Intentionally Unreasonable: Anyone can write, only a few are Columnists

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First my confession: I’m not a real newspaper columnist.

Not even close. I’m a hack who can’t even spell the word punctuation without spell check, I determine colon and semicolon placement by coin flip, and it’s an utter mystery to me if my words here will have any “affect” or “effect.”

And, if not for overtime help from my ever frustrated, aspirin-popping editor, this column would be the world’s longest (and incoherent) run-on sentence.

Now my truth: my dream from an early age was to be a newspaper columnist. Not necessarily a journalist or a writer, but specifically a truth-telling, thought-provoking columnist with a platform to educate, entertain and influence readers.

But, I failed. Not from a lack of passion or effort, but from the same Darwinistic filter that blocks all of us from the fulfillment of various dreams and ambitions: lack of ample talent.

While the friends of my youth wanted to skate like Bobby Orr or hit a baseball like Carl Yastrzemski, I wanted to join this club of columnists, then and now:

• Mike Barnicle, Boston Globe (pre-plagiarism version): Loud voice. Biting insight. Emotional connection. Compelling ratio of ego and arrogance often needed for transformational “truth-to-power” commentary.

• Ellen Goodman, Boston Globe: One of the first and clearest voices for social and gender injustice when needed most. Fearless and funny in a way that sneaks up on the reader like Taylor Swift music; first you dismiss it as fluff, before recognizing the underlying skill and artistry.

• Dan Jenkins, Sports Illustrated: Old-school humor and brilliance. More of a novelist and essayist, but still, Dead Solid Perfect.

• Mitch Albom, Detroit Free Press: My literary life-raft during the two years I lived in Detroit. Lots of heart, soul, and bitter truth hardened in the motor city.

• Lewis Grizzard, Atlanta Journal Constitution: More fun than a Waffle House restaurant at 3 a.m. He was my friend and favorite columnist when I lived in Atlanta.

• Stanley Bing (a.k.a. Gil Schwartz), Forbes/Esquire: Smart. Funny. Smart.

• Maureen Dowd, The New York Times: She throws like a girl, runs like a girl and writes like a girl – while throwing, running and writing better than anyone else over the last 30 years. Maybe the best of the best.

(Honorable Mentions: William F. Buckley Jr., David Brooks, Malcolm Gladwell, Mike Royko, Dave Barry, Art Buchwald, Dan Savage, Peter King, Peggy Noonan, and Herb Caen.)

I tried.

First in the 1970s, as one of the youngest columnists ever for my hometown newspaper, The Needham Times, in the suburb of Needham, Massachusetts. And then being terminated, earning me the bonus distinction of being the youngest columnist ever fired by The Needham Times.

In 1997 I was hired by The State, South Carolina’s largest newspaper, to write a thrice-a-week column called Hey Stevoe that was later distributed nationally by Knight-Ridder Tribune for just a few years.

In all past and current cases, the saving grace to both my ego and bank account is that I was never (and not now) a “real” columnist wholly dependent on writing this gibberish, just a poser chasing a dream and a love for words, meaning and hope.

Now it’s 2015 and every two weeks I launch a few hundred digitized words in the direction of Mo Mehlsak, who knows things like syntax, grammar and punctuation. But again, I’m not a columnist, just someone interested in sharing my evolving set of opinions, perspectives and experiences. (Unfortunately, I’m not alone, and that’s a serious problem for all of us.)

You see, in today’s digital error (typo intentional), everyone with an opinion and a keyboard is credited with an equal voice and platform to share it. The role and skill of a “columnist” is being lost amidst the noise and clutter of blogs, op-ed pieces, letters to the editor, and a World Wide Web of guys like me.

Here in Maine, one man and one man alone deserves the title of “Daily Newspaper Columnist”: Bill Nemitz. While ironic that he and I are from the same small town outside of Boston, I share none of his writing talent. Since moving to Maine in 2001 I have read virtually every one of his columns and stories in the Portland Press Herald and while I frequently disagree with his perspective, I’ve always admired and respected his passion and skill in presenting it.

Last weekend Nemitz wrote a personal column detailing his battle with cancer, and like all Nemitz columns, he was as brutally honest in describing his own personal pain and fear with the same raw truth he applies to others. I’ve reread that column a half a dozen times with moist eyes each time.

While I’ve only met Bill Nemitz on a few occasions, I feel as though I know him as a close friend from his columns and the power of his written voice. Bill is in my thoughts and prayers as he faces his self-described battle with cancer. He’s a good man, a great writer and commentator, and the best daily newspaper columnist in Maine’s history.

Beating the odds. Pondering destiny. Godspeed, Bill Nemitz.

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Steve Woods is from away, but fully here now, living in Yarmouth, working in Falmouth, traveling the world, and trying his best. His column appears every other week. He can also be heard each Saturday at 11 a.m. on WLOB-AM 1310.

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