An Interview with Jon Carroll

Jon Carroll
Photo credit: Terry Lorant Photography.

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll talks about Clay Felker's pockets full of ideas, dealing with the worst column of the week, and the importance of details.

Over the past twenty-five years, you've written well over six thousand columns. Were you always this creatively productive?

There are a lot of writers in a collateral branch of my family -- John Gregory Dunne is a cousin of mine, and his brother Dominick Dunne. And my father was Irish, and of course there's a tradition there. And I put out a neighborhood newspaper when I was nine. In high school I worked for the literary magazine and the annual and the newspaper, writing for all of them. And I was sort of the all-purpose go-to guy for captions and intros and all of that stuff that needs doing and nobody else wanted to do. And I loved doing it. I still love doing it.

Here's a story: When I got to the Chronicle, I was nineteen and I was working on a section that no longer exists called "This World," which was sort of a news round-up section.... The first day I was there, I was given assignments, and the idea was, you'd turn it in and they'd give you another. And I did six stories. And an old hand came over and told me to slow down, that I was making the rest of them look bad, and that I should know that my quota was around three. So I took it to heart. I didn't want to piss anybody off. So I did the three.

When you moved into column writing, was that a relatively easy transition?

Well, there was a whole period in between where I was a magazine editor. I wrote only occasionally, and once again [it was] captions, headlines, an editor's note, things like that. And I was always looking for a chance to write. It's just that in 1970 there was money in magazine editing and not a lot of money in freelance writing, and I couldn't get a staff job on a magazine; there weren't many staff jobs on magazines.

Then when I got back to the Chronicle and was asked if I could provide samples for a column, it seemed to me like I had a million ideas and there was just stuff all over happening, none of which I'd been able to write about. So that was pretty easy. There's an A. J. Liebling quote that "I can write better than anybody who can write faster, and I can write faster than anybody who can write better." And that's sort of the way I feel about myself.

And it's entirely a gift; it's nothing that I trained for or worked for or planned for. I've tried to nurture it and husband it when it became obvious that that might be a good idea. But it's just something that I know how to do, and it's the only thing I know how to do at the level that I'm doing it. So it's a good thing that I got a job doing it.

...there are going to be bad ones. Or there are going to be 'ehh' ones. And that has to be okay. I mean it just does. Just like factual mistakes or spelling mistakes or failure to understand -- all of the things that happen. You don't like them, but you can't let them paralyze you. You have to just go on.

Bio

Throughout the 1970s, Jon Carroll worked at magazines and papers that ranged from Rolling Stone and the Village Voice to Oui and WomenSports. Since 1982, he's written a regular column for the San Francisco Chronicle that you can find on the back page of the "Datebook" section -- more than 250 columns a year at 900 or so words a column for a total of 5+ million words and counting.

On the Web: SF Gate, Subscribe via RSS

Are there days when you find yourself less inspired, and, if so, do you have any tricks that you play on yourself to get yourself to stay focused?

Sure there are. There are times like this morning, for instance. I've got four different ideas sitting around, and I don't know right at this moment which one I'm going to do, but I know the outline of them in my head enough so that I'm confident that by 12:30 or so I'll have a column.

But there are all sorts of things you can do. You can read the newspaper more carefully or think more carefully about the issues. Like everybody, I have vague opinions about things, and I try to drag one up and see if I can have an original take on it. Or I go online and see what's there, see if there's anything else [that] could kick me off. I go into my past life and tell a story, which, with luck, is illustrative of some damn thing. Or, occasionally, I begin thinking about how to be a good person, how to live your life, and love and forgiveness and charity and all that. And I try to write something about that reasonably sort-of-sincerely.

Do you have a particular routine or discipline that you try to stick to?

Oh yeah -- nothing else happens until the column is done. I have coffee, I read the paper, I come in, and I don't emerge from here until the column is done. That doesn't mean that I'm working on the column solidly. I do email and I do phone calls and I do all sorts of things. But I don't schedule doctor's appointments or meetings or lunches or anything in the morning. It's just not done. So the morning is protected.

Are there any particular tools that you use to capture ideas during the day?

A long time ago I was the editor of a magazine called New West, which was in Los Angeles and which was started by Clay Felker. Clay was out there a bunch at the beginning, and he would call editorial meetings, usually at fancy restaurants. There'd be a discussion of editorial ideas, and he would stand up and he would empty his pockets and he'd have pieces of paper and business cards and God knows what, upon which he had scrawled something. And that seemed to me to be a very good idea.

So as soon as I get an idea, wherever it is, I scrawl it down. And it can be three words. I put all of those in a great big basket -- a wire basket that's sitting on my desk. And the idea is that even though you think you're going to remember this...bitter experience tells me that that's not true. What you remember is that you got a great idea in the middle of the Bay Bridge [laughter] -- you don't remember what it was. So write it down.

I mean, the priority has to be the idea for the column. So you leave the theater and you go out into the lobby and write it down on a popcorn box. You stop a conversation. You do whatever you need to do. You leap up -- this has, God knows, happened a lot -- you leap up from a dinner table and run in and scrawl it down, throw it in the basket, and come back. That's it. You have to. Inspiration is fickle, and you'd better be sweet to it when it arrives.

Do you tend to write one column a day or do you stockpile them?

It was said that [Chronicle columnist] Charles McCabe would come in and write five columns in a day, and that would be his output for the week. I've tried it, and the second column is invariably not as good.

There is some pool of energy that writing uses up, and it needs time to restock itself. I've got no idea what that is or where it comes from. But I am a little tired after writing a column. I go out, take deep breaths and all that. And I know from checking myself on vacations and weekends that when I wake up and it's a column day, it's a definite different feeling -- there's a little bit of dread and there's a little bit of excitement and there's a little bit of something that doesn't happen when I'm not under the gun.

