I can not imagine any pleasant job so full of pangs, or any painful job so full of pleasures, as the task of conducting a newspaper column.
The colyumist, when he begins his job, is disheartened because nobody notices it. He soon outgrows this, and is disheartened because too many people notice it, and he imagines that all see the paltriness of it as plainly as he does. There is nothing so amazing to him as to find that any one really enjoys his “stuff.” Poor soul, he remembers how he groaned over it at his desk. He remembers the hours he sat with lack-lustre eye and addled brain, brooding at the sluttish typewriter. He remembers the flush of shame that tingled him as he walked sadly homeward, thinking of some atrocious inanity he had sent upstairs to the composing-room. It is a job that engenders a healthy humility.
I had always wanted to have a try at writing a column. Heaven help me, I think I had an idea that I was born for the job. I may as well be candid. There was a time when I seriously thought of inserting the following ad in a Philadelphia newspaper. I find a memorandum of it in my scrap-book:
HUMORIST: Young and untamed, lineal descendent of Eugene Field, Frank Stockton, and Francois Rabelais, desires to run a column in a Philadelphia newspaper. A guaranteed circulation-getter.
Said Humorist can also supply excellent veins of philosophy, poetry, satire, uplift, glad material and indiscriminate musings. Remarkable opportunity for any newspaper desiring a really unusual editorial feature. Address HUMORIST, etc.
So besotted was I, I would have paid to have this printed if I had not been counselled by an older and wiser head.
I instance this to show that the colyumist is likely to begin his job with the conception that it is to be a perpetual uproar of mirth and high spirits. This lasts about a week. He then learns, in secret, to take it rather seriously. He has to deal with the most elusive and grotesque material he knows–his own mind; and the unhappy creature, everlastingly probing himself in the hope of discovering what is so rare in minds (a thought), is likely to end in a ferment of bitterness. The happiest times in life are when one can just live along and enjoy things as they happen. If you have to be endlessly speculating, watching, and making mental notes, your brain-gears soon get a hot box. The original of all paragraphers–Ecclesiastes–came very near ending as a complete cynic; though in what F. P. A. would call his “lastline,” he managed to wriggle into a more hopeful mood.
The first valuable discovery that the colyumist is likely to make is that all minds are very much the same. The doctors tell us that all patent medicines are built on a stock formula–a sedative, a purge, and a bitter. If you are to make steady column-topers out of your readers, your daily dose must, as far as possible, average up to that same prescription. If you employ the purge all the time, or the sedative, or the acid, your clients will soon ask for something with another label.
Don Marquis once wrote an admirable little poem called “A Colyumist’s Prayer.” Mr. Marquis, who is the king of all colyumists, realizes that there is what one may call a religious side in colyumizing. It is hard to get the colyumist to admit this, for he fears spoofing worse than the devil; but it is eminently true. If I were the owner of a newspaper, I think I would have painted up on the wall of the local room the following words from Isaiah, the best of all watchwords for all who write:
Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!