This is my office. I’ve been in this office for a little over a year, but, every office I’ve ever had has resembled this. The distinguishing features are clear. Computers and a printer and a bunch of other stuff. This space is the flight deck of my life. This is the command center. Everything that needs to get done gets done right here.
It’s what you can’t quite see, though, that is the topic of this blog. Centered in the photo is a white board. That white board is nearly 15 years old. And it’s that white board that is the absolute ground zero of my life as a columnist.
I’m often asked how one becomes a writer, author, or columnist. If you don’t know, there is a VERY big distinction among those three designation. A writer writes about things. An author also writes about things but author sounds more impressive than writer and is often reserved for writers who have authored books. Columnists, like me, write columns. We don’t write features. We write columns. We are given 700 words or so to say everything we need to say. We are governed by the laws of publishing geography. You can only get so many words on a page.
The distinction, for me, doesn’t help answer the question because I don’t know how one becomes a writer, an author, OR a columnist. I know how I did and that was pure good fortune. But how anyone else gets there I have no idea.
For me, the white board is the Holy Grail. It’s the keeper of secrets. And it works like this.
If I get an idea for a column, no matter how small or incomplete, I write what I believe the title will be on the white board. Just the title. Nothing else. Joe Henderson, the long-time Runner’s World columnist told me once that if he can get the first sentence written he’s home free. Not me. I need the title.
Once the title gets on the white board it goes into a kind of intellectual simmer. Some titles insist on a column text. Almost before I can get the title on the board the column is writing itself in my head. I like those titles.
More often than not a title goes on the white board with NO column ideas. In those cases I look at the title as often as I have to until the column text becomes self evident. That can happen over the course of a few days, a few weeks, or a few months.
Once in a while, though, a column title gets on the board and haunts me. I know what I want the column to be but the text is just not there. There was a column a few years back called “Pacing the Cage”. It was about a tiger in the Lincoln Park Zoo. I stared at that title for nearly 3 years before the text came together.
The columns are written in a state of manic creativity. Once the first word is written I don’t move. I don’t eat, drink, or barely breathe. I am terrified that the words that are escaping on to the screen will disappear. Once I open that creative door I don’t take any chances.
So, for me and to me, it’s magic. I don’t know where the thoughts come from. I don’t know where the words end up. All I know is that I’ve never had a job that I enjoyed more.
Waddle on, friends.
Have a question for John? E-mail it to firstname.lastname@example.org.