I’ve written a book, tentatively called Making Sense (I’m open to title suggestions since I’m not the world’s greatest title writer): a collection of newspaper columns and blog posts I’ve written over a 20-year span. I’ll post selections here once in a while as I make my way through the publishing maze, and I welcome your feedback.
To give you an idea of what Making Sense is about, I give you the Introduction:
I was so steaming mad after Dan Quayle’s “Murphy Brown Speech” in 1992 that I fired off my first ever letter to the editor. Attacking a fictional character for being a single mother was ridiculous all by itself, but that it was the Vice President who launched the attack in the name of “family values” made it personal. I’d had a baby without a wedding ring on my finger and my family values weren’t hurting anyone, least of all Dan Quayle.
I never imagined that letter would lead to a career writing a column and, later, a blog, but in a roundabout way, it did.
My writing for real and for money began in Clarion, Pennsylvania, a conservative, rural community 60 miles north of Pittsburgh. I moved there in 1991, and it took a while to adjust to the terrain and the politics. Appalachia’s rolling hills and business base – driven largely by coal, oil, and gas – were a stark contrast to my native Minnesota.
At first, I felt both at home and out of place. I never liked living in a city; I always preferred small towns. But I was not – by any stretch of the imagination – a Pittsburgh Steelers’ fan (I can’t forgive Super Bowl IX), and I grew up with the designated hitter. I did, however, grow to love the Pirates (when they’re not playing the Twins) and the Pittsburgh Penguins (despite beating the North Stars in game six of the 1991 Stanley Cup finals).
Two local newspapers continue to serve the Clarion area: The Derrick, out of Oil City, published six days a week, and The Clarion News, published twice weekly. The Derrick is the newspaper that published my Murphy Brown letter. Later that year, I wrote a few letters to the Clarion University student newspaper. Rodney Sherman was the editor, and like me, was a returning adult student pursuing a bachelor’s degree. Like minded in many ways except politics, Rodney and I became friends and partisan sparring partners.
Rodney also worked part-time as a news writer for The Clarion News, and upon graduating, moved into a full-time position. In 1996, he called and asked if I’d be interested in “writing once in a while” for the paper. That “once in a while” turned into a working interview for the lifestyles editor position. After two published articles, the editor offered me the job, starting at $12,000 a year. Not great pay for full-time work, but the health insurance was good and I was a single mother of two.
I was in charge of “good news,” writing features about interesting local people and taking photos of 1-year-olds for the First Birthdays section. I was also the engagements, weddings, and sports copy editor. Using grid paper, I laid out the Lifestyles, School, and Church pages on deadline days, and I rolled black and white film and developed photos in the dark room. It was the best job I ever had, and I got to know the community in a way only writing can do.
Each Thursday, the paper ran an editorial page. It featured an editorial, letters to the editor, and an op-ed column written by one of the two news writers or editor. Columnists, to me, were rock stars. On my bookshelves were collections of columns by Ellen Goodman, Molly Ivins, and Anna Quindlen, and I regularly read Leonard Pitts, Jr., Mark Murray, Dave Barry, Jeanne Marie Laskas, and even George Will. I admired the fluidity of column writing, and how columnists could tell a story or argue a point in 1,500 words or less.
Ten months after I was hired, the editor wanted me to start my own op-ed column. I objected, arguing that I had nothing to write about. But his wasn’t a request, and on July 10, 1997, my column (which I unimaginatively named “Been There, Done That”) appeared on page four. I wrote about weddings and how I was never a bridesmaid, always a bride. It drew a few laughs, mostly eyerolls, but my column writing got better as I gained confidence with the help of feedback from inside and outside the newsroom.
Letters and comments from readers were (usually) my favorite part about writing a column. Grief and family always drew the most positive and heartfelt responses. Columns about (my) politics or anything pertaining to (my interpretation of) the Bible were usually met with not such favorable criticism. Either way, I was in a conversation with readers, and for me, that was the whole point of writing a column.
Blogging was fairly new when I embarked on a personal goal to lose weight in 2005. To help me with the process, I created a blog in which I shared my frustrations, milestones, and goals with people who were also working through weight issues. My readers and other bloggers were my support network, and me theirs. Around the same time, I launched a writing blog, Zen Bag Lady, which was more in the vein of “Been There, Done That,” something that, by then, I was writing intermittently as a freelancer.
When I began selecting columns and blogs to include in this collection, I was focused on finding the “best” ones; the ones I liked the most and the ones that drew the most response from readers. Then a chance encounter with Bruce Springsteen, or at least his voice, put me on to a different focus.
Driving down the road one day and listening to NPR, I heard an interview with The Boss on Fresh Air. Terry Gross asked him if he felt the songs he’d written years ago have a different meaning now. He answered, “The wonderful thing about my job is you can revisit your 22-year-old self or your 24-year-old self any particular night you want. The songs pick up some extra resonance, I hope…And the songs themselves do broaden out as time passes and take on subtly different meanings, take on more meaning, I find.”
I went back to my columns and blogs and looked at them through the lens of what has changed, what has different meaning now, and what still resonates. I took into account my voice and my intention at the time of writing. Who was I? How did my life shape my words? Reading them now, what is my response? It allowed me to consider pieces that don’t necessarily reflect my current points of view, but I can see how they were being shaped. I also included pieces that I feel are not my best, but are still a work in progress.
Always and above all else, I put this collection together to keep the conversation going. You can start anywhere. Feel free to open this book and read a selection. Maybe you will find pieces that speak to you, make you think, wince, laugh, or cry, but mostly, I hope in reading my stories, you will consider who you were and who you are today.