A Love Letter to Readers

The passing of a newspaper is a little like a death—a voice, a resonance, a presence falls silent. Also lost is the community a newspaper establishes with its audience. Reading at best is a kind of conversation—you talk back and throw the page down, or nod and read snippets to your friends on the phone.

These losses are not called censorship, but they are: economics edits opinion. Alternative newspapers are always and always ironically supported not only by donors but by advertising revenue, yet restaurants and retail shops rarely see how critical opinion and hard news can bolster their business. Santa Cruz is particularly rough country in this regard, since any alternative paper is up against the Good Times, which garners a large share of the revenue-producing ads. The Good Times could use that revenue to fund more news space, but it doesn’t; as publisher Carole Atkinson told Lee Quarnstrom, writing for the San Jose Mercury, “We’re a fun publication and we want to stay fun.”

The four papers I’ve written for in Santa Cruz County—the Phoenix, the Express, the Sun, and the Santa Cruz Magazine—never found the right mixture of “fun” and substance to achieve longevity; the Metro, informed by this collective history of loss, likely will.

The loss of Santa Cruz Magazine strikes me particularly sharply; not only was it a publication of particular promise, but it marks the end of the column that for nearly ten years I have published in Santa Cruz newspapers. It was by way of that column, begun in 1984, that I became the writer that I am (for better or for worse).

A column is a strange and wonderful venue. It is a little like the letters people wrote before there were telephones; the writer needs to choose emblematic scenes and sketch them quickly, then explain. The writer also has to be someone in particular but not too particular. If columnists become narrow or predictable in their personas, we don’t need to read them: we could write it ourselves. (Think of the implacably obvious George Will.)

Two things allowed me to find that fluid but not always obvious voice and point of view: editors and readers. Editors have given me more than latitude—they gave their blessing in advance and never manhandled my copy: Stephen Kessler, who talked me into doing this work when he was editing for the Express; Buz Bezore, who welcomed whatever I wrote (with the exception of my semi-colons); Geoffrey Dunn, who was behind every scene.

The Santa Cruz Magazine editors continued to extend that endless grace: Marty Abaurrea’s energy and encouragement kept me writing when I thought my brain had atrophied from raising a child who never slept for more than 90 minutes at a stretch; Mike Kostyal is a gifted and meticulous editor people in North County should know better, an editor who often left me feeling pleasantly outclassed.  I recount these names not just to say thank you, not just to gesture to the history of Santa Cruz alternative papers, but to say that writers don’t just bloom out of thin air. Writers are produced by the invitation to write, by the generous reception of their work. (If I were simply giving thanks to editors, I would also have to thank my secret weapon, my partner-in-life, who has read my drafts since 1987 and who can, with one perplexed look, unhook the most convoluted argument.)

Writers are also produced by the community they come from and speak to. Looking over ten years of columns, I see that each one has two kinds of sources. The formal ones are the people I interviewed, the documents I located, the meetings I observed.  More important for many of these pieces were the informal sources—the letter from a long-time acquaintance telling me the health clinic he worked for was in danger of losing funding, the chance remarks of a friend.

After returning from a fruitless shopping trip, my friend Linda said, “Life is too short to spend any of it crying in Leask’s,” setting off a series of columns in 1985 on body image, social class, and the despair of daughters buying gifts. My friend Ann told me about standing up at 4:45 and using a yardstick to push the hands of a big office clock forward 15 minutes—triggering pieces on women’s wages, office work, women organizing in the shirtwaist industry in 1909. One of my stepsons, then in junior high, leaned across the dinner table and said, “Roz, you really have to write something about the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.”

In short, writing is as mysterious as you always thought it was, but not in the way you thought it was. No muse descends, handing out paragraphs, wet and glistening with fresh ideas.  Instead, our friends are the muse. Magazine covers are the muse.  Daily life is the muse.

My too-often-immortalized-in-print sleepless child is also the muse—in that he propels me into lives I would otherwise imagine from a distance. When he was tiny, I could not make formula without thinking of Governor Wilson’s cuts in AFDC, about how a woman at the end of the month without the $9.47 it took to buy a new can of it might watch herself water it down to make it last. Waiting for bottles to boil, I could not help but think about women in the Third World, persuaded by Nestle to give up breast feeding—and then trying to make up bottles without refrigeration or clean water.

And readers are the muse. Writing for local papers is an extraordinary privilege in that regard, in that it becomes what writing is at its best: an on-going conversation. People I’ve never met look at my check while I’m buying pens or groceries and say, “I still have that column you wrote on hitch-hiking, or miscarriage, or Bosnia.” Strangers call me up on the phone and disagree with me.

Later, I find myself writing to that reader, that stranger.  I imagine what he or she already thinks about an issue, and start there. I imagine us over coffee—that reader, that friend, talking back, arguing, nodding.

For me, an ideal reader is not a good friend or colleague, for whom I would want to perform intellectual or syntactic gymnastics that would bore anyone else. Readers I know less well help me guard against cuteness or unintelligibility: I often write imagining as readers Betsy and Barbara, who for years proofread and performed computer magic on my copy, women I know but do not know.

That semi-imaginary reader has in some way been the writer of these pieces, the “without whom…” Their/your voices or nods generate the next paragraph, scratch out a bad or condescending sentence, push me to explain or illustrate. For those words, for these words, I thank you.


Published in the Santa Cruz Magazine, August 1994