Copyright © 1999 Henrietta W. Hay
How to Write a Column
April 30, 1999
This week I had a very pleasant interview over a cup of coffee with two
young women who are in the journalism class at Grand Junction High
School. We talked about writing and ideas and careers. I had to
confess that I followed none of the traditional patterns. I love
writing, but I am not a journalist.
One question they asked, and which I get often, was, "How long does it
take to write a column?" The philosophical answer is a lifetime. The
actual answer is as long as it takes. Somewhere between those two is
I wonder how long it takes my favorite writers to create their weekly
columns. Molly Ivins and Diane Carman and Maureen Dowd are
journalists, and probably their minds are more orderly than mine.
But I find that from the first idea to the moment when I hit "send" on
the computer takes several days of writing, pacing, eating, writing a
little, playing solitaire, thinking, writing, eating again, reading,
writing another paragraph, getting a drink of water, etc. etc.
Actually, as I told the young women and as I told a third grader several
years ago, it really does take a lifetime.
A journalist has rigid rules, but as a columnist I have lots of freedom
to let my thoughts roam. I write what I am, what I think, what I
remember, what I believe. And in all these years I have acquired a lot
of memories! Putting them into words is something else. As Jerry
Nachman wrote, "A column is a wild animal with which you wrestle every
day. Sometimes, as they say, you eat the bear. Sometimes he eats you."
The other question I get asked a lot is, "Where do you get your ideas?"
Ideas are a little like butterflies, beautiful and very hard to catch.
You think you have grabbed one and it flies away, never to reappear.
Since ideas are to columnists as blueprints are to architects, that can
be a pretty serious problem.
They come at odd times and in all sorts of places. You have to catch
them when they flit by, or you may lose them. Some of my best ideas
have come in the shower. Water must fertilize the brain. But until
somebody invents a waterproof chalkboard, a lot of them get washed away.
Some wonderful ideas occur in the middle of the night. Or I think they
do. Waking up the next morning with a brilliant thought would be fine
if only I knew what it was.
Now and then a perfect sentence will pop up while I am driving through
the intersection of 7th and Patterson , but since it is not too
practical to write it down on the spot it is often lost.
One interesting idea was given to me by a teenage friend. He suggested
that I just put something down and write about it. I would like to
discuss that concept of creative writing with his English teacher, but
he was a lot closer to the truth than he knew.
The experts tell us that everything we have ever seen or heard or
thought is stored in the computer we call the brain. That is a
frightening thought as we struggle to remember something important and
find a blank. It would be nice if there were more access points.
Actually, of course, most ideas come from reading about and listening to
and thinking about what is going on in the world around us.
As I talked to the two budding journalists, I told them that they
probably should decide what they want to be when they grow up a lot
sooner than I did. I was 75 when I found serious writing.
In the information age, and with all the tremendous changes facing us in
the future, I suggested to them that journalism could be a wonderful
I wished for them a teacher who was as tough as my freshman English
teacher at C. U. They assured me that they had one. And I left them
with one firm piece of advice -- "Learn your grammar."