The deal is, don’t make your little problem all about you. Find a way to draw people in with this story, get them to think how they have this in common with you and the big picture. It’s so arrogant of us to suggest that we should not have to reveal anything about ourselves, that readers are just supposed to trust us. Newsrooms are full of reporters who envy columnists and think we don’t work hard, and sure, if you’re spending too many of your columns just regurgitating reader mail, it’s time to give it up. I also made a conscious choice: Do you want to become a TV celebrity, or devote yourself to the writing and reporting? It’s bad when a columnist starts walking into a room wondering how many people recognize her. It hurts the work. If a lot of people know who you are, lucky you, but you have to earn that honor every day.
I wrote a column once about tipping in airports. And one day, I was racing to my flight and this guy drives by me in one of those electric carts. He stops and backs up, and says, “Miss Schultz?” And I say, “Yes?” And he says, “Thank you.” I can’t tell you how much that meant to me, because that says the people you’re writing for actually know it. You don’t do this kind of work expecting a lot of gratitude from the people you’re fighting for.
It’s interesting how newspapers determine who they’re supposed to be covering and who’s reading them. Some in the newsroom wanted only our e-mail address at the end of stories, but I always wanted to have my phone number, because I knew that a lot of the people who read my columns don’t have computers. And I know that because they called me. My voicemail would hold 90 messages, and it would fill regularly.
What always kept me going were the calls from women readers. Often, I could tell they were hoping I wouldn’t pick up—they would call after hours and were so nervous about giving me their opinion that they had written it out and were reading it. I would hear that and I would say to myself, “You know what, I really am that woman who’s figured out that I’m entitled to give my opinion, and I am lucky to feel this way.”
Always a journalist
I left the Plain Dealer in large part because Sherrod was going to be back in cycle. I’m a woman with a lot of opinions and a significant percentage of my readers never questioned that my opinions belonged to me and don’t have to do with my husband. But in the newsroom, that was going to become an issue again, and I’ve just reached the point where I don’t want to waste my energy. And I can be nationally syndicated and still write out of Cleveland. Everyone should have these great problems, where you get a national forum but are still having to duke it out over whether some people in the industry think you should do this because of who you’re married to.
The biggest shift for me is working on the novel. For five years, my editor has been encouraging me to write fiction. She said that the working class is really underrepresented in modern literature and that I could do something about it. At the time, I didn’t have an idea and I didn’t have this strong sense that I could do it. What really pushed me to consider doing it was feeling increasingly constricted as a journalist in trying to tell these stories in my columns. My mom always told her daughters, all three of us, “Don’t marry him until you see how he treats the waitress.” I remember when she told me that—it was one of those rare moments, like a holiday thing, and Mom would take just me, the oldest, out to lunch and somebody was berating the waitress. Well, I have a mother character in the novel. You can make it play out in a way that people see the origins of that advice and they live the consequences of that advice, in a way that writing one column about it can’t.