It’s been almost a full year since I began writing “Collective Ink,” and I find myself reflecting on the unique aspects of this experience. Having been involved with newspapers since my early 20s, my byline has appeared above quite a few news stories and features.
I’ve learned about the pitfalls and perks of community publishing, and I’ve made my share of mistakes and connected with readers over stories they liked. It seems turning a piece in for publication should be a routine occurrence by now, but there’s something different about knowing my personal opinions and experiences will appear next to my photo.
In late March of last year, I fired off an email to several newspaper editors who had graciously agreed previously to run “Collective Ink.” The gist of the message: “I’ve done all the legwork I can think of, and I have 20 columns ready to run, and I really hope your readers like them, and I’m not at all sure I’m ready to put my work ‘out there’ in this context even though I’ve written for the public for years … but, uh, here they are, and thank you for your time.”
In my experience, there actually is very seldom a feeling of “ready” for something that means a great deal to me, and there have been challenges I didn’t expect with this project, and there were inspiring moments I didn’t anticipate, either. I thought I’d share some of those experiences with you in case any of you are planning to venture into uncharted territory this year.
First, I’ve learned to schedule time for my writing. It’s much harder to write a weekly column (and turn it in when I said I would) than I anticipated. I initially assumed the process would be a cakewalk during which I’d write about whatever interested me and have a ton of work banked so deadlines would never be an issue. After all, in my past professional life I had led two papers, and my staff had met all sorts of deadlines with an incredible amount of content all written and edited and combed through and polished for print. I had helped ready everything from obituaries to school submissions to stories covering local government. How difficult could it be to get one column out each week?
Let me just insert here the realization that this is how my thought process often goes these days. I think about the amount of work I could do, uninterrupted, in my 20s, and I assume that any small project I tackle now will proceed in the same rapid-fire fashion. Right? Wrong. Very, very wrong.
That’s because there are now two very significant, shall we say, considerations who demand about 98% of the time and attention I was putting into newspapers 10 years ago. They require three square meals each day and numerous snacks, and they need constant emotional support, and they must have 24/7 supervision because, in their state of developing judgment, they tend to make decisions that are a danger to themselves and others.
And there’s nothing I’d rather do than devote that energy to their wellbeing and development. It’s the joy of my life to watch them grow and discover, and, as a sidenote, my experiences with them often turn out to be great column material. But I have also had to learn to be realistic about the amount of writing I can do in this setting. Sometimes, I write a few columns ahead, but other times, I write weekly, and I try to set aside a specific time to work. I came up with that idea after hearing it from my friend, Joey English, who is also a columnist for several newspapers.
I’ve also learned that writer’s block is more of an issue with my columns than with, say, a feature. Despite the brevity of these pieces, I sometimes clam up, and I just … can’t … write. Maybe that’s because I’m writing in the first person and speaking directly to the reader. I have trepidations about how people will react to things I say, and I end up editing and rewriting my work far more than I’m used to. I’m still learning to just get it out there and trust that most people are fairly forgiving and won’t pick apart the message.
Finally, I have learned to pursue my whims. I’ve gotten the most response on columns that I really wasn’t sure would interest readers. For instance, I saw a lot of feedback on the piece where I discussed how to steam an artichoke — who knew people would want to dialogue that much about how to consume a spiny vegetable?
It feels strange to say I’m about to enter year two of this column writing endeavor. Nevertheless, the time has flown. I’m very appreciative of the editors who give me space in their papers and of the readers who take time to consume my work, and I look forward to seeing what this next year of writing produces.