In 2014, I moved – temporarily – to my hometown.
Within weeks, I was racing around the streets of Arborg as a freelance reporter for the Interlake Spectator. Covering Christmas craft sales, the Parade of Lights, the Santa Breakfast, and everything else Christmasy. Santa even gave me an exclusive one-on-one interview.
Then my former editor, Glen, offered another cool opportunity: an opinion column. Um, yes please. This was an chance to veer onto a different path. Write about controversial topics. Unearth stories.
And, if needed, invest in another lock for my door.
Glen named the column “Tammy’s Take,” similar to the name of my opinion column in college where I expressed views about voter apathy, encouraging people to vote (I cancel plans to watch debates), MSM blood donations, and so forth.
I wanted to follow suit for the Tammy’s Take column. So, my first piece was about Vince Li, the man who murdered Tim McLean in 2008 aboard a bus. In 2015, Li was deemed a free man. Some Manitobans were concerned Li – who has changed his name – would re-offend. And “what if” Li moved into their city, town, village.
I wrote Li should be treated with compassion, not fear. After the column ran, my mom called to recommend something less controversial next time and asked, “By the way, does that interior door in your kitchen lock?”
But I didn’t want to be known as a fluffy reporter. I love prodding for hidden stories. Stirring up issues. In other words, I liked to create conversations and controversy.
One of my favourite columns was about marijuana. I wrote about how the smell shouldn’t be legalized, not marijuana itself. I wrote, the smell was “akin to gingerbread sprinkled with poo-poo.” Some people thought it was funny, others thought went too far. Some thought I was judgmental and against legalization of marijuana – in other words, they missed the gist. But I giggled and giggled as I wrote that story.
I’m most proud of the column about grandparents. Both sets of grandparents were in my life, although my paternal grandparents died when they were young – only 67 years old. I thought this was a normal age to die, and when my friends’ grandparents surpassed 70, I’d be amazed. The thought of losing my maternal grandparents never crossed my mind because they seemed eternal. But, then they weren’t. People could relate to the story, even if the person wasn’t a grandparent. People would stop me at the Co-op – Arborg’s a small town – and they’d tell me about their great-uncle or mother. Or neighbour.
Columns can be challenging because we know we’re going to be judged. “Oh, that comma should be here. You spelled that word wrong. This story is horrible. She has no idea what she’s talking about.” When I had a blog on the Edmonton Journal’s site, the comments left were so harsh, once I was whittled to tears. I had a figure skating blog, and I couldn’t escape criticism.
The enemy of writers though? Writer’s block. Symptoms may include staring at a blinking cursor, excessive use of the backspace key, an urge to do laundry/dishes/feed the neighbour’s cat, crying. Severe symptoms include throwing your laptop across the living room. I’m a crier, so …
My recommendation: write the story as though you’re writing to a specific person – in your mind. Your best friend, the neighbour, your partner. Tell them the story. What would they want to hear? For example, when I was writing about my grandparents, I wasn’t writing to my grandparents. I was writing to someone who recently lost a grandparent. Same with Purple Day for epilepsy awareness. We tell stories, and we want to ensure the story will resonate with the masses.
The best stories and columns are controversial and/or emotional, and they should create healthy conversation. But they must relate to the audience.
Otherwise, you just wrote a diary entry.