My title for this column was “My column sucks,” but that’s a lie. My columns don’t suck. They’re certainly not art or worthy of being published in a collection, but on my best days, they are decent reading with some interesting facts and usually a colorful turn of phrase or two.
I opened up today’s piece by fibbing, however, as a way of leading into another subject entirely: column writing itself, and more specifically, my approach to the work I do.
The first conundrum I face, any columnist faces, is the need to find something interesting to talk about. How can I get the reader to spend a moment with me and not move on to that invigorating story about the bake sale on the next page?
This is more difficult than it sounds.
First, since this is a family paper, certain subjects are immediately out of bounds. I can’t write about sex, unless I am doing an analysis of abstinence policies in the Hart School District or the local mating habits of coyotes. (There are more of those guys around town than poodles, and that’s saying something living in the suburbs!)
I can’t use curse words, unless they are so ancient that they’ve become unrecognizable. But the problem in that case is the old words are likely to be misinterpreted.
I could write about my own life, but alas, the memoir of an upper-middle class white UCLA student has about as much literary appeal as an 800-page history of gouda cheese. No one wants to hear about it, unless he is partaking in California’s new assisted suicide program and need to recite a piece of writing to send Grandpa off into the hereafter.
That leaves me with one subject to occupy your precious time, friends, and that’s politics, which is usually what I write about. But even this topic presents itself with all sorts of complications, like how many times can someone write about politics without it getting boring? “This is how we end poverty …” “Democrats should do this …” “Republicans should do that. …”
Oftentimes I will be in the middle of a draft and feel my soul begin to wither at how horrible it is, then try to come up with something else, fail at doing so, and simply end up sending in the awful piece of guinea pig poop I started with.
Furthermore, whenever I write I have one simple fact in the back of my mind: someday I want to run for office. I’d love to be elected anywhere—Congress, the state Assembly, City Council. Partaking in the crafting of laws, using my talents to solve people’s problems, is the noblest sort of work I could possibly think of. It’s my great dream.
What this means, however, is that when I do run, whoever my opponent is will scour every column I’ve written for this newspaper, searching for something to attack me with.
The horror! It’s hard to type without hearing the voice of my future opponent tauntingly whispering in my ear:
“Oh Josh, include that poop joke. Do it. They’ll love it. Don’t worry, I won’t run a campaign ad telling the world you talked about poop in your local newspaper.”
“Tell them about the time, when asked by your teacher why you went to the bathroom so often, you said you had an enlarged prostate. It’ll be fantastic. I certainly won’t send out mailers claiming how odd you were at 15.”
But then I re-center myself, tell my future opponent in the race for the local congressional seat to buzz off, that I’ll see him in 10 years, and focus on the task at hand.
I try to remember that the trick to writing a great column, just like making a nice first impression or having a great first date, is simple: be yourself. Let the words flow, uninhibited. Your unvarnished candor, in all its humanity and flaws, can’t help but charm whomever it’s addressing.
And if in the end something I wrote at age 22 harms me in my political career, I already have a statement ready:
“When I was a young man, it’s true, I used to write columns, and sometimes in the process I made an immature joke or two — bathroom humor, jokes about my appearance, jokes about sex, the whole gamut.
“But to the voters I say, a guy who’s dumb enough to write a piece that mentions coyote sex, guinea pig poop, assisted suicide, enlarged prostates and gouda cheese in the same 800 words will never lie to you. And that’s why I deserve your vote this November.”
Joshua Heath is a Valencia resident and a political science student at UCLA. He has served two terms as a delegate to the California Democratic Party.