I got inspired while trashing one of my newspaper columns.
Nothing new about that. As a longtime syndicated columnist for North Carolina newspapers, I have provided numerous readers with the opportunity to inspire themselves by trashing columns of mine — or so I’ve heard. My correspondents have been dutiful in reporting their inspirational experiences to me, often in graphic detail.
In this case, however, my inspiration came not from the realization that something I wrote might deserve to be trashed. I’d already had that realization decades ago after penning one of my first columns, when its subject complained to me that I’d misquoted him, misunderstood his point, and even misspelled his name. Other than that, it seems, the article was decidedly mediocre.
No, when I say I got inspired while trashing an old column, I mean that literally. I was in the office of a former employer, going through old file boxes and deciding what to save and what to toss. As I flung a tattered newspaper clipping into the garbage can, it occurred to me that I ought to tally up all the pieces I’d written since my column made its debut in the summer of 1986.
I was then enrolled in the University of North Carolina journalism school, which had helped place me in a summer internship at the Spring Hope Enterprise. I ended up working for the Enterprise off and on for the next two years as I completed my undergraduate degree and then prepared to leave North Carolina for my first full-time job in Washington. During those two years I covered town councils, county commissions and school boards. I wrote features. I laid out pages. I even drove the finished product to a nearby city, Wilson, where the Enterprise was printed.
And I wrote a weekly political column. I kept it up even after departing for the nation’s capital. I added a second paper, then a third. When the think tank I helped to found, the John Locke Foundation, opened its doors, I began marketing the column more energetically across the state, hitting the road for days at a time to visit editors and learn what kind of content might interest them.
It didn’t take long to figure out the right angle. Most said something to the effect of “go local, young man.” Even in those pre-Internet days, editors were awash in syndicated columns and op-eds about national and international affairs. They got far fewer submissions about North Carolina. So, I narrowed my focus. It was a good call. It still is. Dozens of newspapers now run my column regularly.
I wrote it once a week from 1986 to 2014, after which I switched the frequency to twice a week. By my count, then, I have written about 2,200 columns. At an average of 700 words each (they’re a bit shorter than that now, but used to run closer to 750), I estimate these columns contained approximately 1,540,000 words in total. That’s more than 10 times the word count of my longest book, Mountain Folk.
When I first computed the number, what sprang to mind was the scene in the 1984 film Amadeus when the Emperor of Austria is asked to critique a Mozart composition. “Your work is ingenious,” he tells young Wolfgang. “It’s quality work. And there are simply too many notes, that’s all. Cut a few and it will be perfect.”
The composer calls the emperor’s response absurd, and rightly so. I am, alas, more of a Salieri than a Mozart. Tightening my copy would likely have improved it.
Nevertheless, I hope my readers have enjoyed my columns and learned something from them from time to time. I certainly have. Nearly all have focused on North Carolina issues, places or politicians. And although I’ve occasionally lost my cool, I’ve tried to engage in civil and constructive discourse.
If that last sentence made you snort — you’re welcome. I thought my critics might need a little “inspiration” today.