Column: Keillor talks about decision to write short form, humorous essays

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Q: Why are you writing a newspaper column?

A: I am writing the column because I am a newspaper reader, and I have been ever since I was a child. I am a daily newspaper reader. I love newspapers. I love them in the face of the Internet, which I also am fond of. I am partial to newspapers and so I have always wanted to do this. I didn’t do this for many years for various reasons. I am at an age when many of my high school classmates are retiring, and I feel like starting something new.

I also am doing it because I love the form. I love 750 or 800 words, I believe in that form &045; the short essay. I could easily go off and write a longer form, and find someone to publish it, but I love that short form.

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This may be something that only other writers would understand, but it is like the sonnet, which is 14 lines. It is never more than 14, and has a certain rhyme scheme and meter. Writing a sonnet is a challenge to a writer. To be able to put something into that form, it’s like running the 100-yard dash. It takes a certain talent to do the dash, and it has its own nature, its own character.

Finally, I want there to be a humorist in the newspaper. I am happy for that to be me. It’s a heroic challenge to write a comic essay of 800 words every week for a newspaper, and I take that very seriously.

Editors may disagree with me, but I don’t think that I, as a newspaper reader, really need someone else to weigh in on Social Security reform. I have read both sides and will continue to do so, but I don’t think I need a new voice there.

I do think, however, that it’s a lovely thing for a newspaper to carry a column somewhere that people turn to in the expectation that it will make them smile, and maybe laugh.

Q: What do you think the humor column brings to a newspaper?

A: I think it brings a little balance. If one reads the newspaper on certain days, one might come away with the feeling that the future of the human race is sort of hanging in the balance. That we’re all on the verge of going into a dark tunnel and the republic is in terrible danger, unless we do something today &045; we’re not sure what.

The truth is that people get up in the morning and go to work, as they do day after day, and week after week. The traffic is still running and the kids are still in school learning the same things we learned, and things are actually pretty good. We’re still having a pretty good life.

A humor column can balance off against the high-pitched rhetoric, on both sides, that insists on an apocalyptic view of the world. There should be someone who is saying in effect: “Life goes on, not all that different from how it has always been.”All the great jokes are ancient jokes, and they continue.

Q: How do you plan to pick your column topics?

A: By reading the newspaper closely. Looking especially in the back pages, where we find social history and sociology, which is the really important stuff.

I want to be writing about ordinary things. Raising children, romance, the workplace, school, all the things that people have in common. And winter – something that some of us have in common.

Q: Will your columns be political?

A: There’s always a political bent down deep, just in your choice of what you write about. I’m not afraid to go off in a political direction. But the last thing I want is to take a raspy tone. I’m sort of tired of writing or reading about the President. There might still be things to say, but offhand I can’t think of what they are. I think he’s been pretty well covered, and I don’t see him as a changing persona.

Q: Can you describe the type of newspaper reader you expect to attract?

A: I can’t actually. But I think any writer has his friends in mind. The column is a letter. You write to the people whom you’d write letters to. Those are people you know though you are careful not to put in private references. The reader is the friend whom I never met.

In radio we’re always surprised to hear who these people are. They write in and they tell us. They are never quite how you picture them.

I got a letter the other day from a woman who taped the radio show “A Prairie Home Companion.” She listened to it when she was driving her mother in for chemotherapy twice a week, for I don’t know how many months. I never thought of that. I sort of thought of people in their kitchens. I never thought of people in dire straits listening to this music and foolishness. But there they are, and it made them laugh. I’m appreciative of that. It’s a great honor after the fact to think that you did that for people who were in a terrible situation. But I don’t begin with any stereotype.

Q: Are you the voice of the average guy?

A: One aspires to speak for the American people, but one doesn’t want to claim that, necessarily.

(Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” can be heard Saturday nights on public radio stations across the country.)