few days later I received a lengthy email from a reader I’d never met. He shared college memories of classes taught by Dickey, who occasionally guest lectured for a professor friend at Wake Forest.
He also shared a lengthy anecdote about running into Dickey years later at an airport and reminiscing with the guy over a glass of scotch between flights.
Without betraying any confidence, suffice it to say he put together from personal knowledge and information revealed by Dickey that day the possibility, however remote, that Deliverance wasn’t completely fictional. Perhaps figuring he might never get another chance, he seized the moment and put the question to Dickey point blank: Is Deliverance autobiographical?
He said Dickey just smiled and sipped his scotch.
We swapped numerous emails after that, and although to this day I’ve never met the guy, it was good to see how a column in a small-town newspaper could create a connection where none existed.
Reader feedback isn’t always so positive, but it’s always valued.
Mitch Mulhall is a husband, father and longtime Roaring Fork Valley resident. His column appears monthly in the Post Independent and at PostIndependent.com.
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