Being a professional writer carried with it, for me, a bundle of contradictions – the arrogance of the act (I have something to say that’s so worthwhile that you should spend your time and your money to read it!) crossed with the insecurity, the fear (Do I really have something to say that’s worth their time and money?).
Doing it at a daily newspaper, as I did for most of my adult life, involved living those contradictions day in and day out. Today’s paper, written yesterday, was already on their driveways and I had to embrace the tension all over again – do I have something new to say today?
Absent the swagger, it was impossible to enter the arena. Absent the insecurity, the fear of looking stupid, it was impossible to do it well once I got there.
When I arrived at the Albuquerque Journal in 1990, the columnist Jim Belshaw – then Jim Arnholz – was already a community institution. I was a scared shitless young beat reporter, but also cocky. I wrote my news stories and privately fantasized about someday having his columnist job – write about anything you want today! – while being simultaneously terrified at the prospect of finding something to say.
Working adjacent to him for two decades, the steady transition from awe to a complicated friendship rooted in the shared craft, was a thing. Jim, a respected elder (gawd he would have hated me saying that! and also laughed) modeled for me, the contradiction – talented, revered in the community, and always deeply insecure.
Here is Liz Staley, once copy editor, then Belshaw’s wife:
“Once his columns were in the paper, he refused to be in the same room while I read them,” she said. “But, if he heard me laugh, he’d have to know what I was enjoying.”
A mentor as I looked on? I suppose, yes, that word might work.
When Belshaw retired in 2009, I slipped into one corner of the Journal columnist world that had been his. In that role, I fantasized about reprising Jim’s “Dr. Swamp Cooler” persona, a self-deprecating schtick about the Albuquerque ritual of climbing on the roof each spring to set up the swamp cooler, and each fall to shut it down.
I never had the guts to do the column.
If I had it to do today, it would be a self-deprecating column about how, in my senescence, I now hire someone to do the swamp cooler for me. And I only wander into the writing arena now and then – still arrogant (though now I just ask for your time, not your money) and still terrified.
You can probably see where this is heading. Jim died over the weekend.
Sorry, Jim, for burying the lede.