Diamonds in the Rough

This Week: Columns

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Presenting yourself to the world in weekly 600-word blurbs can be nerve-wracking. As deadline approaches and the column nears completion, we shift our focus from introspection to public perception, as we wonder what people will think of this week's offering. It's daunting, but helping inspire us thus far has been a cache of favorite columns that we've ripped off shamelessly. They're not diamonds in the rough because they're unpopular, but they transcend their respective genres in a way that's rare, refreshing and inspiring to hopeful columnists.

There are some ways we haven't lived up to our writing heroes. A lack of celebrity friends has prevented us from the kind of weekly boasting that litters the writings of former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown. Invested with regional flavor, Brown's column, "Willie's World," consists mainly of self-indulgent anecdotes on the local political elite, from lavish fundraisers to Gavin Newsom's wedding. Part political analyst, part paparazzi creep, Brown fuses politics and celeb-spotting in a way that only a one-time leader of San Francisco could. Despite his political clout and infamous egotism, Brown refuses to elevate himself above the mire, to the delight of his readers. It's this unabashed enthusiasm-he foregoes his ego and gets caught up in the fun of it all-that makes his deceptively multi-dimensional work useful to us.

Like "Willie's World," Dan Savage's syndicated column, "Savage Love," provides weekly digressions from its main topic: sex. Savage mixes well-dispensed advice about topics like bondage (and how to confront your children when they borrow your sex toys) with political and sexual activism. His most successful (and hilarious) work involves inventing lewd sex acts and naming them after anti-gay politicians. Savage's witty eye for both sex and satire sets him apart from the average smut-pushing backpage writer, providing an example of how a column's premise can work as a creative catalyst instead of a limitation.

Embracing this freedom is Bill Simmons, star of ESPN.com's Page 2 section. A well-known columnist as likely to muse on historical bromances (he cites Lewis and Clark as the original) as discuss sports, he drops the names of as many celebrities as he does athletes. Sprinkling in personal tidbits, he comes off as an unashamed pop culture nerd. Like Simmons', the columns we love are ones that unpeel the different layers of the writer, week by week.

Like a misplaced epic poet, Simmons' fellow Page 2 columnist Jeff MacGregor elevates the sports field to a battlefield where life's lessons are put on unrelenting display. Accuse him of exaggeration or solemnity, sure, but never boredom. His bold allusions are noteworthy, whether or not you know the difference between a baseball cap and a salary cap, and provide insight into a mind that views sports as an integrated part of our culture. Essentially a monologue, the column turns the traditional journalistic handicaps of risk-taking, bias and power trips into positive, distinctive aspects of writing. Just be thankful for the concept of editing.

If this meta-column is any indication, writing for the masses is a self-conscious art-though medium, skill or endeavor might be better words for it. Yet with the rise of Twitter and its contemporaries, publishing your half-baked thoughts takes about as much effort as did thinking them in the first place. So who to trust, among this avalanche of Internet enthusiasts? Whether your favorite authors write on sports or celebs, have Ph.D.s or just sweet sharpie mustaches, it's just personal. And these days, it certainly isn't business.


Trim your Sharpie mustache with Nick and Derek at [email protected]



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