“Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.”— H.L. Mencken.
So, think you want to be a columnist, do you? Think that might be fun? Are you pretty sure you could do it better than the folks who do?
Well, that’s all right; it really is. Golf looks easy, too. And what could be so hard about chess?
There certainly are lots of folks who write columns—for newspapers, for magazines, for Internet web sites—and some of them are even good at it.
And while I am in no way an expert on that subject, I have been doing it pretty much continuously for 42 years and hence, believe that I can say without fear of contraction, that if you want people to like you, if you want to make friends and bask in the warmth of knowing that your efforts are welcomed by an adoring public, then column writing is not for you.
The truly late great columnist Lewis Grizzard once said, “A little irreverence is always important to being a columnist,” and I think that is true. The world, after all, is not a particularly nice place, and if you are only moved to write nice, sweet, platitudinous musings about it, the odds are pretty good that you are either a dullard or not paying attention—or both.
But, whether true or not, I can
say with some certainty that’s never been my problem.
Way back in the late summer of 1977 when this self-same newspaper column was birthed at the then truly fine little daily newspaper in Clarksdale, I had the audacity to name it the “Different Drummer” taken from a quotation by the American poet and essayist Henry David Thoreau: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music he hears, however measured or far away.”
When one sets out to write an opinion column, he or she is pretty well asserting that his or her opinions are worth sharing and he or she intends to express them in a way that will make others choose to devote the time to read them.
Some of those people are right. Some of them, well, write stuff that occupies space in some newspapers, a fact that no doubt augments the already elevated egos that the practice of columny itself requires.
However, not that I should, mind you, but I do not have and am not likely to “get the big head,” as my father was wont to say. My humility is virtually ensured by the existence of a single group of peoplereaders. You and folks like you.
Write a newspaper column and people will let you know what they think about you and your opinion. And they are not timid. To wit, as the lawyers like to say:
• One gent with whom I have had some dealings over the years wrote me, “I do not believe your lyin’ brain! (Critics love exclamation points.) It has destroyed your eyesight, sadly.” I would tell you what perceived myopia he was referencing, but I have no idea.
• A little better-known fellow who carved out legal and political careers by race-baiting in the Delta, once felt moved to call me “the reincarnation of Nathan Bedford Forrest” after I wrote a column calling him out for exactly what he had been doing. I considered that one a badge of honor.
• Conversely, some peckerwood absent the decency and courage to sign his name, not long ago dropped a note just to call me “a liberal, communist (n-word)- lover.” I am sure his mother would be proud.
• I get a whole slew of letters signed “concerned citizen” or “concerned reader,” every single one of which was written by a damned liar. If the folks who wrote them were really concerned, they would either try to do something about whatever riled them up or have the guts to identify themselves while asking me to do it for them.
• A guy in Brandon who has never met me, nonetheless said, “It is my desire and hope that Ray Mosby lives to see the day when his grandchildren suffer racial discrimination because they are white.” My grandchildren? Really?
• Some joker in McComb is convinced my “hippie days of drugs and marijuana have affected (me) adversely,” which is odd, since I had few hippie days, little marijuana and no drugs, at all.
• Another profile in courage who declined to identify himself called me “feckless,” accused me of creating “fake news” and allowed as how, “You, the Clarion-Liar, USA Today, CNN, NYT, WAPO and the basket full of other poseurs like you are now exposed to the world for what you are.” You reckon? By an unsigned personal letter? (I’m thinking that cowboy could keep a first-rate psychiatrist busy for a year or two.)
When the really terrific Dave Barry, who wrote humor columns for first the Miami Herald and then in syndication quite sensibly decided to retire, a reportertype asked him what he planned to do thereafter. “What I look forward to is continued immaturity followed by death,” he told him.
Sounds about right.
Ray Mosby is editor and publisher of the Deer Creek Pilot in Rolling Fork.