This column marks the tenth anniversary of Long Story Short running in The Daily Advertiser. That’s 520 columns or about 350,000 words (for reference sake, that’s more than three times the length of Twain’s Huck Finn).
Ten years worth of columns covers the span of the adoption of a daughter, the growing up of another, two trips to China, a move across town, four hurricanes, one husband with a pulmonary embolism and a miraculous recovery, three weeks in Thailand, four weeks in France, a trip to England for the royal wedding and a return to Slovakia for the wedding of a former student. Yet, the bulk of all those columns was about the not-so-glamorous mundane days in between.
Looking back at the last decade and trying to determine its lessons overwhelms me and fills my heart with gratitude. Frankly, rifling through the clippings makes me more sentimental than I’d like to admit — and, I’ve learned that sentimentality isn’t good for writing.
On the flipside, I’ve learned that specifics are good in crafting a narrative piece. I believe in atrocious-get-to-the-base-of-it honesty in relaying experiences. The truth makes people care. My advice to young (and old) writers interested in writing a narrative piece is: Tell it the way it happened — not the way you wish it had happened or the way that would have been prettier or less messy. Just tell it the way it happened.
I’ve learned that God has an amazing sense of humor — and that the joke is generally on us. These days I try hard to suppress any feelings of smugness or know-it-all-ness, especially about how I anticipate things will go down. All those vows I made about how my children would or wouldn’t behave? Yea, those. They crack me up these days.Thankfully, the people who knew better and were forced to listen to me back then demonstrated amazing self-restraint in not whacking me upside the head.
Ten years down the road, writing a column every week has led me to appreciate the value of consistency, in the form of a hard and fast deadline. Looking for a “theme of the week” helps clear my head and leads me toward making more sense of the world. Even when the chips are down, the discipline and inspiration a deadline offers is a gift.
I’ve realized that nothing demonstrates the adage, “This too shall pass,” better than the media. In the instances when I’ve made poor judgment calls, I’ve learned to keep on keeping on. People move on to other things so much quicker than I previously thought. In those moments, I also realized that there are many storms going on at once, and though it may feel like the whole world is circling frantically, in reality, they’re only circling as far as I can see. Just beyond that, they’ve got another storm going on and I’m not even on their radar.
Additionally, I’ve figured out that sleeping on whatever it is I’ve written before sending it in to be published is a good idea — and sometimes a luxury in the newspaper business. Even still, that lesson has landed so unswervingly in my soul that I’ve shifted it in to other areas of my life, in an effort to balance my naturally spontaneous nature with something more reasonable. These days I frequently write an email one day and wait until the next day to send it — particularly if it’s one that deals with some level of conflict or misunderstanding. You’d be amazed just how many words and phrases you choose to change after a good night’s rest.
But the biggest lesson I’ve learned in producing a weekly column for ten years is that when you listen to people, you come to know and love them and the place they call home more often than not. I’ve tried my best to listen to many of you and in doing so, I’ve grown to know and love so many and so much in this region I now call home too. Writing in a vacuum isn’t nearly as much fun as connecting to readers, and faithful readers help make the world go round. If you’ve gotten this far, chances are you’re one of them. For that, I say thank you.
Jan Risher’s column, Long Story Short, appears Sundays. Email her at email@example.com.