Thirty years ago, Lady Di married Prince Charles, Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake were born, and gas cost $1.25 a gallon. That same year, Dallas was the top TV show, President Reagan fired 11,000 striking air traffic controllers, and somebody introduced the term “Internet.”
Thirty years ago this month, I penned my first column for this magazine. Three-hundred sixty questionable literary escapades later, it seems appropriate to reflect. This is not an original idea. David Letterman, my high-school classmate, marked his 30-year anniversary as a talk-show host with a Top-10 list of what he had learned. No. 4 was “I have no business hosting a talk show.”
My own list includes some revelations, some mundane facts, and even some things you might not know, though for the past three decades I have pretty much bared my soul.
• Truth is the most important part of a personal essay. If you can’t tell it, don’t write it.
• Just because you recognize and admire great writing doesn’t mean you can do it. Calvin Trillin can do it. And David Brooks. Susan Orlean. Anna Quindlen. I accept that I will never reach those airy heights.
• I wish I had earned a master’s degree in creative writing rather than elementary education. I learned how to teach kids to read but not how to write a zingy opening sentence.
• The most inconsequential things resonate longer than the consequential. People still comment about a column on wearing stilettos, but nobody remembers the tribute to a dear friend who died of AIDS.
• The best treatment for writer’s block is a Kit Kat bar.
• This last-page spot is prime magazine real estate, but some readers object to turning backward, rather than forward, for the continued portion.
• Stream-of-consciousness essay-writing is often termed “navel-gazing.”
• Guilty as charged.
• The best headline, “Lady MacBath,” accompanied a column on the joys of the tub. I did not write it.
• About 1,000 words occupy this space. I usually write 1,200 and then hack away the (most) boring parts.
• I stop and start at least a dozen times. I think I have ADD.
• Sometimes readers don’t get it, which means I’ve conveyed the point—assuming there is a point—poorly. I cited dents in a mattress as a metaphor for a long marriage, and people wrote to tell me where
to buy a new mattress.
• There was something satisfying about typewriters, especially the part where you ripped the paper from the carriage, wadded
it up, and tossed the lousy page into a nearby trashcan.
• I check word count at least five times. Like, are we there yet?
• The second-best headline, “Gray Pride,” accompanied a column on growing my hair out to its natural, old-lady color. I wrote it.
• Dialogue is the hardest to write. “Sounding natural can be so unnatural,” she said.
• My favorite quote about writing is from J.B. Priestley, a British novelist, playwright, and essayist born in 1894. “Most writers enjoy two periods of happiness,” he said in a 1978 interview. “When a glorious idea comes to mind and, secondly, when a last page has been written and you haven’t had time to know how much better it ought to be.” When I heard this on NPR, I nearly wrecked my car.
• The longer a column takes to write, the worse it is.
• I don’t see how people can write and listen to music at the same time.
• If I can make myself laugh, the passage is funny. If I can’t, it’s not.
• You can insult yourself in a personal column, but it’s better not to insult somebody else.
• Typos are invisible no matter how many times you proofread, and immediately visible when the printed piece arrives.
• You should always go out on top. I worry it may be too late.
• My free-time guilty pleasure is The Bachelorette. It’s a train wreck, but nobody dies.
• I remember Wite-Out.
• The worst headline, “Yacht-A, Yacht-A, Yacht-A,” accompanied a column about a private cruise. I don’t know who wrote it.
• Not teaching penmanship is a mistake. There is no substitute for a handwritten note—stationery is my weakness. That, and placemats. And handbags.
• A high-level editor can make a good writer better but not make a bad writer good. Really good writing, like really good singing, is talent, not skill.
• People think this column is a full-time job. It’s not—and wouldn’t improve if it were. (See above.)
For the most part, stuff doesn’t last as long as it should. Think about it. A lot of good TV shows, such as M*A*S*H and Three’s Company, both popular when I wrote my first column, are long gone. On the other hand, some things, like Adam and the Ants and The Cannonball Run, stick around longer than they should.
According to the National Association of Home Builders, about the only things in your house that last 30 years are radiant electric heat and aluminum downspouts. Medicine cabinets and screen doors, 20. And your dishwasher and fridge? Forget about it: 9 years, and 13. Healthy people should give thanks for their hearts, which, if properly treated, can last 90 years.
Hanging onto an occupation for this long is saying something. I love to muse and observe, but, like stucco siding, may at some point give out.
Illustration by Andrea Eberbach.
This article originally appeared in the December 2011 issue.