Role model masters ‘craft’ of journalism

By Lynn Rogers

I began reading Bob Greene’s column ten years ago, as a scrawny, inquisitive little fifth grader. I’d pick up the Chicago Tribune’s Tempo section every morning, eager to see what anecdote or piece of advice he shared that day.

Through the years, my interest in writing expanded and Bob Greene became a role model of sorts. He wrote book after best-selling book, appeared on late-night television talk shows and traveled on ever-intriguing assignments.

My 9 a.m. ritual is still the same: a bagel in one hand and a Bob Greene column in the other.

As I now (attempt to) write a weekly feature column, I find myself constantly discovering story ideas. Every newspaper/magazine article, every odd person walking down the street, every observance has potential. I began to wonder how Bob Greene does it four times a week, every week.

So I talked to him.

Once I recovered from initial stammering fit (“H-h-hi, t-this is L-l-lynn R-r-rogers from the N-n-northern S-star”), I asked him about the process he goes through when researching, reporting and writing a column. He was as friendly and as candid as his columns.

He said he began writing a column for the Chicago Sun-Times in 1969, when he was 23. Twenty-three? “Looking back on it, it was young, but at the time I almost felt ‘what took them so long?'” he said, laughing. He switched to the Tribune in the summer of 1978.

“It evolves over the years as I get older,” he said of his columns’ style. “It’s always what interests me viscerally as a person. I assume my interests at 23 are different than they are at 42.”

Does he have a formula for his writing? “I want the column to read like I get home at the end of the day and say, ‘Guess who I met today?’ or ‘You won’t believe what I saw today!'” he explained.

Writer’s block is not a problem. “No matter where I go, even if it’s not on assignment, I come back with a list of 10-12 things to write about. Often I’ll just get on a plane and go,” he related. “If I think it’s a good idea and I do the reporting, I’ll usually end up doing the column. If you write four columns a week, you don’t have the luxury of throwing away too many.”

I asked him how much time he spends on writing itself. “Writing always takes an hour or less. If you can’t be a quick writer, you can’t do this job,” he pointed out.

I wondered if he had a favorite column. With nearly 20 years of columns behind him, the sheer volume makes it difficult to say. “I don’t have favorite column, as such,” he says, adding, “The ones I like are not the home runs, not the ones people remember for years. I like the little stories that wouldn’t have gotten told had I not come along.”

Our discussion went on at length, and I learned new things about Bob Greene–the person–and about journalism as a career.

“I never really think of myself as being a success. I’m just some guy who wanted to go out and write things down…to see things and then write about it,” he said with a smile. “I think the best writers are the ones who are most comfortable just sort of standing in the corner and observing things.”

“Some people think this has become a glamorous profession,” he explained, leaning forward earnestly. “I’m not so sure if it is even a profession. I’ve always thought of it as a craft.”

Bob Greene has mastered that craft. Meanwhile, I’ll keep practicing.