Last winter, my friends and I were at a bar off St. Laurent when one announced his desire to get some fresh air. Upon return, he said he’d been standing on the corner and struck up a conversation with two McGill students. They asked who he was with inside the bar. He listed some names, including my own, to which one of the girls responded: “Ew, Ricky Kreitner? I hate him!” And the other: “He’s such an asshole!” They walked away. Back in the bar, my friend described their faces to me. I’d never met them before in my life.
Such are the joys of being a regular opinion columnist at a student newspaper like the McGill Tribune. I can think of a few other examples, either from my first year as a columnist for the Daily, or from my second, here at the Trib, of the reputational perils inherent in becoming that strange thing in the McGill community: a known entity. Now that I’m the faceless opinion editor of the Tribune, searching for someone to take over our sixth columnist spot, I thought I’d share some reflections about my own experience to give readers an idea of what it’s like and whether they might want to do it too.
Of course, filling a 600-word space every two weeks doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have enemies, nor that you will necessarily piss off your closest friends, nor that your erstwhile good name will be disparaged and your moral worth questioned by McGill students who can take comfort in the fact that their opinions are not subject to the public scrutiny that yours are. Whether or not one “achieves” such notoriety depends entirely on the character of the column and of the columnist. There is that judgment and reputation thing, but there is also plainly the recognition thing—which, albeit in a small way, even non-controversial writers are certain to encounter. Witness the occasional party question: “As in, the Ricky Kreitner?” You might be surprised how difficult it is to summon an answer to that existential question.
As for the upsides: to be not only engaged in the campus conversation but also in some small way to direct it; to actually stimulate in the minds of over 10,000 peers certain thoughts; to stir in them admiration, anger, contemplation, or some blend of the same; to become a semi-official observer of student life at this university, is to experience a rewarding sense of actually being at McGill, which, at this centre-less school, in this incredibly diffused campus community, is not easy to come by otherwise.
Become a columnist not to show off your writing, but to improve it. The process of being edited and of feeling compelled to put your best work before fellow McGillians, friends and foes alike, is one by which all aspiring writers or even mere armchair observers could profit. I can’t tell you how often I would read a particularly vicious response to one of my articles and realize the person was absolutely right. Yes, it felt crappy for a day or two, but the result, I’m convinced, was clearer thinking and better writing.
The writer Somerset Maugham once gave an excellent, though gendered, argument for writing: “Whenever [the writer] has anything on his mind, whether it be a harassing reflection, grief at the death of a friend, unrequited love, wounded pride, anger at the treachery of someone to whom he has shown kindness, in short any emotion or any perplexing thought, he has only to put it down in black and white, using it as the theme of a story or the decoration of an essay, to forget all about it. He is the only free man.”
When you have the power of the pen there is nothing you can’t confront, nothing you can’t neutralize. The Montreal winter is a little less biting because you can go inside and write about it. Scorn from a lover or a friend is a little less damaging because you can write about it. Your experience in life in general and at McGill in particular will be more meaningful if you can seize it, be aware of it, analyze it, and feed back into it that awareness, thereby enriching both your life and your writing in the process. Opinion-writing as self-help! I fail to see why you haven’t applied already.
To apply, send a brief cover letter, a CV, and two writing samples to [email protected], by Tuesday, January 25.