15 years of columns and ‘polishing a stone’

Sep. 21, 2013 @ 08:30 AM

I remember when I was quite new to this column, just a month or so in, and someone asked me what it was like to be a columnist.  I literally turned around to see who they were talking to before realizing it was me…a columnist!

It is 15 years this month since I wrote my first column for The Chapel Hill Herald.  The honor to write for this paper came in a round-about way, as an editor had approached my husband, who suggested me.  I sent in a couple of samples … and have been at it ever since.

Since I wrote weekly for a number of years I figure that I’ve written more than 650 columns in that span of time.  The word count has gone down from 1,000 words in 1998 to the current 675.  For a long time it was 848, and I learned to nail it almost every week.  Now I fiddle with adjectives and conjunctions until the piece is right on the number (and I bet my editor hadn’t noticed).

People often ask what I write about, and the answer is, “Anything.”  But the focus is local.  My first published column was about our older daughter getting her driver’s license in the midst of a hurricane.  My last one, before this, was about helping a good friend learn how to swim.  I love to write about topics that other people can connect to and recognize themselves in.  I am happiest when a reader approaches me, via email or in person, and says, essentially, “Yeah, me too.”

Writing a column is a lot like writing a sermon which, as a minister, I have the opportunity to do from time to time.  With a sermon, in a liturgical setting, I am assigned a passage of scripture to take off from.  But biblical texts were written a long time ago and generally cover a whole bevy of topics.  So I still must decide what to say.

I usually jot down one or two column ideas each week.  If I don’t write them down immediately, I forget them.  I’ve composed dozens of columns in my head, sure I’ll remember everything  when I get back to my desk, but they’re gone forever.  Perhaps there is an audience out in the ether that reads my thoughts.

Writing a column is, for me, like polishing a stone.  I start with a small idea, then craft a few opening words.  I usually start the narrative before I have any idea where the whole thing is going.  It is rough.  It is ragged.  It might not make sense, but I keep turning it over and over and eventually it is honed enough to ship off to chh@heraldsun.com.

I often rely on my husband, Peter, for a final once-over with a dust cloth.  He’ll catch a subject-verb disagreement in a heartbeat, and he’ll call me back from over-ranting or unsubstantiated declarations.  He’s my first and best editor.

Over the years I have written about everything from local politics to farm life to science.  I’ve enjoyed featuring interesting people, such as our late neighbor and farmer Pegram Terry.  My favorite column was the result of my musing about the stoppers in our double sink, which led me to discover Resistentialism (look it up).  Probably the most meaningful (to me) was when I discovered the true significance of the word “touchstone” in an essay about my mom.

Lately I could write every column about nutrition, but no one wants to think that much about it.  So as I go through my days and weeks I constantly cast a mental net for potential topics.  I find them in what people say and in things I read.  I chew them over, and sometimes they make their way to this page.

There aren’t many things I’ve done for 15 years besides stay married, be a mom, and live in this house.  I am happy that writing for the Chapel Hill Herald is on that list.  Now I need to go back and cut 30 words from this article.

A CHH columnist since 1998, Susan Gladin is a freelance writer, United Methodist minister, and curriculum coordinator at the Johnson Intern Program in Chapel Hill. She tends horses and a home business on the farm she shares with her husband. Their two grown daughters live nearby. You may e-mail her at sgladin@gmail.com, or write c/o The Chapel Hill Herald, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.