Column: Opinion writing requires the tricky art of balance

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 20, 2001

A little over one year ago I started writing weekly columns for the Albert Lea Tribune.

Tuesday, November 20, 2001

A little over one year ago I started writing weekly columns for the Albert Lea Tribune. Since I’ve been writing essays and occasional articles for newspapers for nearly ten years, it’s not my first experience of writing with deadlines (real ones, I mean, not classroom ones), but it certainly has been &uot;interesting&uot; (yes, it’s a bland word, but it works for me). And some things are different with this &uot;gig&uot; at the Trib.

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For one thing, my words get published on the Internet each week, on the Tribune’s website. People with access to the Web can read my essays wherever they are in the world. I know this because I have heard from some of those &uot;out-of-town&uot; readers (not all of whom are my relatives!). For another, except for the obligation to avoid telling lies, I have no preconditions or limitations placed on my choice of topics or my position on any issue. And at the bottom of the list I must note I get paid for doing it. It’s not a lot. I could make more frying hamburgers, but it’s still nice to earn money doing something I love.

At any rate, here we are after twelve months of writing and what have I learned?

I’ve learned not to read anonymous letters that come in envelopes without return addresses. I’ve learned that calling people rude names can be wicked fun, but that the accent always ends up on the wicked part, and the fun quickly fades to regret. I’ve learned that Albert Lea is a community where people like to disagree with each other in public about all sorts of issues-from big things like taxes to small things like parking at the new high school. I’ve learned that sometimes I end up writing about something completely different from what I thought I was when I started.

I continue to be amazed that words wrung out of my word hoard (to use an expression from one of the too many literature courses I’ve been in) while I sit alone in my study can become part of the public record of life in a community. Writing for me is essentially a private activity, and I need to be alone to get any real work done. But these &uot;private&uot; words are destined for many eyes.

So the public part of the &uot;job&uot; means that I am responsible for my words – for the accuracy of the information they carry and for the potential good they can do, but also for the possible harm they might cause. Making a difference for the better is always my aim, but every marksman misses the mark sometimes, and some days can be more productive than others.

There are also some things I do not always appreciate about being a &uot;public&uot; writer. The anonymous hate mail comes to mind, obviously, but also the fact that my essays appear on the same page as writers like R. Cort Kirkwood. The man clearly has a brain and a clever way with words, but he uses those words to bludgeon those he disagrees with, separating arguments into &uot;us versus them,&uot; even when that isn’t true (or helpful). He has also sometimes presented information in a way that makes only his position look credible, ignoring complexity in favor of simplistic solutions. But the worst thing for me is how many people think that Kirkwood’s confrontational way of writing is the best way to make a point on the editorial page. Writing, it seems, is supposed to be like yelling at others while never taking the time to really listen to them. Writing with that sort of expectation hanging over me makes it difficult to not fall into the trap of being mean just to get some attention or to make a point as brutally as possible.

Still, some things make me angry – lies and hypocrisy that need to be exposed or prejudice that needs to be challenged. So there’s a saying I keep around, from a philosopher named Aristotle (I told you I have way too much education), that helps me keep my focus – or find it again if I’ve lost it. Anyone can become angry, is what Aristotle says, but only a truly wise person knows the right way to use that anger to make a difference for the better. My goal, I guess, is to continue practicing how to be one of those wise people.

David Behling is a rural Albert Lea resident. His column appears Tuesdays.