I think it was my second year of writing for The Bison. Back then I shared space on the opinions page with several others, including a student columnist who was just getting started. As a humorist, he had some funny material for his first two pieces. But then, it happened. He became “that guy.” He wrote an entire column about not having anything to write about.
I thought, “Bless his heart — it’s his third article, and he already playing the writer’s block card.” And I swore to myself that I would never, ever stoop to such cheesy meta-journalism. I pledged I would never admit that the pot had gone dry. I committed to a life of integrity, which in this case meant having at least a new, semi-legitimate topic every week.
It’s amazing how 12 years of deadlines can soften a man’s conscience.
I have a file marked “Column Ideas” that I keep by my laptop. It’s full of quirky news stories, quaintly clipped from magazines and newspapers, the way people used to do back before the days of running water. At some point, I must have thought that each idea had potential, but as I feverishly flipped through the archive this weekend, nothing spoke to me.
You’d think it was a goldmine: One article tells the story of Trudy, the world’s oldest gorilla, who lives at the Little Rock Zoo. Another describes the eccentric collection at the Los Angeles Museum of Broken Relationships, where jilted lovers can deposit the artifacts of their shattered dreams. Still another one profiles a man who makes elaborate Lego sculptures for a living. I even clipped a report on the 41st International Cherry-Pit-Spitting Contest in Michigan. Yet none of it seems quite column-worthy.
Certain headlines in the file just scream for ironic comment: “NYC cemetery honey of a place for bees.” “Pokemon Go dating site is now live.” “Russian road so bad smugglers fixed it.” “Woman sues her 8-year-old nephew.” “Salvador Dali exhumed — moustache still intact.” But the brilliance of funny headlines is that they speak for themselves.
When Parade Magazine ran its annual “What People Earn” issue last April, I cut out a tiny picture of a Portland woman who makes $59,000 a year as a “professional cuddler.” She claims to teach “platonic touch” with the goal of creating “a safe space” for people to feel “loved and accepted.” Lots of snarky comments immediately come to mind, but instead I labelled the clipping, “Topics I will never let myself write about.”
In my idea folder, I just found an expired coupon for Oreo Thins. I never intended to use it at the grocery store, but I seem to remember having a plan when I clipped it from the paper. I concocted an outline in my head for an elaborate social commentary on the decline of snacks in our new health-obsessed America. I wanted to contrast the hearty “Oreo Double Stuff” cookies I loved as a child with the anemic diet wafers now marketed as “Oreo Thins.” At the time, it seemed genius. Now, it just seems slim.
My present struggle is even worse because I also have a back-up source of column material. For years I have kept a journal where I write various things down. There are two entire pages marked “Column Ideas.” They are full of oddball facts I’ve picked up. For the most part, though, it’s a list of outdated pop culture bubbles that once called out to be punctured, but whose time came and went: spy-cam mannequins, boom cubes, hoverboards, cell-phone novels, Chewbacca Mom. As I’ve learned, you have to act fast on most pop culture fads, which have roughly the shelf life of yogurt.
Full disclosure: I stole the phrase “roughly the shelf life of yogurt” from an article by Joseph Epstein I tore out of The Weekly Standard.
To summarize: Even with a bulging folder of ideas and two pages of back-up column material, I have still drawn a blank. So I suppose I’ll have to swallow my pride and write about how I have nothing to write about this week. Which I would gladly do if I had not just run out of space.