Working it for a living
Three years ago this week I wrote my first column for The Aspen Times. The editor at that time, Mike Hagan, called and asked if we could meet. This came about a year after I had been exposed as a serial anonymous letter-writer, so I thought he wanted to sit down to confirm that my lifetime ban from the paper was still in effect. However humiliating that prospect was, a free cup of coffee at Zélé is better than a cup of coffee in my office, so I agreed to meet.Imagine my surprise when he asked me to write a weekly column on a trial basis, of course. He wasn’t very excited and appeared to make the offer reluctantly. But, I was floored. I accepted his terms before he had time to reconsider: no pay until I proved myself, and if I screwed up, it would be over, quickly.The only question I asked was how I would know when I had proved myself.”We’ll let you know ‘if'” was his reply.After a time of congratulating myself, I realized the first deadline was sneaking up and I should get down to writing. It was then that my brain stopped functioning the way I thought a literary genius’ should. It occurred to me that I never really knew.All the great ideas that continually traipse coherently around the inside of my skull became disjointed fragments of illogical palaver when I tried to translate them to paper. It was apparent to me then that this “opportunity” might be nothing more than a bit of rope the Times had placed around my neck for a large dose of disgrace that would accompany my editorial hanging scheduled for Friday’s edition of the paper. Worst of all, I was going to live.Six months later my first paycheck arrived. I took that to mean that the trial basis for my column was over, that the editor suddenly pitied me for how hard I was trying without result, or that they wanted to make sure I had some money in the bank for when I would eventually get sued. Whatever their intention, I continue to treat this job as a week-by-week proposition, knowing that it will likely end suddenly and unceremoniously.I’ve learned a handful of things about writing a column. First of all, you have to be honest. This is different from telling the truth. Of course, you should always tell the truth, but in writing an opinion piece you learn that it’s impossible to know the truth about most things worth writing about, or at least not until they don’t matter anymore. You also learn that being honest doesn’t mean you are right. You can shoot straight and still miss the target. Only occasionally is it the weapon’s fault.Second, you make people mad. It’s going to happen if you do this job correctly. The thing you have to let people know is that you are talking to them like a friend. If you do that, you can say just about anything. Eventually the good ones will forgive you.As a result of my written word I have been hexed by a witch, physically threatened by a backwoods intellectual who can’t read English, and taken out to lunch by a Skico executive (no, it wasn’t all the same person). As awful as these things sound, I’m still alive and I credit that to kindness in all walks of life.Third, it is a privilege to write for The Aspen Times. I tell my editors this often. If nothing else it buys me a few extra weeks after particularly bad columns. Moreover, I believe it. This paper has been around for 125 years. They have won your trust, not me. I am hugely proud to be a miniscule part of that heritage.Fourth, cyberspace is an immense and sometimes frightening place. This morning I got an e-mail from Germany about faux Bavarian villages in Colorado. It is becoming increasingly hard to keep secrets and uncomfortable not knowing who might be listening in.Fifth, you have to be very humble. A regular perusal of the letters section of the local papers might cause you to believe otherwise, but people in this town are smart. There are plenty of folks willing to tell you that you are an idiot, and many times they prove it. It keeps you on your toes, and it’s mostly a difficult task to write from there.Sixth, if you think you’ve written something that’s good, it’s usually not very. If you struggle and fight with it and end up full of doubt, oftentimes it turns out to be decent.Finally, the best part of doing a weekly column in Aspen is that it keeps me in touch with you. Almost every week I hear from someone whom I haven’t talked to in a long time. I get one-line e-mails from people who just want to say “hi” and 5,000-word essays commenting on my 700-word column. I enjoy just about every response I get, no matter how harsh, and try to answer each one. I have a gift for dishing it out, so I try to take it with a smile in return.It’s funny to me that struggling to think of something interesting to say and surviving for yet another week has been my habit now for three years. I love this town and the people who make it the best place I’ve ever raised hell in. I could do it without you, but there wouldn’t be much point. Thank you for reading. I’ll be grateful if we’re both back here next week.Roger Marolt’s column will absolutely, positively appear here every Friday for the foreseeable future, no matter what … until further notice. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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