Earlier this week, Roger Cohen wrote about World Zionism and Paris’s personal and political problems. His newest book, The Girl from Human Street: Ghosts of Memory in a Jewish Family, is now available. He has been blogging here this week for the Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe series.
I write a column for The New York Times. Eight hundred words, twice a week. When I describe that as a full-time job, some people are unconvinced. That’s nothing! Believe me, it’s something, accurately compared by a colleague to life under a windmill. Avoid one blade and the next one is coming to get you. A column done, it’s hard not to start thinking immediately about what the next one might be. Two ideas a week is a lot to ask of anybody.
Nobody ever suggests a column to you, even at times of overwhelming news developments. The phone never rings with a request (order) to go somewhere, as it would during the many years I spent as a foreign correspondent. The column is yours, alone. For as long as you have it.
This freedom is an immense privilege. I can travel anywhere without explaining to anyone what I have it in mind to do. But of course this unfettered existence leaves the columnist with a list of potential subject matter that is limitless. Not everyone responds well to limitlessness. Not everyone responds well to such a solitary line of work.
I’m not expecting anyone to shed a tear. It’s an amazing job.
I mentioned two ideas a week. Perhaps that’s a conservative estimate. A good column often needs one-and-a-half ideas, the first to get you down to about 500 words, and the half-idea for a twist carrying the reader through to the end. That would be three ideas a week. A strong column often writes itself fast. A column that is looking for its core, its central idea, takes longer. You can’t hit the ball out the park every time. You just have to get used to that. Nor is the way a column idea takes shape consistent. Sometimes I know well ahead of time what I will write. More often, it’s a last-minute decision. Occasionally an idea will come in a flash: the cry of eureka in the shower. Then all previous plans get shredded.
There’s a book-writing side to my mind and a journalist’s side. I tried for a while to write one column a week and push forward with The Girl from Human Street in my spare time. This set-up did not work well. I needed to leave that windmill behind, completely. Having the blades coming at me more slowly still locked me in the columnist’s mindset. Only when I went on leave for some months did the book begin to take form.
A column, in general, relies on pithiness, brevity, synthesis. There is little room for narrative or character development. Its form could not be at a greater remove from a book. I like both forms but cannot flit from one to the other. I admire friends who rise early to write and then go to their day jobs. I am not made like that.
Book writing is a form of complete immersion. Begin the next morning where you left off the previous evening with no distraction, preferably having dreamed of how the next few pages will be written. There are good moments and bad. In general writing is a form of exquisite suffering. You learn to hate that question: “How’s the book going?” Mumbling inevitably ensues. But when it’s done there is no satisfaction like it. A part of the psyche is satisfied that journalism, even at its best, is unlikely to reach.
Roger Cohen is a columnist for The New York Times, where he has worked since 1990: as a correspondent in Paris and Berlin, and as bureau chief in the Balkans covering the Bosnian war (for which he received an Overseas Press Club prize). He was named a columnist in 2009. He became foreign editor on 9/11, overseeing Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage in the aftermath of the attack. His columns appear twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays. His previous books include Soldiers and Slaves and Hearts Grown Brutal. He lives in London, and will move back to New York in June.
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Roger Cohen is a columnist for The New York Times, where he has worked since 1990 as a correspondent in Paris and Berlin and as bureau chief in the Balkans covering the Bosnian war, for which he was cited for excellence by the Overseas Press Club. He was named foreign editor on 9/11, overseeing Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage in the aftermath of the attack. His previous books include Soldiers and Slaves and Hearts Grown Brutal. He lives in London.