Do Newspaper Columnists Dream of Electric Sheep?
Like Jimi Hendrix, Napoleon and Ned Flanders, my dad was a southpaw. He used to say he was ‘cack-handed’, his voice carrying the derogatory tone of the teachers who made him write with his right hand in primary school.
In that one phrase his anger at the world, at his difference, came closest to the surface.
When I started writing a column in the Saturday paper, cack-handed is exactly how I felt.
I was twenty-seven. I’d just published a book of short stories about travellers, browser histories and the artistic potential of photocopiers. Two years earlier, I’d tried to write a million words in 366 days (it was a leap year) and blogged about the process. I felt at home on the page and the monitor. I had a head of steam up. The word ‘prodigious’ had a pleasing ring.
But I didn’t subscribe to any newspapers. I might scan the sports page in a café, or do the Five Minute Quiz with colleagues, but for news? I had the internet. My daily read was directed by tweets and trusted bloggers. Dispatches from lifestyle columnists weren’t a big part of my Twitter feed (this was before they discovered Shelley Bridgeman, of course).
To my credit, I had seen the movie Dan in Real Life, in which Steve Carrell is a columnist on the cusp of being nationally syndicated. From this I learnt a good column can double as a good RomCom voiceover.
And when I sat down to write my first column, I realised I had read columns before, but in book form. Steve Braunias’s Fish of the Week. That Joe Bennett book I found in a rented bach one summer. Richard Glover’s Why Men are Necessary.
I met Glover at the Sydney Writer’s Festival a few months later. He’d been writing his weekly humour column in the Sydney Morning Herald since I was two years old. In that time he’d doubled tripled as an editor at the Herald and presenter of a drive-time radio show on the ABC.
Bastard, I thought.
But of course it came naturally to him, a Baby Boomer, to create copy in traditional print and broadcast formats. He was a fish in water. A writer using his preferred hand.
By now you’re probably wondering how I got offered a column in the first place, with no background in journalism and no pre-existing following. The answer, I guess, is timing.
I’d just been interviewed about my short story collection when The Dominion Post decided to revamp its weekend lift-out magazine. The brain’s trust at the paper were tickled by the fact I wrote a lot and had a day job at the Ministry of Education. How Wellington! A public servant by day, a writer by night.
So they offered me a fortnightly column on the last page of Your Weekend to write about my double life – as if I was some kind of superhero (though both identities spent an inordinate amount of time plugged behind a desk).
Five hundred words a fortnight to write about my Mastermind specialist subject (me) in exchange for money and an audience that might stretch to six figures? It seemed everything was coming up Milhouse!
In Sydney in 2011 I also met Mark Dapin, another polymath, another long-time columnist. He warned me there was no overlap between the readers of his column and the readers of his crime novels.
A year later his column was ‘axed’ and, he reiterated this point in an essay for Meanjin.
I’d assumed that, since Good Weekend claimed more than a million readers, if only one in a hundred enjoyed my column, I’d have ten thousand guaranteed book sales. In fact, King of the Cross seemed to have been bought by virtually no-one from my Good Weekend audience. When I asked readers why they had bought the book, they were more likely to cite the striking yellow cover than my name as a journalist.
Audiences, it seems, have trouble carrying more than one idea of a writer in their minds. They could either be a funny back-page guy or a serious author, but not both.
The sales of my historical novel, about bad parenting and sub-Antarctic castaways, can attest to this.
My brief as a columnist may have been broad, but there were restrictions.
I couldn’t lie too baldly, or vary the length. I soon learnt some ideas can’t be crammed into five hundred words. Others don’t have the juice to make it past three hundred.
I couldn’t mention specifics about my day job, as a lot of it was confidential and all of it was dull. Even talking about politics could come back to bite me — you never know when a Cabinet reshuffle will bring you under the arm flab of that Minister you lambasted last fortnight.
Then there was the time lag. Even though Your Weekend appeared on newsprint like the rest of the paper, it went to print a week in advance, and copy was due a week before that. So when people sat down to read that weekend’s column I was about to submit my next.
This lag meant writing about current events was difficult. Visiting Christchurch the weekend after the first big quake. My trip to Peka Peka Beach to see Happy Feet (I still reckon we missed a trick not calling him Peka). If I wrote about these things it’d appear after the deluge of similar stories, when reader’s interest in the subject had evaporated.
It felt archaic, this lag, especially as I still had a semi-active blog and got my news in real-time. I knew when a player on my favourite basketball team lost a tooth in practice as soon as it happened. Or when a new theory about MH17’s disappearance had been published.
