“Turn out the lights, the party’s over
“They say that all good things must end”
— Willie Nelson, “The Party’s Over”
“Writing a weekly column is like being married to a nymphomaniac. Whether you want to or not, you gotta perform.”
— Attributed to Lewis Grizzard
I have said on more than one occasion that if spellcheck had been invented back when I finished high school, I would have majored in journalism instead of history.
I am one of the “spelling impaired,” a shadow group that hides its shame behind the slogan “it’s a sorry man that can’t spell a word two ways.”
So maybe it is not entirely coincidental that my foray into journalism coincided with the coming of the word processor.
Before joining the faculty at Jacksonville State University, I had published a couple of op-ed pieces in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I continued this in Alabama, writing occasional articles for newspapers around the state, including The Anniston Star.
It was a lot of fun, a good break from historical studies, and it brought in beer money.
Then, in 2002, I was approached by John Fleming, then of The Star, asking if I could help him with editorial writing. Though I had never written an editorial in my life, I had the required “opinion about everything” along with the gall to believe my opinion mattered, so I signed on.
Then I casually mentioned that I had always wanted to write a weekly column, The next thing I knew, I was doing that, as well.
I enjoyed editorial writing because I was anonymous. I could express opinions without any responsibility for them. If someone got mad about what I wrote, they thought it was written by Brandy Ayers and blamed him.
The column, however, became my pride and joy.
Writing it allowed me to put in popular prose things my students and I had been discussing in class, as well as topics I was exploring in my academic research. More than that, I was free as a columnist to write on everything from legislative antics to dogs eating Christmas ornaments. It was an opportunity to cut loose my sense of whimsy and revel in the irony that fairly dripped from doings in Dixie.
Editorializing, however, wore me down.
My “insightful” assessments of Alabama’s woes and “brilliant” solutions to the state’s problems went unheeded. I had answers to questions that no one wanted asked. In 2013, as I prepared to retire from academic life, I took stock of the fact that after a decade of writing, few if any of the reforms I editorially advocated had taken place.
So I gave it up.
When I retired from JSU, I also retired from editorial writing.
But I kept the column.
By then I had a loyal, if intensely ambivalent, readership, and I enjoyed the occasional suggestions, corrections and comments. It was a good gig.
But like Willie Nelson so aptly put it, “all good things must end.”
Finding agreement with Lewis Grizzard’s observation, I concluded that the point has been reached that I can’t perform like I used to.
This month, I will have exceeded my allotted three-score-years-and-ten by four. In recognition of that milestone, I will stop writing the weekly column.
Now, I won’t give it up entirely. If something strikes my fancy, I may write it up and if The Star wants to publish it, The Star will.
It has been a good run.
In the years that I was at it, I picked up more awards as a journalist than I ever did as a historian. I find satisfaction in that, though it may be because journalism gives out more awards, which surely improved my chances.
During those years, I saw my writing change from the more academic style of “Hardy the historian” to a more casual, conversational style that readers seemed to find appealing. I could crack jokes, tell stories, pass along things that, if they weren’t true, they should be.
Having to get my thoughts across in 800 words or less forced me to economize, condense, clarify, tighten and know when and how to shut up.
Journalism made me a better writer.
It also made me a better teacher.
It even might have made me a better historian.
So, thank you Brandy and Josie. Thank you John, Bob, Lisa, Phillip and the rest.
Thank you for the opportunity to do this.
It has been the most fun I ever had with my clothes on.