The Mary Schmich Interview

I admire today's interviewee for many reasons, partially because she won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary last year but moreso because she's been writing a weekly column for the Chicago Tribune for about 20 years. I am inspired by anyone who can write so consistently a long time and am always trying to steal learn their secrets. For 25 years, Schmich also wrote the Brenda Starr comic strip and is also renowned for the 1997 column "Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young" (also known as "Wear Sunscreen") which was misattributed to Kurt Vonnegut (who went on the record as enjoying the column.) Most recently, she's put out a book of her best and most memorable columns, Even the Terrible Things Seem Beautiful to Me Now: The Best of Mary Schmich.

What's your system for brainstorming and organizing your column ideas when they're based on your personal observations and anecdotes?
The word "system" made me laugh.

The system: Sometimes something I've experienced or observed keeps popping into my mind and if it pesters me enough, I think,  "Hey, that could be a column." Occasionally I jot it down on a scrap of paper and think, "On a day when I have nothing else to write, I'll write this."

Then I lose the little slip of paper.

Most of those ideas--I call them my "bottom of the barrel ideas"--slide into oblivion. Then a day arrives when I have nothing to write, or something in the news corresponds to one of those ideas, and suddenly the previously rejected notion is in print.

I prefer to write off the news, and I do when I have something to say that's relevant, clear, grounded in sufficient fact and of clearly wide interest. But one of those components is often missing.

When you write three times a week, it helps to view everything as column food. Whenever a bad but not-too-personal thing happens to me--I fall off my bike, have my wallet stolen, find a centipede living in the bathtub--I always have the happy thought: I might be able to get a column out of this.

And while I feel obligated to apologize for columns like that (I get some grief for them from the Keepers of the Journalistic Flame), I've also learned that many readers connect with everyday things often dismissed as trivial.

On average, how far ahead of time do you come up with the topics?
If I have a column due on Tuesday evening for Wednesday's paper, I usually decide on Tuesday morning what to write about.

This is a form of self-torture that might be called procrastination but I defend it on the grounds that I like to stay open to whatever news the day may present.

When Charlie Trotter died recently, a fact that became news shortly before noon, I'd just embarked on another column. I dropped my original topic to write about him. That felt like the right thing to do but I might have been reluctant to switch so close to deadline if I'd had another column almost written.

I write virtually all my columns in an afternoon, though with some luck I've reported or started mulling in the morning or the day before.

Where do your sources for columns on other people and topics come from? How much time per week do you spend researching and interviewing?
I read and listen to the news constantly, bordering on obsessively, waiting for the gold in the dross, the news that seems worth pursuing in the time, space and mental capacity I have.

Sometimes a person who flits by in the news seems worth a column. When the same-sex marriage bill passed, I thought people might like to know who Greg Harris, the bill's sponsor, was. I sent him a Facebook message on a Friday morning, went to see him a couple of hours later and wrote a column that afternoon.

Sometimes Tribune readers send me stories of people they know or things they've experienced. Most of those don't make columns, but every now and then one clicks.

For example, a woman wrote me a while back to say her father and his best friend, both 86 and friends since they were 14, were moving into the same retirement community. There's no news there, and yet something about it grabbed me so I hung on to the email for weeks. It turned into a small column about friendship and getting old that got a huge response from readers.

When you interview people, do you use a notepad or recorder or neither? And when you write, do you go longhand, use a computer, or some other device?
I use a notepad. I have different sizes for different purposes. (Mini notebook, reporter's notebook, steno pad, yellow legal.) I have a very fast scrawl and I try to write down everything I see and hear.
I used to record a lot but don't much anymore unless I  need to catch every word, know I'll have time to transcribe and want to make a personal connection that can't happen if I'm looking at my notebook the whole time. When I interviewed Mayor Daley on his life after retirement, for example, I recorded.

I also snap photos with my phone to use as reference when I write. Sometimes I make sketches.

As for writing, I use a laptop and have written almost exclusively on a laptop since the Dark Ages when I was a Tribune national correspondent working on a Radio Shack Tandy that displayed, if I remember right, five lines of blocky type.

What was the process like when it came to selecting columns for your book? Was there a general architecture or theme you hoped it would follow?
I sat at my laptop and read through the Tribune archives year by year, starting with 1992. On the first triage, I just scrolled the headlines, on the grounds that if I couldn't remember a column when I saw its headline it didn't merit resurrection in a book. I found columns I'd forgotten I wrote. I discovered that some columns I thought were OK at the time were either outdated or just not good enough to deserve a second life. Then I went with my gut.

As I picked, I began to discern patterns. (All writers develop themes, even if they don't aim to.)

