One time David Allan Coe thought he’d written the perfect country song until a friend pointed out that it lacked several essential references. It had no mention of momma, getting drunk, rain, trucks, or trains. So he crammed all those elements into a new last verse, and then he knew for certain he’d written the perfect country song. He had, too. It’s better even than any of the Old Possum’s classics. It can’t compare to Patsy Cline doing “Crazy,” but much of the perfection there has to do with Patsy, and isn’t inherent in the song.
Anyhow, I set out this morning to write the perfect newspaper column. I’ve written several thousand of the imperfect kind over the last 40 years, and no more than a dozen times, maybe two dozen, have I glimpsed the promised land, thinking as I smoothly prosed nearly right up to the finish line, “Could this be the one?”
It never was the one. A few times I pretended that it was — threw my hands up pentecostally and praised the Lord, got up and did a little victory dance, notified the dynamite man to start buffing my Nobel. But however dazzling, however elegant, however stylish and persuasive the rascal seemed at the moment of its emergence, it lacked an essential something — momma runned over by a damned old train — and that telltale lack fingered ol’ moi as an imposter and a fraud.
Nope, Assmunch. Close but no ’gar. Try again later.
Newspaper column writing is a business that encourages beating yourself up for that type of failure — unless you’re an imbecile, of which, of course, we suffer no dearth. We have more imbecile columnists here than Florida does, or Texas, or New England, or France. Our per capita incidence of them is unrivaled except by D.C. and maybe London. You know who they are, and all too well their peckerwood sins of om and com, and I’m loath to say more on advice of counsel, out of concern for self-incrimination and the likelihood of being drummed out of the scoundrels’ brotherhood.
So every column is partly penance for the above. And the unending quest to write the perfect one is penance just for taking up space — space in the paper and space on the planet that could’ve gone to someone with better sense and more gumption. And this time, this time I thought I had all the essentials assembled to pull it off, to finally write that perfect newspaper column.
It had everything.
Best of all, it had tension.
It had a strategy for keeping on point — allowing digressions, as long as they were brief and amusing, but not distractions.
It had the recommended two quotations — one wry (Groucho or Yogi) and one inspirational (Emerson or Dr. King) and several “echoes,” a legal way to rip off lyrical bits of popular songs.
It had some heroes and anti-heroes — salty characters, not these teabag stiffs or shuffling turnips, not politicians who didn’t hear the fat lady sing, not do-goods or forward-marchers as Karr Shannon used to call them, not a preacher or a young’un saying the darndest thing or a pet doing the cutest thing, not a rassling promoter or mountebank and definitely not a lightning-rod salesman.
It had some straw men for me to whomp on, and some questions for me to beg, and a couple of all-purpose syllogisms.
It not only beleaguered those in charge, it whaled the living crap out of them.
It kept the sentences short and punchy.
Short paragraphs too.
It had the mandatory nut graf, and this was the mother of all nut grafs, and only insiders who know the lingo will know how monumentally important that is.
It had the word Methinks available but also the perspicacity to avoid using it. Same was true of the expression, “Not to put too fine a point on it…” I did let one “on the one hand this, on the other hand that” slip by, but it occurred deep inside a sentence and wasn’t used to start one. And Silent Ed of the green visor deleted the whole sentence anyway.
It wasn’t the work of a sanctimonious twit.
It absolutely had no agenda.
The charge of “whining” is nearly always itself just a whine, but nonetheless it never even got close.
There were no big words in it to scare off the pencil-necked geeks — words like that “perspicacity” up there, which snuck back into the text after I’d given up on the idea that this one might be the one.
The one urban myth in it got the snopesing it deserved.
A perfect column is inconceivable without a reference to a gibbous moon, and this one had that, and obviously still does.
In short, it walked, it talked, it crawled on its belly like a reptile. It could’ve been a contender. It had the right stuff, true grit, high dudgeon. Mencken would’ve sent it back but would’ve rolled the el perfecto port to starboard to fight off a grin. Lafcadio Hearn wouldn’t have thought that it sucked, and in matters like this you take your consolation where you can.