Exploring Nuances: A Column on Columns

CJ Blair, Columnist

When you sign on to write a weekly column for your college’s newspaper, it’s all but guaranteed that you’ll occasionally struggle to think of topics. When that happens, you can either sit out for a week, or you can write something no one would really expect, like a column about writing columns. That’s what I’ve done here.

As I thought about writing this piece, I realized it didn’t have to be an inaccessible look at my writing process. I hadn’t really noticed along the way, but column-writing necessitates inductive reasoning and a search for new perspectives. This is essential to developing an influential voice and sense of self.

I’m sure this sounds like a lofty skill to gain from a mere 700 words a week, but it’s a logical, maybe inevitable result of putting your voice on display to be seen and debated by others. Taking a glance at Facebook or Twitter, it’s obvious that there isn’t a widespread movement for people to post things that haven’t been said similarly a million times before. Plenty of people are content retreading the same ground, and this can have a bandwagon effect online. Furthermore, the power of numbers is crucial in social and political commentary. If a political movement tries to make some sort of change but can’t agree on consistent wording of its goals, then there’s no movement.

Column-writing is not necessarily activism, but columnists do require an awareness of those collective voices in order to be successful. The medium has nothing visual or auditory to offer. The words alone have to keep a reader’s interest, which is an unbelievably hard thing to do if the reader feels like they’re reading something they’ve seen before. This combination of limited space and impatient readers imposes a frustrating demand upon the writer. But those expectations are what make column-writing the exercise in individuality that it is.

There’s no way to change the lens through which you see the world. Regardless of my opinions, my racial, gender and sexual identities leave me predisposed to view life in a specific way, and certain conclusions will be easier for me to draw than others. As a columnist, I have to fight the temptation to write the first opinion that comes to mind, because it’s all but guaranteed to be shared by many others like me. If a columnist is writing to affirm what everyone else already thinks, they merely have friends. If they’re writing to challenge those beliefs, they have a job.

The best way to generate material to write about is to take something simple — a habit or an idea — and assess its significance in a larger context. Nuance is the key here. I’ve come to realize that the mind loves to compartmentalize complex ideas and dichotomize them — hence the gender binary. But there’s very little that’s so simple, and examining the less popular perspective may provide insight into that point of view or help the writer understand why some people hold one view while others don’t.

This level of questioning is the stuff of columns. Opinions and day-to-day decisions generally must be answered with a yes or no in order for anything to get accomplished. What opinion pieces attempt to do is inform one or both of those positions, providing the depth and complexity that simple dichotomies lack. Though many opinion pieces are based on popular issues with which the public is familiar, the format may bring into focus new methods of argument or overlooked concerns.

The poet James Baker Hall said that, as a poet, his job was to highlight the “elbow of light” in an image, or the aspects that are most often overlooked. Columnists have a similar goal at heart. If anything I have written in this article or previous ones has piqued readers’ interest or led them to reconsider previous notions, I consider myself successful. Though the goals I’ve outlined pertain to writing columns, it’s worth noting that opinions writing may lead to discussion that then leads to action, and a brief excursion from the predisposed yes-or-no mentality may be enough to craft a powerful new mindset for political activism. Or maybe it will just illuminate that faint “elbow of light” you didn’t realize was there.