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First Do No Harm: A Conversation with Mary Schmich

by Brendan Dowling on December 5, 2013

For over twenty years, Mary Schmich’s  perceptive columns  have been a staple of the Chicago Tribune. In 2012, she was awarded the Pulitzer for Commentary, yet she had achieved a broader audience even earlier. In 1997, her column “Wear Suncreen” (originally misattributed as a Kurt Vonnegaut commencement address) rose to prominence and was even eventually turned into a song by Baz Luhrmann. Schmich recently published Even the Terrible Things Seem Beautiful to Me Now, a compilation of her favorite columns. Her writing encompasses a myriad of subjects: from dissecting Chicago politics to minute observations on daily life. The centerpiece of the book is a twelve-part series on Judge Joan Lefkow, a Federal judge whose husband and mother were brutally murdered in her Chicago home by a former plaintiff. As with all of her work, Schmich approaches a sensitive topic with deft observation and wide-eyed clarity. Schmich spoke to Brendan Dowling via telephone on November 19, 2013.

Public Libraries: I wanted to start by talking about the process of putting together the book. How’d you decide which essays to include and which to leave behind?

Mary Schmich: Well, let me say first of all, this was a project that my editors encouraged me to embark upon. So I just sat with the Tribune archives and scrolled through the headlines of the more than two thousand columns that I’ve written since 1992. Sometimes I’d see a headline and think, “Yeah I remember that column.” Other times I’d go, “Hey I have no idea what that column is about.” I went year by year. I had a fat list and then I started trying to be as merciless as I could in terms of culling. I still didn’t get it down to as small as it should be. (laughs)

PL: Going through twenty years of your career, were you surprised by any themes that came up through your work?

MS: It was like stepping into a time warp. When I re-read those columns, I could so clearly remember writing them. It was like being that person again. It just didn’t seem that long ago.

PL: In reviewing your work, did you notice how you’ve changed as a writer?

MS: I think in the earlier columns, I was trying to do too much in the small space. I had been a reporter for a long time and reporters are manic about squeezing in every single fact. I think over time, the columns got a little more air in them as I understood that a column, unlike a news story, is not the place to park every thing you know. It’s not really about delivering facts. You want some facts and you want the facts to be right. But it’s more about viewpoint, mood, and opinion. I think my writing got more relaxed.

PL: Were you aware of that change as time was going by or was that something that unconsciously happened?

MS: No, I became aware of it as it happened. I was adjusting my understanding of what you can and should do in a space that short as I went along. In a certain way I became less “ambitious,” but in a way that I think serves column-writing.

PL: When you included the columns in the book, did you put them in as is or did you rewrite them at all?

MS: I think I changed one or two words. There was one column where I noticed the word “sometimes” in two consecutive paragraphs. And that annoyed me. And there was one spot in a column I had written about my father, where I had said that he died when he was 62 or 63, which at the time I thought was correct. But I’d written another column in which I said he was 60, which he was. Just to align those facts I changed them. Otherwise the columns are exactly as they appeared, for better or for worse.

PL: I want to say, in terms of word choice, reading your column “Lie vs. Lay” was the first time that grammar rule ever clicked in for me.

MS: Bravo! (laughs) And it’ll start making you crazy. I was watching Grey’s Anatomy on Netflix and there was a character who kept saying “lay.” [And I kept thinking,]“No, stop! Stop!”

PL: With the pressure to put out so much writing a week, what attracts you to a story?

MS: What attracts you to anything? To a person, to a vase, to a song? It’s just a gut instinct. Does it interest me? I start there. Does this actually interest me because if it doesn’t interest me it’s not going to interest anybody else.

Is it a topic that works in this space? I think if I were writing a longer column, or if I were writing a column for a different kind of publication, then I’d write a different kind of column. What can I make work in this particular space and what can I write in the time I have available? There are things you can write about if you have a lot of time, and there are things you can write if you have a day.

PL: In terms of how your writing has to be site-specific for the newspaper, what would be an example of a topic that wouldn’t work in that space? Because it seems like you write about a diverse array of topics and tackle big issues.

MS: I don’t rule a lot of categories out. But in a general way, I feel that there are topics that are so complex that even though I might have a gut opinion, it’s irresponsible to express my gut opinion without reporting it more. That doesn’t stop a lot of columnists, right? (laughs)

Maybe because I was a reporter for so long I just don’t like to express really forceful opinions on important topics when I don’t think I’ve sufficiently reported the topic myself. And partly from being a reporter, I know how inadequate the facts are when you’re just consuming the media as a layperson. Not because reporters are bad or evil, but because they don’t have enough time or space to tell you everything they know; because reporters do come with—not exactly a prejudice—but the veil of ignorance that we all have when we write. So if I don’t feel like I have a grip on the facts of a situation—and my standard for that is really high—then I’m probably not going to write a column about it.

