Cleveland columnist Dick Feagler passed away a few weeks ago. I grew up in the Cleveland area and enjoyed reading his columns. Feagler had a gift for painting in words a picture of the town he loved back in the "good old days" that could leave you nostalgic for a place you had never known, which is a hallmark of true artists.
Under Feagler's spell you could feel a warmth for people you hadn't met, come to understand what was in the minds of all the people around their dinner tables nodding their heads in agreement with his 'unsolicited opinions' and generally feel like people were decent, or at least tried to be, and that life was good, out there in the parts you'd never seen. The down side to all of this romanticizing was that Feagler himself later said that while he could make sense of the world of the past, he didn't understand the one he was living in now. Too much change. He had succumbed to one of the most popular myths of humanity, that things are always getting worse, and that the things you knew growing up were always the best. It's the life you were living while young, and that confidence of youth apparently is what makes up for pollution and the imminent threat of thermonuclear war in making the landscape of the past seem so much better than what we have now. I can remember going to bed wondering whether I'd wake up in the morning or if we'd all be incinerated and yet it still seems like a simpler time largely because I didn't have to pay my own bills.
Some of Feagler's columns were collected in books late in his career. I have them. The prefaces are interesting. In one of them he writes about how he got started. These origin stories usually involve a lot of happenstance, and this is no exception. A reporter who often let go of his opinions in print, he was given a column to dispense them regularly on page two. It was, he wrote, not a glamorous bit of real estate, being the part folks usually "skipped on their brisk journey from page one to the interior of the paper." Just to the left of Feagler's own preface is an introduction by his editors which is more laudatory. They frame page two as "the place given to the star." I'll bet most readers are much more inclined to this version of events, even though they may both be right--the cache of page two probably went up as their columnist's reputation slowly rose.
If there is any false modesty in Feagler's remarks it is probably a defense mechanism. Uncritical praise can be just as dangerous to a creator as ignorant criticism. In the strange contract a writer has with the public it is safe to display this armor of modesty without fear of damaging your reputation because nobody is going to buy it for a second no matter how true it is. But in Feagler's world he'd probably gotten used to plugging away without thinking of Pulitzers because that was how you deal with the constant stream of irate readers who don't share your opinion, editors who think of you as a fungible commodity that helps sell papers, and constant deadlines.
It was those deadlines that got to him first. "Armed with one firm opinion a month," he says, "we [columnists] grind out three columns a week." Given leave to write about anything, he soon realized he had nothing to write about. And then he wrote about it anyway. "And that, dear reader, is why you are holding this book. I forced myself to write columns whether I had anything to write about or not."
Inspiration is a strange thing. It tends to visit those most often who keep working whether they've gotten her visions or not. It tends to reward those who learn to master their medium with hammer and chisel in the mines of constancy so that by way of the magic rhythm of words and sentences, something is worth reading even when its substance is at best gossamer. It teaches you to write about the weather so that someone will want to read it.
And then, when inspiration strikes, you have something to say, and you know how to say it. Otherwise, if you wait for the muse before you've prepared her welcome on a steady current of words, she may not come at all.
don't forget to check out the articles and recordings this week on the website proper, pianonoise.com.