Try reading this column aloud

Friday, October 24, 2003

As I am writing this column, there is a knot in my stomach. My clammy hands are slipping and sliding all over the keyboard.

I'd say I'm suffering from Writing-a-Column Stress Syndrome.

Ordinarily, I write a column without much trauma. After all, I've been doing this for more than 30 years. You'd think I'd have the hang of it.

But there's more pressure now.

I've been invited to talk next week about writing to Central High School students. I've been asked to read something I've written and then answer questions.

There are others on the program who, I'm sure, will have better jokes, more interesting ideas, nicer smiles and better haircuts.

OK. Maybe I shouldn't worry so much about the haircut.

Trying to pick something I've written to read to high school students is tough.

I've authored plenty of columns about the nonexistent World Famous Downtown Golf Course and All-You-Can-Eat Catfish Buffet.

Over the years, I've given readers every good reason under the sun to stop belittling the fruitcakes they receive as Christmas gifts from distant relatives.

Goodness knows my columns have covered every possible use of duct tape known to mankind.

And I've lost count of the columns that beg -- literally -- readers to give me free tomatoes or cinnamon rolls or fudge or pecan pralines for no good reason other than I sound so pitiful when I ask.

But I wonder if high school students care that much about the whimsical ramblings of white-haired daydreamers.

So, here I am, just days before the First Annual Central Writers Symposium that is cleverly titled "CapeSpeak: Voices From Home." And I'm trying to write a column fit to be read aloud in front of high school students, their principal and the symposium director, school librarian Julia Jorgensen.

Pressure? You betcha.

What I'm learning as I write this column is that waiting until a few days before a writers symposium to write something suitable for the event is like waiting until the week before your semiannual dental exam to start flossing.

Folks, those students are going to see the built-up tartar and all the other crud. They're not stupid.

New Yorker magazine puts out special editions from time to time that spotlight well-known, successful authors who describe how they do what they do so well. These authors write engaging accounts of finding their way along literary roads. They amuse the magazine's readers while conveying a sense of serious accomplishment. They describe the effort known as "polishing" that goes into revising, editing and reorganizing their stories and novels until some publisher is willing to let readers have a peek.

What it comes down to is this: Best-selling authors take three weeks or three months or 30 years to produce something truly worthy of public consumption and likely to withstand the test of time.

Me? I'm looking at my watch. I've got about 30 minutes before I have to stop writing a column and start doing the dozens of other duties that demand my attention every day. Oh. Did I mention it's almost lunchtime?

If you don't have anything better to do Tuesday morning, show up at the Central High School library about 9:15. Heidi Hall will be there. She's a riot -- but you already know that. Students will share some of their writing. Dr. David Crowe will talk about photography. (Say, he's an orthodontist, isn't he? I wonder how he'd like it if I adjusted some braces.) And Todd Bonacki will discuss broadcasting.

As you can see, kind readers, we have arrived close to the bottom of the page. This is a signal. By now, I should have said something worth saying.

For some reason, though, I have this strong urge to brush my teeth.

Again.

R. Joe Sullivan is the editor of the Southeast Missourian.

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