Literary critics make much of the difference between fiction and nonfiction. For me, both genres are equally exciting. For years my Muse was named Fictiona, who wears a power suit and likes good stories with offbeat characters. With her leaning over my shoulder, I saw myself as an author of novels, starting in 1971 with my first novel. then my first bestseller The Front Runner, in 1974, and several other novels through 2001.
In between creativity-fests with Fictiona, I did write some magazine articles, occasionally with activist intent. In the early 70s, when I was competing in long-distance running, I was a staff writer for Runner's World, and typed a series of fiery editorials about women's rights in sports. And yes, that was the Typewriter Age.
It wasn't till 1991, when I moved to Los Angeles, that the Muse of editorials first tapped me on the shoulder.
At that time, California was suffering a major drought. In northern California, where I had been running an organic farm as a sideline, people were doling out water. Our well's daily output had dwindled to 20-25 gallons. Dried-up ranches shipped their livestock to market. Crops failed. The wine harvest was minimal. When I landed in L.A., imagine my disgust at the sight of water being gushed onto emerald lawns and golf courses. People were rushing to re-fill their swimming pools just before new county water restrictions went into effect. The sight of all this urban insensitivity pissed me off.
Since it was now the Laptop Age, I plugged in my Powerbook 170, and whipped off a commentary about people who live in environmental denial. Off it went in the mail to the editorial page at the L.A. Times. Venting made me feel better -- probably a major motive for this kind of writing! It didn't cross my mind that my knee-jerk might actually get published -- till the L.A. Times called two days later to say they liked it.
The editorial Muse is a different girl from Fictiona. Not mention the old Greek Muses -- Cleo (poetry), Calliope (music) and the others in their togas and sandals. Editoria wears a T-shirt and a baseball cap. She's urgent, edgy. Sometimes she wakes me up at 4 a.m. with the right phrase, or the handle on a complicated subject. In recent decades, as print media expanded the traditional newspaper editorial page to include guest commentary, and the Internet Age came along to speed the global reach of opinion, editorials have become a space-age art called blogs. Editoria adores blogging. It lets her kick the door open to what she calls "greater citizen participation in the public debates of democracy."
With this second Muse nudging me along, certain subjects became sacred. As the '90s passed, I ranged to free speech, gay youth, gay elders, GLBT complacency. Personal health issues (including Lyme) led to editorials on women and autoimmune disease -- which led to a monthly column in A & U Magazine and questions about the cut-throat politics of AIDS and the public-health world. Today, it's the religious right, same-sex marriage, the economy, pertinent history, and what hopefully will be a new era in American politics.
Reader responses fascinate me. They're like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates -- you never know what you're going to get. When there's silence, I might have missed the mark -- or readers might simply be in major denial.
Online, the response is way more instant and numerous than in the newspaper world, where a reader letter might not show up for several days. I've found that Bilerico readers and Outsports readers generally start weighing in after a piece is up for half an hour or so. But my first Huffington Post piece wasn't up for 10 minutes before comments were popping up.
I've evolved a few guidelines for myself. Write in the moment. Have a thick hide. Timing is everything. Look for neglected issues (when everybody else is clamoring about same-sex marriage, it's easy to get lost in the clamor). Focus, focus, focus. Go for the jugular, but avoid personal attacks or outings or public pissing-matches. Irony is good. Low-key is good. Towering rage is tricky (many people dismiss anger in a writer). Make every word count, so you hit the reader's mind with a single diamond bullet. Bloggers get to comment on the comments, and to clarify, if necessary... but it's best to bulls-eye the first time if you can.
No matter what the subject is, though, Fictiona chimes in now and then to remind me that a good story line can be important in an editorial too.
Today I have a growing number of readers who like my editorials/commentaries/blogs, but have no idea I ever wrote any novels. "The Front Runner? What's that?" they ask.
Editoria just grins, and rolls her eyes. "What matters," she tells me, "is having the last word...wherever genre you can have it in."