Do you know of Friendsgiving? It comes once a year, and it’s a holiday that serves as refuge from family holiday drama. It’s traditional observance is a day or two after Thanksgiving, and it looks a lot like Thanksgiving only calmer.
Mine came on Friday this year. I went to the house of close friends and gorged myself on turkey pot pie, turkey soup, cooked carrots, brussel sprouts and a host of other leftovers that littered the kitchen. Some of us finished a Halloween puzzle while others watched Roger Moore race across the TV, jumping speedboats and judo chopping as James Bond. The kids ran around wild-eyed, and after dinner a handful of us pulled out musical instruments for a jam session. It was what the holidays are supposed to be, with more relaxed laughter than Thanksgiving, among chosen-family not just blood relatives.
About halfway through dinner the host’s sister flashed me a smile. “I hated your column the other day,” she said as she spooned soup into a bowl. “You totally missed the point. It was bad enough that I got mad at you, and I haven’t read any of your stuff since.”
I laughed. “At least you read it,” I said. “Which one was it?”
“I don’t remember,” she replied. “But I hated it. I stopped reading after that. At this point it’s been a little while.”
We eventually sorted out the offending piece was one I wrote prior to the election. It was about locker room talk and how male culture looks at sex. I’d missed an opportunity to talk about power dynamics and the nature of sexual assault, she said. I’d totally blown it. She was calm and articulate as she explained, and all her points were valid.
“I can see that,” I said, nodding as she talked. “Yeah.”
That is one of my favorite parts about writing for a small town paper — walking into International Mountain Equipment or Front Side Grind or the North Conway post office or any of my other usual stops and having people pull me aside.
“I read your piece in the paper the other day,” is how the conversation usually starts, and from that launch point it can go anywhere. Some people love it: “Best thing you’ve written!” they’ll say. Others hate it: “Why did you even write about that?” Some point out points I didn’t have space for. Others point out points I’d never thought of. All of it is lively discussion, usually with a handshake to start and a laugh or two over the course of conversation regardless of its beginning.
There is something about writing for a small newspaper in a small town that keeps you honest. There is no avoiding your neighbors, and your neighbors are your readers. If I write something a reader doesn’t like that reader may very well see me in Hannaford, or Cranmore, or out to dinner. There is no anonymity.
I remember being a kid and going to the grocery store with my dad. We lived in a small town on the Maine coast, and he always used shopping visits as a time to catch up with people. I would stand there bored as he blabbed on, me nagging and pulling at his hand.
Now when I walk through the grocery store I’m twice the offender my dad was: I slowly make my way between handshakes and cart conversations, maybe chatting with friends but more likely getting “feedback” on some piece I’ve written.
And I love it. It’s the point of the writing, the stories, of having something to say. I have reporter friends who have realized they have to avoid the grocery store all together if they ever want to make it home for dinner.
At the outset of any conversation I am almost always driving blind. A reader has something to say, but I don’t know what piece of writing they’re talking about. After a while they all blend together, and sometimes I forget what I just wrote, much less what ran two months ago. But usually my interlocutor can navigate me to the point I was making. Other times I just do my best to carry my side of the conversation despite being totally lost. Tricky business, but oh well.
Other times the notes arrive as emails rather than in person. The feeling is still the same: “You read it? Thank you, thank you, thank you!” I’m not sure why I’m always surprised, but I am. I’m also grateful.
One occasional commenter is another Sun columnist, and no matter what his emails say I take it as the highest compliment. He could have read and then stuffed the Sun in his wood stove. So many of us do. But he didn’t. He thought it worth a word.
THAT is part of what makes writing worthwhile. Writers write for readers as much as we write for ourselves. I write columns about politics, economics and social issues because I want our community (and our state, and our country) to be its best. They are not meant to chide or lambaste, but to elevate. Maybe my ideas aren’t always complete, and maybe sometimes my thinking is downright wrongheaded (as my Friendsgiving friend gently explained), but they are intended to be sparks, little flashes that light conversations. And hopefully those conversations continue at work, at the grocery store, around the holiday table. They get people talking about issues, sharing diverging viewpoints, debating, discussing. It becomes a conversation between neighbors, community members, people who don’t see eye-to-eye but otherwise believe the person they’re talking to is reasonable, smart, engaged.
People call us the Conway Daily Firestarter. They say it for all the wood stoves we fill. Yes, that may be true. But those aren’t our only sparks.
And again, as always, thank you for reading.
This column ran in today’s Conway Daily Sun.