And, you know, some of it is fear. I have a fair amount invested in the fact that I write this much, in terms of my feelings of self-esteem. And so the idea that maybe I won't be doing it is always lurking -- that I just will come up dry and I'll have to take a sick day or something, or that I won't come up dry but I'll write a forced, stupid column. And that I won't like it and that will be the beginning of a long slow descent into pointlessness. If it's a gift that you don't know where it comes from, the suspicion exists that it could go away, you're not in charge of it. You got it for free, and therefore it can go away at any moment.

Has your approach to writing the column changed over the years?

[One] thing I realized when I began thinking about it more objectively is, at five a week, you have to be comfortable with failure. It is inevitable that one column is going to be the worst column of the week. I mean, that's just true. You don't set out to write it, but at the end of the week you can look and you know which one it is. So there are going to be bad ones. Or there are going to be "ehh" ones. And that has to be okay. I mean it just does. Just like factual mistakes or spelling mistakes or failure to understand -- all of the things that happen. You don't like them, but you can't let them paralyze you. You have to just go on.

Is that something you've gotten better at managing with practice?

In coming up with the formulation, "one column of the week is going to be the worst column of the week," it's made it better. It's like, I know this to be true, I can repeat this mantra.

And here's the other thing: I'm often wrong. I write something I don't think is good and people just adore it. Or I write something that I think is really hot s**t and I get no reaction. Or [my wife] Tracy says, "Welllll...." [laughter] I mean, sometimes I know when I've hit a home run, but other than that, I'm not really an expert on what makes a good column.

Most TV and movie scripts follow the three-act structure, and once you look for it, you start seeing that form everywhere. I was curious if there was something along those lines for columns.

Well, there certainly is. There's the "introductory throat clearing," which is how I start writing a column. I just start. As opposed to thinking, "Oh Lord what's the perfect lead?" I just start. And those first three paragraphs may quickly leave the planet -- they may not get used. But sometimes the introductory throat clearing is pretty good -- it's amusing or it provides a kind of second theme or something that can be picked up at the end and makes the column seem far more planned than in fact it was.

And then there's the meat of the column -- the statement of the premise, which more often is what starts the column. And then the changes and the anecdotal expansion of the changes, which is also, for me, called "finding the jokes." What is it you can say that will be pithy and memorable and funny about these things to get your point across. And to get it across in as good, vernacular, accessible English as you can -- to talk about political or academic things in a way that does not sound remotely political or academic.

And then there's "the big finish," with which I hope to write a final sentence that leaves somebody thinking or talking or with a little gasp. Somebody told me a long time ago that when their mother was sewing, when it was necessary to cut the thread, she wouldn't cut it, she would put it in her teeth and just pull and cut the thread that way. I want it to stop -- wham! -- like that. I don't want it to dribble off. That, plus connecting up to the first [section] -- that's the basic structure.

Have you developed any theories on what makes for funny when it comes to the written word?

No, no, no bloody idea. It is what it is. If it makes me laugh, my assumption is, it will make other people laugh because that's proved to be true over the years. But no. Not a thing. I'm reasonably confident that I can do it but.... "Words with K" in them, you know that kind of thing.

That's what they say. And the "comedy of three," right?

Yeah [laughter] -- there's the comedy of three. The comedy of three does seem to work. So I do that in lists and things. I also have a theory that there should be a lot of specific nouns in there -- tables and chairs and brand names and ferrets and apples and stuff like that.

That's one of the things I always try to remind myself -- that art often comes down to the details.

Oh sure. Because actually, that's all there is. You only write a word at a time or a sentence at a time. So when you're doing it, it's all details. And then you stand back and say, well what the hell is this? And then you tweak it here and there to make it more like what [you want it to be]. Miles Davis once said it takes a long time to learn how to play like yourself. And it takes a long time to learn to write like yourself. That's also true.

That brings to mind the last question -- what's the best advice that you've heard over the years about the creative process?

"Show up, pay attention, tell the truth." It's something I heard once and absorbed. And in fact my screensaver is, "Pay attention." Here's another bit of advice that should probably be honored more -- never write anything you don't know is true. [laughter] Which seems to be obvious in journalism, but somehow isn't.

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  • I just discovered your blog and got hooked when I read this interview with Jon Carrol. I also was stunned to realize that the Bad Reporter in the Chron also uses the 3 part act.

  • Jon Carrol has been my favorite columnist for the last 10 years. It's like, if he's writing what he's writing, I don't have to, because he does it so well.

    Sure, I don't care about cats or baseball or gardening, but everything else... is perfect.

  • Excellent interview--and in his photo he has the startled look of a man who's just remembered that there's another column due today...

  • I'm so jealous that you got to sit down with Carroll, Cecil. He's who I want to be when I don't grow up.

  • Another wonderful interview. I appreciated the balancing or dynamic between the trust and respect for the gift along with the showing up day by day. A great columnist like Carroll exemplifies this and he articulates it so well here. Also, a great reminder of transcending the dangers of perfectionism: "One column a week is going to be the worst column of the week." And, finally, the lovely reminder of paying attention and being there for the details, the apple, the table . . . Good questions and great interview.

  • Carroll’s a great interview partly because “columnist” is such an unusual model for creative work. Five a week, done by 12:30—kind of scary. I liked his way of protecting the morning, and the wire basket, and the idea that one out of five is inevitably going to be the worst. Plus the triune structure of columns was a mystery to me till now.

  • Inspiring words; He does my favorite kind of writing--the short, pithy commentary. I loved the emphasis on threes and the 3-act structure. I'll remember that...

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