But all those ideas were pre-hands on keyboard, before I had written more than a sentence or two. As I slogged through the beginning of the column, I kept shooting holes in my own arguments. My confidence was bogging down like a tadpole slithering through muddy shallows. I disagree with what’s going on in Raleigh, but on this night as I sat in front of the empty computer screen I couldn’t call up the attack dogs. As happens occasionally to most who write, I lost my inspiration and was sweating out every word, every sentence. And so the column collapsed like a souffle whose center will not hold. It might be revived for another edition, but tonight I surrender.
As I admitted that fact, I thought of my daughter Hannah. She was recently working on an English paper about the characters in John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden. I remember talking about it on a couple of occasions as she was plainly sweating out her conclusions and supporting arguments. She ended up doing well on the paper, but it also brought back vivid memories of composition classes in both high school and college. I remember teachers admonishing everyone to make very clear, very concise arguments. Write with authority and clarity. Those lessons have helped me as a reporter and columnist.
But writers often do combat with self-doubt. It’s easy to carry on with paragraph after paragraph when one is bubbling with fervor or venom, but the task becomes Sisyphus-like once the bravado has a few holes shot in it. Want to ruin my day? Come in to our office on any Wednesday, the day The Smoky Mountain News publishes, and tell me we got something wrong in a story or that my column completely missed the point or how I misinterpreted the information at hand. My conviction shrivels like grapes turning to raisins.
That self-doubt can also come speeding back when re-reading some of my own columns from old newspapers. Writers are our own worst critics, and I can see clearly across the passage of time where I worked too hard to formulate a neat conclusion from a fragile, still-evolving mess. It’s the opinion writer’s natural inclination to do just that despite the fact that the issue at hand, quite possibly, is still being shaped into its final form.
It’s no wonder columnists occasionally get these feelings. Opinion makers all over print media, the television and the blogosphere go about their business with that air of authoritative expertise, some literally shouting their ideas over the voices of their cohorts in the same studio. In truth, all of them should include this caveat: I could be mistaken.
But it just doesn’t happen. The truth is that when we throw opinions out there, we’re not suggesting that the proposal should become totalitarian law. My ego might enjoy that kind of thinking, but it just isn’t so. Columns and essays, more often than not, are jumping off points for discussion and debate. That’s their real power. I’m certain of it. At least I think so.