Op-ed Homework Assignment


The school year is again upon us and I thought I'd finally get around to something I've been meaning to do for awhile: address the many students who write to me because they've been assigned a paper or a project about op-ed columns.

Though I have railed against the manner in which some of these requests are presented (hint: spell check is good, so is grammar, punctuation; also, perhaps best not to make your requests in text message shorthand; I'm old! I don't understand you!) I try to answer as frequently as I can. But it's not frequent enough. So here are some answers to some of the most commonly answered questions.

Q: How do you choose your subjects?

A: As a weekly columnist, my challenges include not only finding timely, worthwhile subjects, but also making sure that they will still be fresh by the time the column is published. The column runs in the Los Angeles Times on Thursdays. That means that on Monday morning I'm usually searching for a topic with an aim to start writing by the afternoon so I can file to my editor sometime on Tuesday. So the logistical part of choosing an idea is very much about timing. The conceptual part has to do with finding something that not only compels me but that I actually have something interesting or original to say about it. To that end, I try to avoid topics that have already been chewed over to death in the media. I try to take a subtler or more hidden side of the story and explore its larger meaning.

Q: What are your main themes?

A: The themes that most frequently turn up in my column are the same ones that turn up a lot in of my other work: authenticity, the machinations of media, the trappings of social class, the general hypocrisy of the human psyche (I mean that in the nicest possible way.) If I notice something going on in the culture wherein people seem to be saying one thing but meaning the opposite, chances are I'll want to write about it. Often I take a counterintuitive approach to a subject. That means that if I notice that the majority of people are looking at something a particular way, I'll look at it in a different or unexpected light just to see what happens.

Q: How would you describe your style?

A: I see my style as accessible without being oversimplistic, humorous but also serious. I like long sentences, but if a sentence is really long I make sure to follow it up for a short sentence so the reader can take a breath. I also like to play around with a sort of high/low technique when it comes to language. For instance, I'll put a pop culture reference right up against a reference to something very academic or esoteric. It's a way of embracing both sensibilities while also gently poking fun of them. You can find a good example of that in the third paragraph of this column.

Some columns (like this one) are fairly serious and try to take on complicated issues. Others (like this) are light and less ambitious in what they set out to do. Occasionally I'll do a column that's a straight satire, which is to say it's a fake column -- a column making fun of a column (some examples are here and here.) These are especially fun for me, not only because they're fun to write but because sometimes readers don't get the joke and get very upset.

Q: Are you liberal or conservative?

I'm pro-choice, pro-gay rights, pro-taxing billionaires at the same rate as everyone else. However, I'm not what you would call a raging liberal. I am not a registered Democrat, if that means anything. One of my favorite newspaper columnists is Ross Douthat, a conservative columnist at The New York Times. I try to be open to both sides of an argument and I try very hard to not be predictable and reactionary when it comes to discussing people and ideas in politics. One thing I really can't stand is knee-jerk political correctness and I call that out whenever possible. As I've often said, I make fun of people on an equal opportunity basis. The counterintuitive nature of the column means that I sometimes say things that are pretty unexpected. Good examples would be this column wherein I defended Sarah Palin's right to call herself a feminist or this column, which criticized certain people on the left for making fun of Marcus Bachmann for, uh, certain traits of his that might be construed as effeminate. A lot of liberals got angry with me for those. Once I wrote a column that made a radical suggestion about women and humor. It resulted in a Twitter fight with a famous comedienne, which I wrote about here. You might find this controversy interesting, as it shows how easy it is (inevitable, in fact) to write something that will be misinterpreted.

Incidentally, most liberals think I'm too conservative. Conservatives think I'm too liberal. I call that a job well done.

Q: What do you hope people will get out of the column?

A: My hope is that the column will make people think. Sometimes they'll be entertained. Sometimes I'll make them laugh (once in awhile maybe cry.) But mostly I see the column as an invitation for my reader to think alongside me. I do not expect people to agree with me. In fact, if everyone agreed with me I would not be doing my job. My job is to make a suggestion, to toss a couple of ideas out there and chew on them for 730 words or so and then let the reader do with them as he or she wishes.

Q: What writers have influenced you?

A: Like every other chick writer (and most guy writers) my world was rocked when I discovered Joan Didion. But she's so deeply influential to so many people that that's kind of a boring answer. I've long been a fan of the new journalism that came around in the 1960s and 70s: along with Didion, Tom WolfeHunter S. Thompson, and Norman Mailer are examples of famous practioners of new journalism. I also love the work of David Foster WallaceDavid RakoffJohn Updike and Philip Roth. One of my favorite novels of all time isBridget Jones's Diary, which I think is totally subsursive and sophisitcated and intellectually underappreciated.

Q: Have you read the Twilight books?

A: No.

Q: Have you read The Hunger Games books?

A: No.

Q: How long have you been writing the column? What do you like best about it?

A: I've been doing the column since November 2005. That's almost seven years! I can't believe it. I think that's the longest I've ever done anything. What I like best about is having a platform every week (well, because of budget cuts it's now technically three to four times a month) to think about the world and share those thoughts with the public. And as someone who's been a freelance writer for 20 years now (yikes . . . that's also a long time) having a weekly deadline has taught me something very important: you can't hit a home run every time. Some weeks the column will be great. Some weeks I'll feel like it really didn't work. Most of the time, it's solid; neither great nor terrible. Sometimes I'll write a column that I personally love, only to notice that the readers didn't really react to it one way or the other. Other times I won't be too excited about a column and, for some reason, readers will love it. What's the lesson here? Don't be too precious about your work. Do your best every time, of course. But accept that you're going to have some clunkers along with the gems. (Some recent clunkers: this and this, for a start. Some columns that worked out particularly well lately: this and this.)

Q: Can I write to you and ask you questions that you'll answer personally?

A: You can, but I can't promise to write back. You should see my email box. It's perpetually overflowing (if you want to get a taste of some of the mail I get, you can read this.) Besides, guess what? You don't need me to personally tell you what to write in your paper. You are capable of making your own assessments and coming to your own conclusions. Even if I hadn't just answered all the above questions, you'd be more than able to complete your assignment. Here's the part where I sound like a finger wagging old dinosaur: Just because the internet affords you access to some of the authors of the books and articles you are reading doesn't mean you necessarily get to ask them how their books and articles should be read. Back in my day, I never even imagined that the authors of the books I read were real people. I guess I could have gone to the library and found a phone book for whatever city they lived in and looked them up and called them but that would have been stalkery and weird and they almost definitely would have hung up on me (plus, I would have gotten in trouble with my dad for making a long distance call.) I know things are different now. I know authors have websites and Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. But, more important than that, we have the stuff we've written. Stuff we've thought about a lot and carefully crafted and gone over with an editor and revised multiple times. And, truly, that's enough for you to work with. You can do it!

That said, I'm flattered you chose to write about my writing. Now go do yours!