Charlie Mitchell: After 25 years, column writing still has ample rewards

December 29, 2012 9:26:51 PM

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OXFORD -- A quarter century. 

 

That's a mere blink of the eye in the life of an elephant or a Galapagos tortoise. After 25 years, oak trees may no longer be called saplings. But it's a long time for an opinion columnist. And, frankly, it's a mark I never expected to reach. Sure doesn't seem that long. 

 

I've survived a bevy of governors, a slew of lawmakers, an era of public policy proposals -- some good, some goofy -- and more than a few requests for my head on a platter. 

 

The late S. Gale Denley, the revered journalist for whom the Student Media Center at the University of Mississippi is named, said, "Never write a column about having to write a column." To do so, he said, showed disrespect for readers. 

 

So I won't. Instead, a twist. As one year ends and another begins, I propose to write about the experience of having been a Mississippi columnist since, well, 1986. (I'm not senior, by the way. At least two others have been doing this longer.) 

 

More than anything, it is gratifying. 

 

This holiday season, for instance, I got cards from people I do not know and will likely never meet. The cards wished me happy holidays. Most contained notes. They were encouraging, too. 

 

That might not sound like much, but every week it's just me and this keyboard. I hit 800 words, punch a button and the words go away. It's pretty quiet. Singers onstage have an audience and learn instantly whether they've hit the right notes. Authors know how they're doing by how many books they sell. Those of us who writes for newspapers -- most of which are purchased for reasons other than the columnists --never really know until or unless someone takes time to respond. 

 

Next, all comments are welcomed. I'm always taken aback when people say, as if confessing, they don't agree with me. 

 

That's 100 percent OK. My thoughts are put out there for people to think about for themselves. There are columnists who are evangelical, who seek to convert people to their cause. Not me. I do care about issues, but my opinion is based on my experiences and observations and is certainly no better than the opinions of others based on their experiences and observations. 

 

In the same vein, usually with a bit more vigor, a remark I sometimes get is, "You ought to know what you're writing about before you write." 

 

I have thought about that. The conclusion is that while I do try to perform competent research and verify information, there has never been a time when I felt fully confident that I knew all there was to know about anything. I can't think of a single topic on which I am a total expert. 

 

And that's what makes feedback so valuable, especially when it comes from people who face the realities a column can only present in the abstract. It is very valuable when a nurse responds to a column on health care, when a teacher responds to a column on education or when an inmate responds to a column on the state's ripoff contracts with vendors of phone and canteen services. 

 

The down side -- the major league down side -- is hearing from people who are desperate. 

 

It is a reality that bad things happen to good people. Sometimes, people who feel powerless and who have been bounced from one place to another will seize upon a name and address of a person in the media and sit down and write. Their letters are often long, usually eloquent. They don't know what they want me to do. Just "something." I keep the letters. I read them time and again wondering what could be done. Too often, the answer is "nothing." And it creates an empty feeling. 

 

Overall, though, being a newspaper columnist in Mississippi is a dream job. Because of the characters in this state, because of the challenges in this state, because of the abiding belief that life can get better, there is never a shortage of ideas or topics. 

 

This column will last another 25 years. I'm pretty sure of that. 

 

But for as long as it does, I'll hold up my end of the deal -- which is to try to offer thoughts on topics that are relevant to us as citizens -- and to honor my friend Gale Denley by never knowingly wasting your time. Happy new year.