Maynard van der Galien
In the almost 35 years that I have been writing newspaper columns, I have only met one person who expressed interest in becoming a columnist.
I was about to get up after finishing lunch at the food court at the Ottawa Valley Farm Show a few years ago when a woman glided into an empty chair across from me. She wanted advice on how to become a columnist. “How did you get started?”
This person thought it’s neat to be featured all the time and said, “You guys who write are celebrities.”
I told her (I’ll call her Jane) I had an interest in the alphabet letters at a very young age and enjoyed making letters, words and headlines from stenciled sheets of letters I’d bought. And I was ecstatic when I got my first typewriter — a Majestic 600 — which I still have to this day.
As a boy, I regularly corresponded with an uncle in The Netherlands who was an author of Dutch books and he was fairly good in English and often typed me a letter or sent postcards.
Every newspaper and magazine that came into our house was read. I read all the columnists that graced the pages, never thinking I’d be one.
I told Jane my writing career started in the early 1980s when news articles and letters I wrote were published in the Ottawa Citizen, The Globe and Mail and in Farm & Country magazine —the forerunner of Better Farming.
Now it was time to ask my budding writer some questions to see if she was up to the task of producing columns, or let’s say, crafting columns. It’s a craft. It’s like being a cabinet maker.
I began by asking Jane if she reads a lot. “You have to read in order to write. Most writers are also voracious readers. Do you read newspapers, magazines and books?”
She said she reads Farmers Forum but no daily paper. She added she had lots of ideas.
I told her you don’t become an instant columnist. It doesn’t happen today. “Can you meet deadlines? No matter how busy you are and even if you’re not feeling well, the column has to be sent to the editor before the deadline. You can’t be late. No excuses.”
“And once it’s sent, you can’t fret about it, wanting to make changes. Your editor is now in charge.”
“Let’s say you are writing a column about being a dairy farmer’s wife. You can’t always praise farmers on how hard they work and how good they are to the environment and all nice stuff. You might have to take them down a peg or two when you see them do something you do not agree with. If you see farmers spreading manure on a hot summer day with no rain in the forecast, you chastise them for that.” I was making her squirm.
Jane shook her head and said she could not do that.
“And when you see dairy farmers with margarine in their shopping cart you can point that out in a column.” Jane shook her head again.
“When you see kids riding on the fender of a tractor or in the bucket you can write that some farmers are unbelievably dumb. If you see and smell farmers with manure on their boots in the grocery store you scold them in your column. Not by name, of course. That’s what will make your column authentic. Non farmers will applaud you.” I was enjoying my lecture.
Jane again shook her head and said she couldn’t do that.
“When you see farmers with huge machinery on the road on a weekend and they act as if they own the road because they are producing food, you point that out. Stick up for the drivers who are going places,” I told her.
Jane shook her head. “Farmers will kill me.”
I told her a column is not a news article, but it is news. A columnist gives an opinion. That’s expected of them. Columnists make readers think, care, laugh and even cry. Some readers will agree with your point of view and others will vehemently disagree. Readers might send a letter to the editor and strongly criticize you. It will be there for everyone to see with headlines such as: Columnist naïve. Or. Reader says Jane needs to get a life.
“Can you take criticism? Have you got thick skin?” I asked.
“I’d quit right away,” retorted Jane.
Jane won’t become a celebrity. At least not by taking up writing.
Maynard van der Galien is a Renfrew-area farmer and enjoys being a columnist. He doesn’t mind being criticized. It’s part of the job.