Sean Beckwith: And your point is?
If you were to ask a columnist what is the definition of a columnist, I think your answer would come in the form of a column. If you ask the internet for the definition of a columnists, it’s “someone who writes a regular article for a newspaper or magazine.”
I hate using the define a word cliché in a column — which is why I used “internet” instead of “dictionary” — but did it this time to juxtapose the gap between what people writ large think of columnists and what columnist think of themselves. From an outsider’s perspective, columnists can come off as self-important blowhards who only have the backing of a publication because they know where commas go.
The very notion that someone is an “expert” on anything pisses people off. As soon as you project that air of superiority, people are off of you. Whether you’re trying to prove a stance correct or dispel a myth, you’re obligated to pick a side.
If I wrote columns where I blatantly came out and said, “I have no idea what to think, so I’m going to present all arguments and put the onus on you to figure out where you stand,” I’m guessing readers would question why they wasted their time on a piece that’s pointless.
Generally, there needs to be an answer to the problem. I’ve written many columns for this newspaper and felt obligated to offer solutions for my gripes. “If this bad thing keeps happening then the bad thing is going to get worse, so here’s a way to stop/improve the bad thing.”
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I want to write a column that’s pointless. No advice on how to act on vacation, no big lovefest on the redeeming qualities of being a parent, no bitching about richer people pushing out rich people, none of that. Here’s a bunch of words in the commentary section that help you turn off your brain or might drive you insane trying to figure out their meaning.
Whenever I read a column, I have to ready myself for the takes, bracing to either agree with or reject the opinion. What if you read an op-ed and it just got sidetracked like your dad telling a story that started about how he acquired a putter but finished with how he used to buy Coors from the brewery at cost?
I can’t remember what class it was, but the teacher presented us this poem and asked us to interpret it. The author described the scene out of his window at a farm, I think. Everyone had all kinds of ideas about symbolism and what the red wagon meant (I’m paraphrasing because I don’t remember the name of the poem or the poem exactly), but at the end of class the teacher told us what it meant.
There was no symbolism, no deep meaning. The author was merely describing the scene outside their window because that’s all they remember seeing after the death of a loved one.
That always stuck with me for two reasons. The first was that we weren’t the only people who overthought it. The teacher revealed poetry experts had similarly tried to dissect the work only to have the author tell them, “No, it’s literally just what I saw outside my window after my mom (or whoever) died.” The second was that this person described a mundane scene so beautifully that it got published despite having no deeper meaning. It exists simply because it’s art.
No, I’m not going to describe the scene outside my window right now, because the blind is shut, and also I’m not presumptuous enough to believe that my writing ability is on that level.
When you read a column, you expect to be told how to think. The Entrance to Aspen needs fixing, there are too many tourists, we need more affordable housing, etc. What if you read a column and the writer made thinking optional? Would you still read it?
Here are 700 to 1,000 words, and they may be devoid of meaning but they may not be; it’s up to you. You get out of it what you put into it, and if all you want to do is mindlessly scroll on your phone to pass the last 30 minutes before lunch break, that’s fine. But, if you want to sift through every sentence looking for a glorious purpose, you can do that, too.
I’m not sure how to do that, how to write my window scene, but that’s the point. This, by definition, is a column, but what’s it really if I don’t have a point? Is a column a column if there’s no take?
Shit, I don’t know.
Sean Beckwith is a copy editor at The Aspen Times. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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