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News-Sentinel.com Your Town. Your Voice.

20 minutes to life

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.The Associated Press
Monday, April 03, 2017 09:46 am

In 1877, the critic John Ruskin wrote, of James Whistler's Nocturne in Black and Gold, "I have seen, and heard, much of cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face." It became one of the most famously biting putdowns in the history of criticism, and the model for a thousand critques of modern art to come.

Whistler naturally resented being called essentially a conman, so he sued Ruskin for libel. During the course of the trial (which Whistler, btw, won), Ruskin's defense put the question directly to Whistler: Do you really think the two days of labor you put in on the painting was worth 200 guineas? But that's not what I seek the 200 guineas for, Whistler replied: "I ask it for the knowledge of a lifetime."

That's my go-to story whenever anyone asks me how long it takes to write an editorial. If you sent a spy to watch me writing, he would report back to you that it takes me, from the time I sit down at the keyboard until the editorial is finished, 20 minutes more or less.

Which would sound horrifying. How could so little time and effort be put into something the newspaper expects us to take seriously?

But that's just the final, visible part of a long process. I usually know what I'm going to write about before I even come to work: if it's a good day I know it the night before. So all the time before I sit down at the keyboard, anywhere from 12 to 24 hours, the editorial is beginning to take shape in my thoughts. Even when I''m doing something else, such as editing a syndicated column or putting a letters-to-the-editor package together, the sentences and paragraphs are coming together at the back of my mind.

So by the time I sit down at the keyboard, what I'm mostly really doing is typing. The writing has mostly already happened. So you could say it took me 12 to 24 hours to write that editorial. But that's not the whole story, either.

The editorial topics are chosen for a reason. The News-Sentinel's editorial page has a center-right perspective that's been passed down from generation to generation for a long time, which means we have a set of values we like to promote and a list of themes we want to develop and promulgate. To do that, I choose something from recent news that will help illustrate our position — on the theory that people will pay more attention to our opinions in they're tied to something contemporary they already know about.

So an editorial subject is not just plucked out of the blue. It is something we have talked about and argued about many times before, writing and rewriting and polishing and studying from many angles. All that previous effort has to be counted in the time it takes to "write an editorial" as well — days, weeks or, depending on the topic, even months.

As well I must count all the time spent writing thousands of other editorials, getting the forumla down to an excact science; and all the time spent in college learning the rules and expectations of journalism; all the time in the Army . . .

I think you get the drift. The complete answer to "How long did it take you to write that editorial?" is, "All my life."

I hope that doesn't sound pretentious or arrogant, and I don't put it out as anything particularly profound. It's just something ineteresting and useful to know about all of us that we tend to forget and should remind ourselves of from time to time. Our actions are not the product of a moment. They represent the culmination of all the moments that have come before. That spouse we ended up with or the job we choose are the result of all we learned about relationships and the work ethic for all of our lives before we got to the moment of decision.

Understanding that about ourselves is a way to cut ourselves a little slack. We don't have to dwell too long on what a stupid thing we just said or what an idiotic thing we just did. We are who we have always been becoming, so there are reasonable explanations for the seeming most unreasonable words and deeds.

We're willing to cut that same slack for the friends and relatives we want to be loved ones with on a day-to-day business. We don't feel the need to judge them in the moment. We want to know not just who they are now but how they got to be the people they are, the layers upon layers that buoy them up. If they're having a bad day and give us a bad time because of it, it's something we understand because we have a history of good days and bad days.

We don't give the same break, at least very often, to the people we encounter casually and occasionally, especially if they irritate us. The kid at the fast food counter who screws up our order. The clerk at the BMV who lords over us with bureaucratic arrogance. The driver who cuts us off in traffic. We do not try to understand them as the product of their past, realize that what they're doing or saying is the end result of accumulated experience and knowledge, not a spur-of-the-moment impulse. We judge them from that one moment of encounter.

Editorial writers, alas, are not immune to the reactions of the moment. When a public official irritates or annoys me, I do not try to understand him in the context of his life and times. I respond to the irritation of the moment by plugging it into one our editorial page's values-and-themes topics and serving it up as the outrage dejour. And the public figure responds to the editorial (and therefore me) the same way, and the world goes round and round. 

UPDATE: Oops, little brain fart. Name of critic has been corrected from "Raskin" to "Ruskin."

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