you, the columnist
By Dave Lieber
NSNC Education Foundation Secretary
I wasn’t a columnist when I arrived, but was one when I left. While on a break from the conference seminars, I got the call that I had been hired as the new metro columnist at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. You know why I got the job? It’s cause I passed the urine test. (Did Jimmy Breslin have to pee in a jar in the early 1960s? I don’t think so.)
Went downstairs and told Sheila Stroup, Bill Tammeus, Jonathan Nicholas, Diane Ketcham, Big Bob Hill, Steve Clark, Cathy Gillentine, Bill Campbell and the other regulars what happened. Of course, they toasted. (Do I even need to mention that?) Then went out to dinner with my new friend, Jeff Zaslow. (Yeah, that was two bestsellers ago.) Is there a better way to get a columnist job? I don’t think so!
Looking back (another cliché alert), I realize that those hours that I spent at that Portland conference (oh yeah, it was called a convention back then before we got fancy) were among the most important in my life. Sure, I had been studying the art of column writing since I was 14 years old, but 22 years later, I learned what I REALLY needed to know at that conference.
All this is my way of saying the following, quite bluntly: If you aren’t going to Mike and Mardi Leonard’s conference in July in Bloomington, you are, as we used to say at my previous job at the Philadelphia Inquirer, a wackjob. (Yeah, a columnist is NEVER supposed to insult his or her audience, but actually, I want you to be the best you can be, and a few dollars shouldn’t stand in the way.)
You can get more out of these sessions in three days than you can out of a decade of anything else. (Think I’m fooling? Ask former NSNC President Suzette Standring, who built an entire career off what she learned at these conferences – read her fantastic book The Art of Column Writing.)
Looking at my notes from ’93 from Jonathan Nicholas’ conference (former Portland Oregonian columnist and 2009 Will Rogers Humanitarian Award winner), I can see that the lessons I learned in those few days have literally carried me for the 17 years worth of columns that followed thereafter.
Let me share a sampling of those notes:
Jack Hart, then the writing coach for the Oregonian, spoke of how we needed to relearn how to tell stories. “People crave stories,” he explained. “But true storytelling techniques are quite rare in newspapers.”
Tell me about it, Jack.
“Ninety nine percent of newspaper stories are actually reports,” he said. “Many writers spend more time on story getting than on storytelling,” he said.
And so, I went on to Texas, and became, at least in my estimation, one of the best storytellers that state ever saw. All I did was follow Jack’s teachings.
Then a journalism teacher at the University of Oregon – I think her name was Lauren Kessler, but forgive me because it’s been 17 years – taught us that women stopped reading newspapers. “Women don’t see themselves when they pick up daily papers,” she said, according to my notes. “The way stories are framed, they distance themselves from women readers.”
She said “pale males” were writing columns and women couldn’t relate.
“Connect rather than dictate,” she said. (Clearly, she was ahead of her time.)
In the elevator afterward, a bunch of the pale males were clearly upset. I made a silent promise to myself that I would start out and go the opposite way. I went to Fort Worth and made a determined effort to write for women. No surprise then, that after nine months of struggling as a divorced Jewish liberal Democrat from New York to fit in with readers who were overwhelmingly conservative Baptist, Republican, family-oriented, native Texans, I had failed miserably. But then a women’s club president, who caught on to what I was trying to do, latched on to me and fixed me up with one of her club members — Karen, her two kids and their psycho dog. I fell in love, proposed to them in a column, won the NSNC’s top award for that column the next year and we’ve been happily married for 15 years ever since. (Thank you, Professor Kessler!)
Herb Caen, the first NSNC Hall of Fame honoree, spoke to us in Portland: “All of us want a common experience,” he said. It was a columnist’s job to provide it, he said. And I tried.
I have pages and pages of more notes from the conference, and I could go on. But the point is, one conference, just one, sent me on the path toward excellence. I listened. I learned. I took notes. And I remembered.
If you don’t have the money for this conference, so what?
I didn’t either.
But that didn’t stop me from attending, learning and going on to achieve my lifetime dreams.
And there’s more to come.
I know, ’cause I’m going to Bloomington.
Visit Dave’s website at davelieber.org and see all the cool stuff he’s into.