A Reader Writes My Lead
A Cat, Deviled Eggs, and Writing a Good Column
Wednesday, March 12, 2014
I had “help” writing this column. At the recent launch party for my newest book of columns, Broad Assumptions, I held a contest inviting guests to submit the first and last lines of a column they’d like me to write — promising that I’d supply the middle part for the winning entry. Twenty-three people wrote suggestions, ranging from “My all-time most embarrassing moment is …” to “Thank God for duct tape!”
The crowd voted on the winner: an exacting couplet by vexingly imaginative reader Hattie Husbands. She won a set of my three books, and I walked away with the lines you see in bold below.
Last Saturday I was sitting in my kitchen sipping my coffee, when suddenly my cat turned and said to me …
“What the furball were you thinking?” my fictitious feline purred. “Writing a column that starts and ends with someone else’s words?! You know very well that you don’t have a cat — don’t even like cats — and certainly wouldn’t be talking to anyone before you’d finished your morning coffee. Meow the hell are you gonna write yourself out of this mess?”
It’s a fair question, and I’m glad Hattie’s hypothetical cat asked it. You see, there are rules to writing a good column. Columns should be fresh and focused. They should be concise and passionate. They should entertain, enlighten, move, challenge, amuse, or persuade by developing an intelligent argument that has the potential to resonate with readers. They shouldn’t — in other words — be 600 words about how pickle relish debases an otherwise delightful deviled egg.
But the best columns? The best columns are true. And that’s important to me.
I grew up in Hollywood proper. Literally right below the Hollywood sign. My parents worked in entertainment, so I spent summers on soap-opera sets and fell asleep late at night on sofas in recording studios. It was fun. Of course it was fun. But it had the side effect of making me intolerant of BS.
The lights, the scripts, the makeup and schmoozing — it was all so unapologetically false. It was studied manipulation. It seemed to me that with a proper budget, anyone could invent a fantastic fictional tale about anything at all. Even relish. Or deviled eggs. What’s brilliant about that?
When I was 10 or 11, I stumbled onto a book of essays by Midwestern housewife Erma Bombeck and a book of poems by CBS news anchor Charles Osgood. Bombeck wrote snarky musings on family life; Osgood wrote witty limericks about politics and other subjects that graced the nightly news.
And their stories were a revelation to me. They were written by people I’d never heard of, with whom I could not have had less in common. But they made me laugh, nod in agreement, and feel understood. They connected me to a greater world. They were fresh, they were right — and by God, they were true!
And that, to me, was brilliant.
That’s what a column should be: a modest stack of paragraphs that entertains with truth, and by doing so reminds us that we’re all more alike than we are different.
Here are this week’s truths:
1. Hattie and the people who voted for her contest entry are cruel and enjoy watching me writhe on the page.
2. Adding relish to deviled eggs is gilding the lily.
3. Though Erma Bombeck died in 1996, her spirit is alive in Hattie, whose closing line (known as the “kicker” in column jargon) sounds just like something Erma would have written:
… And it was at that moment I promised myself I would never put relish in my deviled eggs ever again!
Starshine Roshell is the author of Broad Assumptions.