A wise old editor friend of mine once told me “Everyone has a story to tell. It’s just that some people are too stupid to tell it well.” He went on to explain that, since I was slightly less stupid then the rest of “them,” it was my job – nay, mission – to tell their stories.
For all its grit and condescension, those words probably did more to motivate my journalistic career than any others he spoke. Admittedly, the remainder of his advice pertained mostly to foods not to mix with bourbon and his illimitable list of reasons not to marry women employed in health care. But still, it was a good quote.
It is true that everyone has a story to tell, at least everyone I meet. And while most of these people are likely bright enough to tell those stories themselves, they inevitably think it would be told better in this column.
Before I go any further, let me make it very clear I am not complaining about the calls, letters, emails or Facebook messages that come to me via readers, friends or critics. Most of the people who approach me in public are pleasant and sincere. They also tend to be a tad twisted, but that’s not a huge surprise given their choice of reading material.
More than anything, I appreciate those of you who approach me with ideas for columns. I enjoy that collecting and retelling of tales. If those tales just happen to belong to someone else, all the better. I am, at the heart of things, a very lazy man. I would much rather steal a stranger’s suggestion for a column than actually come up with something on my own. Fact is, about half of my columns are the end result of some story, joke, observation or website suggested to me by a friend or reader.
Most of the column suggestions I get seem to focus on the absurdities of life. Typically, a reader will come up to me in a restaurant or grocery aisle and start off by confessing — half ashamedly, I should add — that they are, indeed, a reader. The next line usually begins with, “You know what you should write about …”
The next few sentences address the observed absurdity.
Over the years, I have noticed a few popular and reoccurring themes. The top five column ideas typically lump into these categories:
1.) What’s the deal with women?
2.) What’s the deal with women and their shoes?
3.) What’s the deal with women and the way they drive?
4.) What’s the deal with women and the shopping?
5.) I don’t care what you say, Bon Jovi is still a chick band.
Needless to say, it appears most of my readers are men. I do occasionally hear from women, mostly to complain about men. But I have been told women don’t appreciate my sense of humor. It might have something to do with my repeated references to power tools and Pamela Anderson.
Not all suggestions fall under the "wry observation" category. Some folks really are just telling on their neighbors, suggesting I write about some guy with four dogs and a half-dozen beat up trucks in the front yard. Others want me to write about their adorable children or grandchildren. Still others would like me to illuminate their personal triumphs and successes — not to boast, they usually add, but to “show the kids what can come of hard work.”
I’ve come to suspect those people may not be the positive role models they think they are.
The rest of the suggestions typically come from people with an agenda of some sort. They either want me to write about some politician’s seemingly snaky deal, a utility company they think ripped them off or some societal trend that gets on their nerves. Teenage texting is a popular complaint these days, as is the driving habits of young people, old people and people from Putnam County.
Most disturbing of all are the people who saddle up to me to suggest I write about the problems created by one minority group or another. I’ve had people suggest I take on “the blacks,” “the gays,” “the Orientals” and, in one particularly bizarre instance, “the kid lovers.”
In this case, the man wasn’t complaining about pedophiles. He meant people who actually like children. My response to these folks is to tell them I’m considering writing a column about jackasses and ask them if they wouldn’t mind providing some quotes.
As my old editor said, everyone has a story to tell, it’s just that some people are too stupid to tell them. Others just ought to keep them to themselves.