I realized there were a lot of columns about people who had gone through some terrible loss. A lot about the holidays, a lot about reading and writing. A bunch dispensing advice. Observations on how we live. A lot about Cabrini-Green. And there were columns about my mother, which I tried to assemble in a way that let a reader see a portrait not just of MY mother, but of a woman of her time, from girlhood through death.

Where do you keep your Pulitzer Medal?
The medal is actually a little paperweight, crystal I think. Tiffany, if I recall the box correctly. I keep it on my desk at work toward the back of my computer, behind my pencil mug.

What did you do during your Nieman Fellowship?
The official answer: I studied American history, with a focus on women and race.

Less officially: I took piano lessons, went running a lot, drank a little too much and made some great friends.

What do you wish you were better at (as a writer, but you can also include anything else you also wish you were better at)?
Among other things: I wish I could think long-term. This is true in life as well as in writing. Thinking long-term might allow me to burrow into topics, which would help me in other ways. But thinking long-term is especially hard when you write three times a week every week. I've made my peace (almost) with the fact that I'm a sprinter, not a long-distance runner.

Also: I wish I didn't use so many colons.

What piece of advice do you end up giving out most frequently to aspiring writers and columnists?
I've never had a good answer to that question. Back when there was a semi-logical path through newspapers or magazines (you get your foot in the door, you work your way up, etc.) I'd tell people just to write, write, write and do their best to get it seen, however small the outlet. I'd tell them that if they had talent and were willing to work hard, doors would open. (I'd also tell them to avoid metaphors like that.)

I still say that, but with less conviction. The newspaper system that allowed me a writing life is in chaos. But I continue to tell people to believe in themselves and write until they succeed or can't stand the rejection anymore. I do believe that there will always be people, who through some mix of skill and temperament and luck, will find a way to get their words seen and make a dollar.

I have a longer answer that includes getting in touch with your true thoughts and learning about the wider world.

What traits do you cherish in an editor?
I like an editor who:

Has an eye for detail--not just facts, but word choice and the rhythm of language.

Knows things you don't.

Appreciates that you may know one or two things he doesn't. (I'm saying "he" because my current editor, who's terrific, is a man.)

Who speaks honestly but also makes you feel he's there to help you, not to correct you.

Appreciates your writing sensibility even if it's not his sensibility.

Treats you in a way that makes you want to please him, not because you're scared of him but because you respect him. Though being a little scared is good.

Isn't afraid of argument and doesn't carry a grudge when you say some very testy things on deadline.
I agree that the pumpkin-flavoring of fall has gotten out of hand, but if we got rid of all pumpkin-flavored things (aside from pie) but you could secretly keep one for yourself, what would it be? Also, you can't say "pie."
No pie? What's left? I do like those cute little pumpkins you can buy for $1 and put in a windowsill to make you feel like you've decorated for the holidays.

Which writers have careers that you're jealous of?
Katherine Boo and Susan Orlean do work--books and long magazine pieces, deeply reported and well-written, with a sensibility I feel kin to--that I sometimes wish I had the vision or fortitude or time or (name an excuse) to do. But I wouldn't say I'm jealous of them or their careers. I admire their work but think they're constituted differently from me.
Did you agree at the time when your father told you "We are not poor"? Did your opinion change over time?
When I think back on that period of my growing up (the bounced checks, the lack of food, the lack of heat, the days the water was cut off, the moving around), I suspect I feel the distress more deeply now, mostly on behalf of my parents and youngest siblings, than I did at the time for myself. Back then, it was just life. I occasionally wanted some of the things other kids had, and I wanted my parents to be happier, but I did well in school, which buffered the trouble for me.

And even though by any statistical measure, we were poor for many of my childhood years, there are different kinds of poor. That's what my father meant. There's entrenched poverty, rooted in generations of deprivation, the kind that seems to offer no way out.

And there's the poverty of people, like my family, who fall on hard times for a while. My parents were educated. We were "poor" but surrounded by middle-class people. Those were social advantages that made a difference in how we perceived our chances in the world.

I find that a lot of people have a "secret career," some passion or interest or hobby that they could pursue in an alternate life. What's yours?
I'd be a singer-songwriter. I'd play the piano and mandolin far better than I do and I'd be able to carry a tune.

From reading your column, it seems that you are good at appreciating the non-material things in life. Have you always been this way or were you ever a slave to consumerism?
Believe me, I like my stuff as much as the next person. But maybe because I grew up in a family of 10 in small spaces, I've never craved huge amounts of stuff.
I also think that at a certain point in life, after you've feathered your nest, you want to shed a lot of those feathers. And you wonder why you wanted some of those things so much in the first place. Why did ever think you had to have that Pottery Barn lamp?

How does it feel to be the 367th person interviewed for
Almost as good as being second. Thanks, Claire.