20 years of ‘Notes from Home’Published 10:16am Friday, January 6, 2012
Editor’s note: The Tribune welcomes David Behling as our weekly Friday columnist. He formerly wrote every other Tuesday.
Column: Notes from Home
After a year dominated by milestones in my life — 25 years of marriage (to the same woman), 50 years of being alive and getting the news of my oldest daughter’s pending wedding — there’s one more yet to come this year. During the summer of 1992, I started writing a regular column called “Notes from Home” for the local newspaper.
Homemaking was my primary responsibility at that point in my life, with a little girl to take care of, meals to cook and a house to keep clean. The “writing life” provided by the column was going to be a way to exercise the adult part of my mind, the part not stimulated by the intellectual treats provided by Disney’s “Little Mermaid,” adventures with Barbie’s Dreamhouse, or 20-piece wooden puzzles. I wrote during naps, and at night, after child and spouse were asleep.
I did not write continuously for all 20 of those years. There were pauses along the way — usually coinciding with moves from parish to parish as family followed the Rev. She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed. Some pauses were longer, and some were shorter, as it took me anywhere from one month to almost a year to get an editor to start running “Notes from Home” in the new community. I stopped writing the column when I was a staff writer in the Tribune’s newsroom. And I stopped writing completely for several months following the frenzied build-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, because I’d lost faith in myself as a writer and lost faith in my readers as reasonable people.
Writing a column today is more complicated, even with kids old enough to manage on their own most of the time. I have a more-than-full-time job at the college where I work. Where’s the time to write? “Notes from Home” appears on the web now, too, and I occasionally get emails or Facebook comments from people all over the planet. The breadth and speed of that connectivity still creeps me out.
Recently, I looked back at some of those early columns (cringing and wincing as I read), and was … unimpressed, mostly, and sometimes disappointed. Much of my writing back then was tiresome, pompous, dominated by lengthy sentences filled with impenetrable verbiage that meandered for lines and lines of column ink without really making a clear, coherent point that anyone would be able to comprehend. Sort of like that last sentence.
But I’m glad I kept at it, because every so often there were real gems in those first couple of years, mainly when I wrote about being a stay-at-home dad. Plus, my sentences got shorter. I dropped the “expensive” vocabulary I had built up after so many years of education. I unlocked a simpler, more concise word-hoard (I prefer the Anglo-Saxon over the more boring Latin vocabulary).
Since beginning to write “Notes from Home” I have actually gone back to graduate school two more times (giving me way, way, way, way too much education). But it does not appear to have harmed my writing in any permanent way.
What helped me more as a writer than graduate school, though, were the six months I worked in the newsroom at the Albert Lea Tribune. It was hell having to work under a constant deadline, with the expectation that I would write at least two stories for every issue — preferably three or more — while responsible for covering every single school district and community in Freeborn County as well as Northwood and Lake Mills over the border in Iowa. That kind of “writing life” would help anyone learn efficiency.
One goal in the beginning was to provide the perspective of a parent on things happening in our society and politics. Another goal was to try to clarify the picture, to describe the patterns in events and experiences. Unfortunately, sometimes that meant I moved the “muddiness” somewhere else. Sometimes that meant I got the picture wrong. I’ve learned to temper my initial (and still evident) arrogance with humility and wonder.
Writing for such a long time was not a goal when I started, and I’m surprised and grateful it happened. For however long it lasts, I’ll try to stay focused on my goals, and keep writing the good columns (while avoiding the tedious ones).
David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea.