By Lisa Smith Molinari
National Society of Newspaper Columnists
Ever had one of those days when everything just falls into place?
Yeah, me neither.
The ever-increasing demands of the 21st Century have made time management more difficult for everyone, including columnists.
Columnists no longer sit quietly in the air-conditioned comfort of their newspaper offices, peacefully tapping out their columns while they wait for calls from their literary agents. No one brings them coffee, no one publicizes for them, and no one hands them big fat advance checks.
Why? Because columnists are not just columnists anymore. We are also freelancers, editors, bloggers, authors, and public speakers. Many of us have “day jobs,” and others are stay-at-home-parents who write from kitchen desks that are shared with sticky resident grade schoolers, brooding teenagers, and finicky felines.
And today, as I try to muster the self-discipline to churn out another weekly column in the midst of our chaotic family life, I wonder if one day, I simply won’t have it in me anymore.
For inspiration, I turn to those who have come before. Those columnists who, despite it all, wrote prolifically without excuses.
There’s NSNC’s patron saint, Will Rogers, who in 1926, turned his weekly column into a daily feature for The New York Times. Every day, Rogers sent his unique written observations to his editor via telegram. “Will Rogers Says” was syndicated to nearly 40 million readers between 1922 and 1935.
Twin sisters, Pauline Phillips and Eppie Lederer, otherwise known by their respective pen names, Abigail Van Buren and Ann Landers, separately penned “Dear Abby” and “Ask Ann Landers” seven days a week from the mid-1950s until 2002. Pauline Phillips’ daughter, Jeanne Phillips, who writes “Dear Abby” today, showed us her boundless energy at our 2016 NSNC Conference in L.A., where Phillips gave a meticulously-prepared keynote speech, then chatted with us until late into the evening in the hospitality suite.
Mike Royko wrote a daily column for the Chicago Daily News, Chicago Sun-Times, and Chicago Tribune from 1964 until 1997, and received the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 1972. Of Royko’s incredible productivity, author and broadcaster Studs Terkel said, “He is possessed by demons.”
Lewis Grizzard, a southern humorist who wrote columns for over two decades before his untimely death at age 47, likened the pressure of writing daily columns to “being married to a nymphomaniac… it’s a whole lot of fun for the first week.”
Art Buchwald wrote columns three times a week from 1950 until 1986, when he reduced it to twice weekly until shortly before his death in 2007. He also produced thirty books, and won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 1982. “My God, he wrote nine zillion columns,” said Ben Bradlee, once executive editor of the Washington Post, of the famously sharp-witted political satirist.
Herb Caen wrote a quirky local daily column for the San Francisco Chronicle for almost 60 years. In 1996, Caen received a Pulitzer Prize special award for “extraordinary and continuing contribution as a voice and conscience of his city.” In a book about Caen’s life, Conrad Barnaby described Caen’s work as “more than 16,000 columns of 1000 words each … an astounding and unduplicated feat, by far the longest-running newspaper column in the country.”
After writing columns for $3 a piece on the typewriter in her bedroom for her neighborhood newspaper, housewife Erma Bombeck struck a deal – $50 for three columns a week – in 1965 with the Dayton Journal Herald. By 1985, Bombeck’s thrice-weekly column, “At Wit’s End,” was published in over 700 newspapers, she was making twice-weekly appearances on “Good Morning America,” and she had penned 11 best-selling books. And in 1992, while still writing her columns and books, she began daily home dialysis for hereditary kidney disease, a condition she had kept secret for years.
Recounting the incredible stories of our columnist heroes and heroines should give us all the kick in the pants we need to keep plugging away at our unique craft. But if you’re still not feeling inspired, perhaps this last humorous anecdote will jolt your senses:
During the 2012 NSNC Annual Conference in Macon, Georgia, attendees listened to a story about a prostitute who once propositioned the late columnist Lewis Grizzard in a bar in Mexico. “For one hundred American dollars I do anything you want!” she is supposed to have said. Grizzard exclaimed “Thank you, Jesus!” then pulled out a one hundred dollar bill, handed it to the prostitute and instructed, “Here. Go upstairs and write my next column.”