Writing for The St. Louis American for 25 years, a reoccurring question from readers is how I come up with ideas for my column. That can be easily answered most weeks.
I am information junky, an avid reader, a political observer and a community organizer. I live in St. Louis. I live in the United States. I’m a global citizen. Based on these factors, I will never, ever run out of people, events, problems or opinions to write about. I am fascinated by human behavior in all its degradation and glory.
I remember one time a reader asked what issue I was going to tackle that week. I responded that I had no idea.
The reader believed that meant I was struggling to come up with a topic or that I had writer’s block. The block was first described in 1947 by psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler. It’s the condition writers experience when no ideas or no thoughts are forthcoming regardless how hard they try. The paralysis is real and can last hours or days – even years. Thinking I needed some help, it was suggested I use an old column.
The was not the case at all for me. I went on to clarify that I had several topics rolling around in my head and was having difficulty narrowing my focus. I promptly added that I would never recycle a column.
Here’s the typical thinking and writing process that unfolds. Something has happened, or I heard an interesting or provocative broadcast or personally experienced a situation. I always keep paper and pen in the car, by my bed or make notes in my smartphone. I think about the angle I want to explore or the important points I want my readers to know. I want to give them some actions steps because information should be motivating and empowering.
There are times when I take on a familiar or old topic but from different perspectives. For example, I probably wrote about the unsolved murder case of the headless child a few times. Each time I wanted to approach it in a unique way hoping to draw interest in the cold case that might lead to identification of the little Jane Doe. She had been raped and decapitated.
One of those columns was titled “A Tale of Two Cities,” where I compared similar cases of headless children in St. Louis and Kansas City. The 1983 St. Louis case remains unsolved, plagued by evidence blunders and little outcry from the community.
In K.C., a concerned community raised funds for a reward for its Precious Doe and ultimately a memorial. It kept up enough pressure that eventually led to the identity and details of the 2001 case. Three-year-old Ericka Green was killed and dismembered by her drug-crazed parents.
How the two communities dealt with their tragic murders remains a source of curiosity to me to this day. Writing about issues like this also helps me to lighten a heavy heart. It motivates me to work harder for peace and justice in my community.
I also write about anniversary events like the Dred and Harriet Scott case or the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. birthday and assassination dates. I have reviewed books and movies. I have dived into cases like that of the mysterious murder of St. Louis native LaVena Johnson while serving in the U.S. Army. I have written about scores of miscarriages of justice in our courts.
Although I maintain I’m no journalist, I traveled to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Through my Katrina Notebook in 2005, I gave personal account of what I saw. I continued to travel to New Orleans over the next five years to bear witness to the desperation and triumph of Gulf Coast survivors.
There are times when I tackle topics I’m unfamiliar with but believe that both my readers and I should better understand, like the Great Recession of 2008 and related issues like derivatives, sub-prime mortgages and default swaps. For these columns, I had to do lots of research and talked with friends who had a better grasp of market economy than me. I felt it was important to know how the recession was impacting our families and their futures.
Mainly I write about what I know, what I’m fighting for with others and what I think about the situation. I have written about many issues and the many facets of those issues. There’s so much more to write about in our ever-changing world. You’ll know what I think and just as important, I really want to know what you think.