PL: Would you ever be interested in writing more long-form writing or narrative pieces?

MS: Well, I did that for a number of years before I became a columnist. And I’ve periodically done it while I’ve been a columnist. There’s one piece in the book, which is a ten thousand piece on Judge Joan Lefkow.

Writing longer does attract me, but the truth is I need deadlines. Deadlines force me to work. Otherwise I get lost in the stew of self-doubt and having to have all the facts.

PL: It forces you not to second guess?

MS: There’s one column in there titled “Panic is My Muse.” Because I really do believe that for a lot of writers the most important thing, the thing they need most, is a deadline.

PL: With the Lefkow piece, and with so much of your writing, you focus on people who are at really vulnerable points of their lives. What responsibility do you feel towards your subjects?

MS: I feel a huge responsibility. I cannot tell you how important it is for me when I talk to people who have gone through some terrible loss that I treat them in a way that does them no further harm. That’s my rule in writing about people who have gone through some loss, if the loss is the reason that I’m writing about them: first do no harm.

PL: So you’ve imposed the Hippocratic oath on your own writing?

MS: For those kinds of stories, yes. I think it’s a pretty good rule in general. Though when you get into writing about people who have done terrible things, that’s a somewhat different discussion.

But when you’re writing about people whose only reason for being written about is that they’ve experienced some sort of loss, the idea that you would bring them any further harm—by sloppy phrasing, by putting in things that are not really relevant to the story just because you liked those details–is awful.

PL: Does your approach to writing those stories change?

MS: I try to be as conscientious as I can in the time available. I keep coming back to this idea of time, right? When you don’t have a lot of time, that is a real pressure–to get everything right, and I mean right in all the ways that you can apply “right.” But I do worry most when I’m writing about people for whom being written about really matters.

PL: A lot of your writing captures the small and unusual details in people’s lives, like in the Lefkow piece where one of the guards teaches her a pool trick in a Kansas City bar or in “Save a Little Outrage,” where the mother of a teenager arrested for mugging tourists receives a threatening postcard. Are there specific things that you consciously look for or is that what you’re just drawn to?

MS: When a moment like that presents itself to me, I’m hugely grateful. It allows me to tell the story in a way that gets beyond cliché. Getting those details is sometimes a function of just being with a person long enough to get them. In the case of the woman who plucked the racist postcard out of her mailbox while I was standing on her porch talking to her, that was just dumb luck. I say dumb luck for me, the reporter, not for her.

And writing with detail also involves simply knowing what you’ve got. When these moments flash before you, you have to understand, “Oh, that’s significant.” I think a lot of times these telling details pass by us as reporters but we don’t notice them sufficiently. And so they don’t wind up in the story. We think they’re too small.

PL: How did you learn to trust that instinct?

MS: I think some of it is just doing it for a long time. I also think that if you’re really in touch with your gut, [it’s] understanding, “What am I responding to?” versus “What do I think I should be responding to?”

PL: Something that comes up a lot in your columns is the relationship you have with readers, which seems unique to a columnist. People have ownership of you and feel like they know you even if they’ve never met you. I wanted to get your thoughts on your relationship with your readers?

MS: That’s one thing that when you start writing a column you don’t anticipate—you can’t anticipate. In any other journalism job (I’ve had several), you think you have some contact with readers, but really it’s not very much. Even today, I don’t think my editors understand how much readers are traveling around with me all the time. It’s wonderful, it’s fabulous, but it’s also really tricky. Some people think there’s a relationship there beyond what is actually there. I mean, I am so grateful to anyone who reads my column, who cares enough to write me about it, unless they’re complete pigs about it. And a few are, you know? (laughs)

And most people write me about it in the most wonderful, wonderful way. But there are people who step over the boundary and they don’t understand that there is a boundary. It’s a different form of relationship than most people encounter in their lives, and it’s been interesting.

PL: And finally, what has your relationship with libraries been like?

MS: Let me say one thing: I’m carrying around a bookbag that was given to me by the American Library Association several years ago and it says, “I Read Banned Books.” I’ve been carrying this around for ten years. And I always forget what it says. And wherever I go–I swear, two or three times a week– someone will say, “Hey I like your bag.” A few of those people are creepy.” (laughs)

I certainly grew up in libraries. In my childhood, libraries were among the most important places in my life. Growing up, nothing was more exciting to me than sequestering myself in the library and reading.