Thursday 27 October 2016

Katie Byrne: Ego and the art of the columnist

Why some of us are drawn to bearing our souls in print

Published 09/08/2015 | 02:30

Bearing her soul: Irish Independent features writer Katie Byrne
Bearing her soul: Irish Independent features writer Katie Byrne

Welcome aboard! This is my first column for Weekend magazine so it makes sense that we get to know one another first. But let's skip the small talk, shall we? I've never been big on it.

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By way of introduction - this being an introductory column - let's instead explore the peculiar job title that is 'column writer'.

Column writing is a curious existence. Ostensibly we share our opinions and insights. The tone can be topical, trivial, political, polemical, fantastical… I'll stop now, because that's not the point.

The point is that all columns have a common thread: they are confessional.

It doesn't matter if it's a rant on the Eurozone Crisis or a paean about discovering your grandmother's locket in the attic - a column conveys a sense of who you are and what you believe in.

Columnists don't just expose ideas, they expose little pieces of themselves. I've written columns for a few years now and the level of self-disclosure runs from tipsy bar-room revelation to complete soul X-ray. I work to a rule: if I haven't wondered 'have I gone too far?' at least once while writing the piece, well then the piece isn't worth writing.

So why would someone essentially open their diary to the public?

That's a question I often ask myself. Is it sadomasochistic to forensically pull yourself apart? Is it egomaniacal to think that anyone cares about what you have to say? Yes, yes and no.

The psychology of the column writer is a complicated one but crucially they do what they do because they believe that the truth has a power of its own. Sincere self-revelation helps both writer and reader better understand themselves.

When I was struggling to come up with ideas for my last column, a writer friend said "you know you can just make it up". I don't believe that. Yes, generalisation and exaggeration are the columnist's allies - and sometimes minor details have to be changed to maintain friendships and prevent lawsuits - but you can't cheat the system. There's magic in words. They are imbued with the spirit in which they were written. And readers can tell when they've been spun a yarn.

Besides, to make it up would be to add another dimension to an already puzzling psyche. Column writers are a funny breed. The character profile tends to be fast mind, frenetic energy and enough voltage to power a small carnival. Column writing is the outlet.

The mindfulness movement tells us to let go of thoughts, but the columnist can't let them float into the ether.

They have to catch them and cross-examine them and ask the same question that they ask a dozen times a day: Could I get a column out of this? We are always elsewhere. Eavesdropping on conversations in cafés and staring into the middle distance as we think of a word to describe the texture of the waiter's hair.

Every so often the columnist is privy to a gaffe or an impropriety that just begs to be written about. Loved ones soon learn to recognise the maniacal glint that flashes across our eyes in these instances.

"Are you going to put this in your column?" they ask. "Of course not!" we lie. Sometimes I mouth the first few lines of a column to myself as I'm walking down Grafton Street before smiling with self-satisfaction. I don't know which one is worse.

It's a precarious profession too. We know not the day nor the hour when our editor will call to say that they're "redesigning the magazine", which is a euphemism in magazine-land for "we're sick of you".

And then we wonder. Was the grandmother's locket column too twee? Was the description of the waiter's hair off-tone? Who else thinks I'm s***? I'm getting ahead of myself here…

Today I'm throwing open the doors and displaying my wares. Open for readers! And I set up shop in the full knowledge that I will be liked and disliked in equal measure… possibly even loathed.

That's the beautiful thing about this game. It is the art of being completely and utterly yourself, and still a good proportion of people will think you're an idiot.

Readers will dislike your principles, your worldview, your attitude…They will develop a good, strong, well-rounded dislike of you and everything that you stand for. And that means something. At least they didn't turn the page…

Rosalind Russell said "acting is standing up naked and turning around very slowly". There are shades of this sentiment in column writing. We aren't stark naked - it's more of a drunken striptease that neither party will remember much of in the morning - but there are definitely scenes of nudity.

It's an intimate relationship, with 535,000 people. And as with any relationship, there are peaks and troughs. Some weeks will be better than others.

There will come the time when all I can deliver is three weeks in a row of boring missionary position, but then, out of nowhere, I'll take you on one hell of a ride. That's life. That's column writing. And that's all for now. Until next week.

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