Fear and self-loathing in column writing

I have been writing this column every week for two and a half years, but the process feels more bizarre every time I pick up a copy of the paper.

I try to come up with similes to help rationalize what still seems foreign to me. Lately, column writing has begun to take on the appearance of the sports themselves.

The best columns and athletic achievements are products of preparation. The workload drains you of energy, but hopefully there’s an end worth the undertaking.

But like sports, the column’s result is often emphasized over the procedure. I try to pull back the curtains on the sporting world in my role as a columnist, so it’s only fair I now try to do the same to journalism and myself. Stick with me in this exercise of self-aggrandizement; I promise it will be worth it.

Above all, column writing is a weekly outlet for my neuroses. Even after I complete a piece, I can’t stop questioning myself. Did I overlook something in my assessment of USC football? What if I never fixed that comma splice? Does my columnist photo make my face look fat?

Filling this space every week is the hardest part of working at the Daily Trojan. If I have to recap a game or event, my only task is to get out of the way. But writing a column means stating an opinion I’m willing to be accountable for every week.

Sometimes I forget what I write will be read by others once I have completed it. Every journalist has a conflicted relationship at best with the comment section, but I love it. My favorite comment was a recommendation to drop out of school by a reader who apparently disagreed with what I had to say. Hey, I didn’t come this far not to go even further.

Comments and e-mail help ensure that what gets printed in the Daily Trojan doesn’t just become white noise on a page. Quality is obviously the top concern of any writer, but if people hate you, at least they’re reading you.

The sports section is unique in the sense that you occasionally receive feedback from players and coaches. I don’t have any stories of someone leaving a dead rat on the hood of my car or a coach wagging a finger in my face, Urban Meyer-style. But a lineman who eventually went on to the NFL called me out on something I wrote for the paper. This was also not a singular occurrence.

Writing sports columns, however, has given me an appreciation for the recipients of my critiques. The weekly task almost feels like a sporting event, except, you know, completely devoid of all physical hardship. But after so many stories, it becomes hard to bring the heat every week.

This problem is usually a matter of execution. Even the most prized concepts can fall flat, and these are the columns that hurt the most. Maybe some reference or analogy proved to be too flimsy to carry the piece.

In a sleep-deprived state, I once came up with an elaborate idea to explain how the 2008 USC football team was like Jay-Z’s 2001 album The Blueprint. Somehow, I was convinced I would need at least 1,000 words to explain this purported genius. The column thankfully never appeared, but maybe someday if I’m broke I’ll publish a book of lost columns in which I can flush out such a comparison.

The disconnect between preparation and execution is also the best explanation for most athletic shortcomings. You’ll never hear an athlete say, “We just didn’t take this game seriously.” But experiencing the phenomenon of seeing even the most promising set-ups fall short adds a layer of understanding.

Even triumphs of sports and prose are fleeting. I’ve written hundreds of articles during my time here; it would be a great achievement if I could remember a third of them. There’s also little room for nostalgia for athletes. You’re always on to the next one.

A writing mentor once told me that no two stories are alike. That means that from story to story, you’re either improving or slowing your progress.

I imagine this is what keeps great athletes going through the grind. It is what keeps me writing columns.

“Tackling Dummy” runs Thursdays. To comment on this article, visit dailytrojan.com or e-mail Michael at middlehu@usc.edu.

1 reply
  1. Jacqueline
    Jacqueline says:

    Mr. Middlehurst-Schwartz, I loved your column today. What a wonderful look at “process”.

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