Mary Schmich, Pulitzer-winning columnist, on what makes a great column

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    Two weeks ago I attended a talk organized by a professional women’s journalism organization with Mary Schmich, who has been a columnist at the Chicago Tribune for 20 years and won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for commentary.

    Though she writes three times a week for my home city’s metro section, I’d seldom read Schmich’s column before — my preference usually being hard news and features over opinion writing. So before heading to the talk, I read a few of her prize-winning columns.

    At random, I chose one about her sister Gina’s grieving process after their mother died. Gina had struggled for years without properly being diagnosed — borderline personality disorder and mild autism were possibilities — and in the wake of her mother’s death, had found new strength to become more independent, using a cellphone for the first time and improving her hygiene.

    The column was short (Schmich’s cap is 600 words) but had a satisfying fullness, complemented by a comforting cadence and straightforward voice akin to someone telling a story. Schmich says her poetic tone is partly a product of growing up in Savannah, Ga.

    Schmich is petite, with long graying hair down to the middle of her back and deep wrinkle lines around her eyes and mouth. She says they are indicators of how long she’s written a column.

    Mary Schmich Chicago Tribune

    Mary Schmich (Photo: Chicago Tribune)

    Though she has twice before been nominated for the Pulitzer (once in 2006 for feature writing and again in 2011 for her columns), Schmich is the kind of columnist who goes quietly about her work, often without much recognition until this year’s Pulitzer win. As a fellow columnist noted, the Tribune doesn’t always give her columns big play or emphasize her work. She is the rare columnist who does not focus on just one topic so as to bait awards judges — she is a “journeyman,” as he called her.

    In a world where everyone can provide an opinion on a blog, I admire Schmich for the restraint with which she approaches her columns. Her work involves real reporting, not just reacting to or summarizing what she has read. She looks for points of tension and conflict, often writing about minority communities, women, loss and struggle. They are the kind of columns I would write if I had a column.

    “I’m still very wary of opinionating,” Schmich said at the talk. “I feel opinions not rooted in going out are just bullshit.”

    I think her reasoning is part of the reason I dislike writing in the first-person. I’ve always thought that by getting too personal, you stray away from being a real journalist. But I liked Schmich’s caveat: “When I write personally, it needs to relate to other people.” It can’t be self-indulgent or pure navel-gazing. The topic needs to resonate with others.

    Schmich’s writing style lends itself well to this: stripped down, devoid of pretense, she can go beyond the news of the day, uncovering small truths and other sides of the story. A column she read aloud at her talk about a group of boys who mugged five people in downtown Chicago last summer is a good example. After asking a police reporter to pull addresses for her, Schmich went door-to-door and interviewed the mother of one of the arrested boys.

    The dignity with which she treats her subject in the piece is haunting. I got chills as she read and Schmich herself had to pause toward the end, her voice cracking as she read a line from a postcard the mother had received riddled with racial slurs.

    Marilyn Monroe statue

    Seward Johnson’s 26-foot-tall sculpture of Marilyn Monroe, in her most famous wind-blown pose, on Michigan Ave., July 15, 2011, in Chicago. (Credit: AP)

    At a time when women are still less likely than men to write opinion pieces and editorials — and when they do it’s often about “pink” topics, such as food, fashion, home, family and women’s issues — it’s heartening to see the Pulitzers rewarding a woman whose work spans a variety of topics, involves real research and pays homage to a city I call home.

    Perhaps one of the best traits about Schmich’s column is that she tells it like it is, which is on prominent display in her writing about a giant (distasteful) sculpture of Marilyn Monroe that was displayed last summer in downtown Chicago.

    “Its only distinguishing feature is its size, which brings to mind some 1950s B movie about giant women,” she wrote. “How about a statue of a woman that focuses on something besides her underwear?”

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