I was a columnist for the local paper in high school.
It was a county paper.
It was a weekly, county paper.
It was a weekly, county paper with a small circulation.
It was a weekly, county paper for a county so far up in the northeast corner of North Dakota, people thought we lived in Canada. Some of my friends could spit on Canada from their property.
But, I loved people, writing, and driving all around the county, so it was a great job for me. I marveled when I was handed a paycheck, because I would have worked for free. But, since it kept me in Mountain Dew and jeans, I always cashed it.
After writing a few articles, my editor asked me to write a column. A weekly column. I hardly knew what one was, let alone what to write about. He mumbled “just write something” and walked away. He came back with a camera, hollered, “Hey, Melly!” and snapped a picture with my mouth open as I was hovering wordless over my IBM Selectric. A few minutes later, with still nothing brilliant on my page, he returned and asked for the name of my column.
Name? It needs a name? Name. Parents had nine months to pick out a name for their babies, I had less than nine minutes. If I couldn’t come up with an answer quickly, he would return with his wooden ruler and make my desk his drum and the entire office his stage.
I truly think he believed his ruler could tap the pace for my brain waves, that the faster he tapped, the faster I typed. It wasn’t his ruler, it was my youth. Remember those days when brilliant thoughts poured from your….um brain… and…um…onto ….um….um….what was I saying?
Yea, the name. Eleven years of teachers answering all my questions with “Look it up!” I did what any smart student would do, I grabbed the dictionary off my desk. I opened to the “M” section to make an alliteration and mumbled through the words until I got to the “Ma” section. I didn’t love the title or the picture, but I had a column to write and couldn’t fuss over the particulars.
I had no idea the amount of taunting in the high school hallways I would endure from those split-second decisions, but telling myself to ignore torment dished out by classmates that couldn’t read my column kept inner turmoil to a minimum. Coping strategy was crucial for high school, wasn’t it?
I also had no idea the picture of me in braces and “I really wore that to work?” would haunt me for decades.
A cold Mountain Dew later, I had my first column. It went straight to the typesetter without any corrections or editing, which I now recall with the clichéd chagrin. It’s always awkward reading early writings, especially early teenage writing, but I’m struck with the irony.
I was young and ignorant, and had much to learn on the fly.
The Magnum Opus wasn’t the writing I produced, it was what writing for the newspaper produced in me.