Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Leonard Pitts, in town to accept the William Allen White award, talked to Journal-World intern Jacob Muselmann about the writing process and advice he has for would-be columnists.
Out of all of your creative ideas, how do you decide which ones to pursue?
That depends on if there are a lot of ideas. In the case where there are more than one, there will be one that will be more timely, and there will be another one that you can sort of hold. But the ultimate decision is always which one of these is burning my gut the most, which one do I need to write before I can go to sleep tonight? That’s always the ultimate thing. That column has to be written first.
And when there are no ideas?
Go out and look for them. You scratch the dirt, you read, you talk to people. But I’ve learned that there’s always going to be that next idea. When you first start writing that column, there is a certain amount of fear that you’re never going to have another idea at some point. But, after you’ve done it for a while, you kind of learn that, you know, the column gods will provide. You really learn to be cool with it. … It may not be as quickly as you’d like it or whatever, but something will always present itself. If nothing else, you know Pat Robertson is going to say something stupid. You can always count on that.
So once you have that topic, how do you then approach it? Is there any method you use to get an angle?
It depends on what I want to say, what’s the point I want to get across, and that determines how I’m going to write it. I may use sarcasm, because oftentimes the best way to undermine something is to ridicule it. If it’s something sort of heart-bending, I may just pull that out and use understatement, and let the gravity of it speak for itself. I may try a more colloquial approach, or I may be purely analytical. It all depends on what I’m writing. A lot of times in my writing you may see elements of all of those, depending on what I need to do with the particular paragraph or passage. I just did a piece on a documentary that’s coming out on blacks in the military, and for that piece I chose to do a very literary-type thing. You try to elevate the language and use a lot more rhythm, cadence and poetry in it, because I thought it was something very somber and I wanted people to come away with it with a very certain sense. But then I may turn around next week and do something that’s more ridiculous or more sarcastic. It depends on what you’re writing, what you’re trying to do.
What’s the best advice you’d give any beginning writer?
The advice for writers actually doesn’t vary whether you’re beginning or you’ve been out there for years. It’s write and read. Those are the two best things you can do for your writing, in that order. You know, those are the things that make you better. There’s a lot of other stuff that people talk about — to take courses, take writer’s workshops and all that other good stuff — and that’s all well and good, but the most important thing that any writer can do is write and read. And I read other writers with a critical eye toward learning how it is they do what they do, and what their techniques are. And learn to read yourself critically, and learn to be your own toughest editor. You really need to make it a point to write every day and to be very critical, again, about your own stuff. There’s a lot of other stuff I could say, but to me it all starts from there. If you’re not doing that, then the other stuff doesn’t matter. The foundation is writing and reading, in that order.
What’s been the hardest thing for you as a writer?
I’ll put it like this, I didn’t start out to be a columnist. I started out to be a novelist. I came out of college — oh my God, 33 years ago — and it took me until March of last year to finally get that done. So I guess the moral of that story is that it takes a certain amount of persistence. This is a profession and a craft that you really gotta love. If you don’t love it then you won’t have anywhere near the persistence to be successful.
I’ve got a friend, Audrey Duke. She’s a novelist, and she says when you come to her and say, “I want to be a writer,” and she would say, “don’t bother,” because if all you have is want, you don’t really have enough. You have to have a need. And if you have a need, you’re already writing. If you already write, you have to then figure out what you need to do to make it better. How you make it better is persistence, constant repetition, constant practice, and looking at other writers.
I read other writers to this day — one, for enjoyment obviously, and two, to figure out, OK, how did he make that happen? If I’ve got this butterfly in my chest when I read this passage, why is that? How did he make that happen? Or this may be laugh out loud. How’d he do that? I like to read Dave Barry, because Dave is funny but he’s also a master class at how to structure a joke, like, “OK, this is how you make it funny.”