That I couldn’t publish a real-time column seemed anachronistic. I was a sailing ship in the age of steam. A bookkeeper in the age of Oracle.
(Of course, each restriction doubles as a blessing. The lag saved me from writing about piffle like when Marmite first went off the shelves in 2012.)
Then there was my audience. For starters, it was odd having one.
I got postcards from train museums saying, ‘Thank you for taking us somewhere interesting every fortnight.’ People called reception at the Ministry of Education and asked to talk to me about economics. I got recognised on the Interislander as, ‘The bloke in the paper.’ My fans liked Michael Bublé and parsnips. They had holiday homes and let their fingers do the walking. They were nice people, but I was not one of them.
The Dom Post’s annual readership surveys show about 40% of its readers are over sixty. Three-quarters of all readers own their own home (40% are mortgage free). Here I was writing about how hard it is to find a first home, or my wife getting pregnant, or balancing a steady job with a time-consuming hobby, to an audience who’d been there and done that years ago. They read me and thought of their children, or grandchildren. I know, because they told me, in person and in longhand.
I got very few emails, though I was once cc’d into one that ended, ‘Ba humbug to Craig Cliff, he should jump off one!!’ (The Bed & Breakfast cabal is not to be messed with).
I was writing for readers who weren’t troubled by Twitter or linkbait headlines. Who might be mystified by a Simpsons reference or my obsession with American sports. I could respect that. But I struggled to find things to write that’d we all get.
As a columnist I was drawn to the stability of the past, of memory. Part of the reason was contemporary time and space felt out of place in print.
One fortnight I tried writing about my dad. He died in 1999, an early victim of the Y2K bug. Years later I discovered a history of New Zealand that had been one of his prescribed texts at university. His pencil scribbles were in the margins. He’d underlined “flocks grew rapidly” and “the liberal heaven”. None of it made any sense to me.
My cack-handed column about the experience turned into a defence of paper books (and vandalism). Even at the time it felt a retrograde opinion, but it fit the form and so off it went to my editor and off it went to the printers and off it went into mailboxes and dairies to be read and forgotten or left unread and recycled.
After a year of being a columnist, it was still taking me eight hours to write each piece. I still felt cack-handed. Give it another year, I thought. Maybe something will click after 50 columns?
Then the editor changed and my brief was tweaked. She’d been through the market research. Your Weekend was perceived as being for women. The gardening section, the fashion, books. The only thing readers identified as masculine was the column on the back page, featuring me or the dude I alternated with. So, in a rearguard action to lure more male readers, I was asked to beef up the manliness. To write about men’s issues.
I told her, If you wanted someone to write a Barbeque Tips, Wolf-whistling, Tim ‘the Toolman’ Taylor column, you wouldn’t pick someone whose superpower is sitting in front of a computer at night after spending a day sitting in front of a computer.
Oh yeah, she said, don’t write about books or writing anymore. That’ll turn off male readers.
So I wrote a column about going to the doctors and why men always put it off, then went back to doing whatever the hell I thought I could get away with.
Over the next two and a bit years I tried to stretch the possibilities of the form. Inject new life into the column. I ended up writing Buzzfeed articles for people who’d never heard of Buzzfeed.
Six ways to watch the FIFA World Cup.
This amazing fact will change the way you feel about Valentine’s Day forever.
Seven signs it’s time to quit your column.
Seven signs it’s time to quit your column
- After four years, some people still haven’t twigged that you and a different dude write columns in alternate weeks.
- You find out the other dude gets paid more than you.
- You can’t remember the time you read the other dude’s column.
- You can’t remember the time you read anything in the magazine except the book reviews.
- Reading the glib book reviews makes you despair.
- The things you want to write about (books, politics, office dramas) are the only things that are verboten.
- You consider having another child so you’ll have something to write about.
My father read the paper. After all, he was a baby boomer. And he died before Google became a verb.
He’d sprawl on the floor of the lounge and pour over every page of The Evening Standard. This last year, as I was drafting and redrafting the ‘I quit’ email to my editor, I wondered if my father would have extended the same courtesy to a lifestyle-oriented lift-out? Would he have made it to the last page? What would he have thought about this dude who wrote about falling asleep in the dentist’s waiting room, or tiny house porn, or couriers never making it up his drive?
He had a sound for such things.
Pfft, he’d say.
It could mean, ‘Oh well, you tried.’
Or, ‘What a waste of time.’
Or, ‘What would I know?’
Or, ‘I’m lost for words.’
Pfft, he’d say and close the paper. He’d brush his thin, Homer Simpson hair with his left hand and go water the garden. Like an automaton. Like a replicant whose days are numbered.