On January 17 at 7:00PM at the Pablo Center at the Confluence, Mike Paulus—writer, editor, and True North co-producer—will present the much anticipated craft talk “Nobody Cares What You Think (And Other Lessons Learned From Over a Decade of Column Writing.” Snag your FREE ticket here. (Note: To keep our costs low, please only snag a ticket if you intend to come!).
Mike began his column writing career in July of 2004 when he agreed to fill the back page of every issue of Volume One. (Two years later, he would accept an editorial position at the Eau Claire-based magazine.) Over the years he’s crafted over 350 columns for the publication, clocking in a quarter million words worth of columns (give or take 30,000 words). His work has also been featured on Wisconsin Public Radio’s Wisconsin Life and Central Time. During his craft talk, he’ll chat about how his style, skills, and attitude have evolved over the years, as well as offer practical tips for the most important writerly lesson of all: how to start with a blank page and deliver something week after week. We recently chatted with Mike, who provided insight on a range of issues—everything from how to keep the writing fresh to the column he’s most proud of!
Read on! And see you on January 17!
BJ Hollars: How do you keep a column fresh? At some point, does it become difficult to crank out an original column every two weeks?
Mike Paulus: Yeah, over the years, looking back, I can see long dry spells where it was really hard to come up with ideas I was excited about. But I think that has everything to do with where your head's at and how you're doing emotionally. There are always ideas to be found, mostly by digging into the small parts of your life, the parts you don't analyze very often. But at the end of the day, I don't have a choice – I have to produce something, whether it's "fresh" or not. And I think that's where the best writing lessons have come from. I don't have a choice not to learn about writing. I have to write. And when you write you learn.
I've never thought to myself, "how can I keep this thing new and exciting." Maybe I should. But for me it's always come down to each idea, one at a time. And I always remind myself that a dumb idea can be a good column if you write about it well enough. At that point, you're just putting writing skills to the test.
BH: Without giving too much away, do columns follow a general format?
MP: Yes, a lot of my columns have a basic formula, or basic formulas. There's an order to things that fits my voice. If everything goes well – you find an idea you're excited about, your head's in the right place, etc. – you can go from zero to a finished column in a few hours or less. And part of that speed is having these basic structures to fall back on. They develop over years. Don't get me wrong, my columns are ALWAYS better when written over the course of a few days, multiple drafts, all that. But in reality, I don't always have time for that any more.
BH: Has your column voice changed over the years? If so, how?
MP: Oh, yeah. That'll be a big part of my upcoming Craft Talk. I developed a certain writing voice years and years ago writing these reminder emails for the poetry slam I ran with my wife. We had an email list and a Hotmail account and a few times a month I'd try to be funny with this little audience, through these emails. I tried to be funny and entertaining when I hosted the poetry slams, live on stage, but these emails let us say things that don't work when spoken out loud. I guess that's where my writing voice started. Then I started the column, and for a bunch of years I kept developing that voice. Eventually I got pretty bored with the whole thing and my columns became a real chore. And that was all about the voice, not the topics I was writing about. So I shifted things. And I'll be talking about that shift at the Craft Talk.
BH: Has your column changed in subject matter as your own interests have evolved?
MP: Oh, big time. I used to work in a lot of commentary on specific local happenings. Cultural stuff. City stuff. But that was never my real forte. Hopefully, as you grow older, you keep finding new things to get excited about, and that informs what you write about, of course. But the biggest changes stemmed from a growing confidence in what I'm actually good at writing about – a confidence in turning inward.
BH: What's the most unexpected column you've ever written?
MP: All the best columns, my very favorite ones, just showed up out of nowhere. Writers talk about how "it all just poured out of my head." Well, that really happens – and it's the best feeling. If you have some writing skills in place and a solid voice so you're ready to capture a gush of ideas ... well, it's like nailing your target from 5 miles away. It still takes some hard work, but it's just different, more exciting. The problem is, we intentionally try to repeat that magic. And the harder you try, the bigger mess of it you make, and you end up feeling like crap. So it's a numbers game. The more you write, the more it happens. That's it.
But you didn't ask about that. One time I started writing about pajama pants and ended up writing about our tiny place in this cold, black, vast, unfeeling universe. That was unexpected. I promise I'll talk about that column at the Craft Talk.
BH: What's the column you're most proud of?
MP: I wrote a column about the weird light you see at night in the wintertime, here in the city. Staring out your windows at night. I feel like that was a culmination of where I was at, at the time. Emotionally. And I was exploring things people like my wife had taught me to see over the years, realizing this is a shared experience, this weird light. Shared by the people of the Midwest. And I didn't feel the pressure to be funny or make jokes about it.
And like most of my columns, as soon as it was published, I found a hundred things to change about it.
BH: Spoken like a true writer!
Click here to listen to the most recent version of “Dark Winter Light” which appeared on Wisconsin Life in January 2017.