Desperate dispatches – Frank McNally on the competing schools of newspaper column writing

Deadlines and inspiration

There are many ways to write a newspaper column and the time and energy spent on the task vary greatly from person to person.

But for two extremes of methodology, we can compare the American Heywood Broun (1888-1939), a chronicler of US life between the world wars, with the Australian Charmian Clift (1923–1969), a weekly columnist of the late 1960s.

Broun was not a man to waste time thinking or writing about his subjects. According to the Penguin Book of Columnists (1997), he could sometimes do so during a break in a card game, “dashing off a column while sitting out a few hands”.

He once outlined his working philosophy at the expense of a colleague, Westbrook “Peg” Pegler, who had admitted spending as much as “four or five hours” on composition.

“This seemed to me a shocking confession for any man who came up from a city news]room. It is too much time for Peg to put in with himself. It is too much time for anybody to waste upon the works of Westbrook Pegler.

“The daily commentator who takes too much pains [sic] with his writing has insufficient energy to get out and find something to write about . . . It may be all very well for Shakespeare . . . but a newspaper man ought to go clanging down the street along with the book and ladder. He will seldom be lucky enough to have a four-alarm fire come dropping down his chimney.”

Broun’s contemporary Jay E House (1870–1936) was of similar opinion, always running deliberately close to deadline before going to work with an energy bordering on violence.

First, he would light a cigar and spend “as much as five minutes” considering possible subjects: “After that I start writing. I have never been able to write in leisurely or detached fashion. When I do write I write my head off. There are dead and gone Remingtons that still bewail the beatings I gave them. And an afternoon’s work takes as much toil from me physically as would five rounds in the prize ring. I get it over quicker, that’s all.”

At the other end of the spectrum from those was Charmian Clift, who, starting in 1964, wrote a weekly column for the Sydney Morning Herald and The (Melbourne) Age.

An obsessive keeper of press cuttings, readers’ letters, and other sources of material, she would review these in the middle of every week before picking a subject:

“Once this was established,” according to her biographer, “she would do a quick handwritten checklist. Next there was the mad consulting of encyclopedias, the search through reference books, the picking of family brains: what was the story that Lily used to tell so and so, and how green was such and such, and where did that line of poem come from ...

“Then she would make up five pages of densely typed notes, listing bits of information drawn from historical, scientific and anthropological sources, as well as from her extensive and eccentric general knowledge. Yet if Charmian Clift had a talent for ordering and distilling information, her great strength was her lateral turn of mind. So as she jotted down facts and figures she would spin off into memories, anecdotes, quotations or word associations . . . "

Only after that came the writing: “Again this would be a laborious process, requiring draft upon draft before all the facts, the opinions, the questions, the examples were stitched together into four foolscap pages of prose that would be ready for the Saturday deadline.”

Not even this, as we’ll see, was a guarantee against days when a columnist has nothing worth writing about. In which vein, I don’t know if Broun’s “clanging down the street” strategy ever failed him completely. But as also noted in the Penguin anthology, he also depended for a period on writing columns about his baby son, not all of which were strict reportage.

“To be sure there were days when the kid did not come through,” Broun later confessed: “Some of the brightest things he ever did in print were sheer invention.”

Another American columnist, Bob Considine (1906–1975) once wrote a piece that read in full: “I have nothing to say today.” But for the more standard response to such crises – the full-length column-about not being able to write anything – Penguin again resorted to Clift.

Her 1965 treatment of the theme is typically well turned, while perhaps also hinting at the depression that would prematurely end her career and life a few years later.

Twelve months into the weekly dispatches then, she admitted to a “chronic recurring paralysis” of mind, against which her cuttings and letters were useless. “One could let loose on that,” she said of one possible subject: “But not today, somehow.”

And so the column continued, in a mantra of self-doubt, embellished by literary allusions and punctuated by expressions of guilt about the neglect of her family life. In the process, four foolscap pages were filled somehow. Yet she maintained the tone of failure carefully to the last line, berating herself for the time wasted when: “What I should be doing, of course, is writing this article.”

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