Henrietta Hay Column June 05, 2009

Writing a weekly column requires a lifetime of experience

“How long does it take you to write a column?” asked a third-grader when I was speaking to his class several years ago. I gave him the same answer I give everybody else who asks that question: “A lifetime.”

There is no way you can write anything without using the experiences of a lifetime, whatever they may have been. Everything that you have seen or felt or learned or feared is filed away in your brain, maybe forgotten, but there. These things define who you are. Did you have a happy childhood or an unhappy one? Did you go to college? Where? Did you marry young?

Were you in the Army? Are you happy? Do you have children? They all come together in your brain and they influence what you write.

Whether you are writing the great American novel, a book on how to get along with your husband, scientific research or a newspaper column, writing is so all-consuming that it is what you “do.” If you are walking down street, reading a book, sleeping, or in the shower, you are writing.

OK, to make it personal, I sit down at the computer all ready to write something spectacular.

In my case it is a column for The Daily Sentinel. I gaze hopefully at the blank computer screen. I have an idea and type out a first sentence. But I don’t really know what I am going to say until I have said it. That means writing a first draft and then starting over.  I, and I suspect all writers, change words, move paragraphs, change phrases, stop to look something up on Google — and another draft comes out.

Recently, a friend asked me what I was working on that week. I told her I had a general idea, and a great first sentence. But I had not yet figured out where they were going. She seemed surprised, assuming, I suppose, that this stuff just flows out. Not so.

Lest it sound as though writing is incredibly difficult, it is. But I have seldom done anything that I love more. Sometime between an idea and a great first sentence and the end result — sometime during that time when I stare at the computer and pace the floor and drink coffee and know I will never again have a cogent thought — there is a moment when it all comes together. I have actually said what I wanted to say. That is the moment that makes it all worthwhile and I want to go outside and shout to the proverbial rooftops.

But that’s not the end. I have to go back and tighten and rearrange and cut. I write a wonderful sentence, a truly spectacular sentence. But it doesn’t fit and I have to throw it away.

My friend Terry, who is also my friend the philosopher, has been “idea editing” my work for 18 years. She can look at a first draft and see what I am trying to say and whether it makes sense. I know she will tell me the truth. That is a talent beyond price.

Now that macular degeneration has taken away a lot of my eyesight, I am so very thankful that I live in the computer age. With my Mac, my 24 inch monitor and the computer program called Zoom, I can see what I write. I can’t read, but I can write! Writing has become an even more vital part of my life. It keeps me interested in the world and the people around me.

I have been discussing essay type writing. I can’t begin to imagine what it is like to write fiction, but I have some theories. One of my favorite mystery writers is Sue Grafton. I’ll bet that she lives with Kinsey Millhone, her P.I. character, day and night. Kinsey probably talks to Sue at dinner, and probably goes to bed with her and haunts her dreams. Sue can’t get rid of her. That’s fiction writing.

Writing is not easy but it keeps me alert and aware of what is going on in the world — well, some of it. Truly, writing a column takes a lifetime.

P.S. This is my third draft. 

Henrietta Hay can be reached by e-mail at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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