The Elements Of A Column

When asked how I come up with ideas for my columns, I struggle to explain my creative process. Some of my columns are born full-grown, while my other children have to be nurtured and cultivated before being sent into the world. Sometimes the ghost of the “autowriter” enters me, and exits through my fingers on the keys. At other times, I struggle to express the thought of the week. But a forensic analysis of my columns will likely find that the threads that bundle them contain elements of poetry, music and books. I make reference to those things often, as I find a line from a song that fits an experience I’m trying to share, (“I get by, with a little help from my friends,”) or remember a character from a book whose traits are similar to someone I’ve observed outside of the pages; or use a poem to try to explain my sullen craft, or art.
Specific assignments for me are rare, but on those occasions, I adhere to the reporter’s “Ws:” who, what, when, where and why. And the “H”: how. But most of what I write is about my observations of the human condition, and my emotional response to what I’ve seen. I find that drawing from books I’ve read, songs I’ve heard and sung, and poetry, enables me to more effectively tell what I think of as “the story.”
I wrote a column inspired, in part, by a Pete Seeger song, and called it “Turn, Turn, Turn,” an homage to the song, and an illustration of the story. “I’m Growing Old,” a song from my youth, was the stimulus for a column of the same name, and “Musical Acceptance” was written to demonstrate my eclectic musical tastes. “The Beautiful Music of the Other” reinforced the theme of acceptance of the voices of other people and other cultures.
Poetry leapt onto my pages when I wrote of having recited for a stranger one of the two poems I’ve memorized: “Jenny Kiss’d Me.” Leigh Hunt’s poem powered the column “The Effect of the Poem.” My editors’ listing of New Years’ resolutions, one of which was to “write more poems,” was my inspiration for the column, “Resolution Number 8.” My own list of poets and poems was closed out by my statement that, “I have a life that sings with poetry and I need only arrange the words formed by my passage through it.”
When a niece marveled that I had more books than she did, I laughingly told her that I had gotten a good head start on her. My collecting of books began after I started to work as a page in the closed stacks of the University of Pittsburgh’s library. As a book reader and buyer, and “book pusher,” I was glad to see her social media post about a book I’d given to her when she graduated from high school. I draw from my well of remembered readings to water my own pages. A quote from Philip Roth’s novel, The Human Stain, leads off a column I wrote about my friend, “The Door Gunner;” in “April 1968,” I utilized the first line of Tillie Olsen’s short story, “I Stand Here Ironing,” to wed my memories to my reading. And “Set His Boat on the Wide Water” was my eulogy, of sorts, for the author, Pat Conroy.
I like the elements I draw on to craft my columns, but find it helps to spice up the offering with a dash of humor and a soupçon of tears and a squirt of the milk of human kindness.