You can call him Al

al_martinez-mug.jpgNot that it makes it any easier to swallow, but by now most of us who care have probably heard that Al Martinez published his last column in the Daily News on Monday.

I wish it were an April Fools' joke, but it's not. Maybe it really is budget constraints, as they told him - the new redesign must've set them back something, after all. And maybe they're trying to dust off and shine up a fading brand, the better to sell ads with across their newly christened Daily News "chain" of the formerly independent little dailies scooped up and bagged by the LA News Group.

Whatever, there's no longer room at the inn for Al. After more than 50 years in the newspaper racket, they've given him a warm handshake, a pat on the back, and a push out the door.

It's easy to feel a little bitter about the whole thing, and nobody could blame Al if he did. But he'd probably be the first to say, "Cry me a river, take a number - and as long as you're up, could you fetch me another martini?" The budget axe has cut down a lot of tall trees in recent years, and he remained standing longer than most. By any measure, it has been an extraordinarily long and successful run.

Personally, I'm sad. I loved his writing. I don't mind confessing that his best pieces can still make me cry - no matter how many times I've read them. Some, in fact, have only gained in poignancy and resonance with the passage of time. And beyond their emotional import, anyone who aspires to be a columnist or, even better, an essayist, has a lot to learn just from the sheer literary craftsmanship to be found in Al's finest work.

In 1999, I was invited by UCLA Extension to develop an online course in "Opinion Writing" for their journalism sequence. Although my father was then still alive and teaching his college English classes, and my brother, too, is a tenured academic and author of several books, I was a total neophyte. Teaching was actually my fourth career after broadcast and print journalism and political staff work. And to be frank, I didn't really know what I was doing.

So I reached out to the opinion writers I admired most, and tapped them to share some of the tricks of the trade with my students. Naturally, Al was my first call. And he responded quickly with a wonderful original piece that I used in class for years.

Here is Al's previously unpublished essay from 1999, written when he was still at the Los Angeles Times, offering some characteristically wry words of wisdom to my aspiring opinion writers. I'm sure Al won't mind my sharing it with the LA Observed readership. Think of it as a writer's lagniappe, a little bonus from one of our profession's very finest.

An IQ Slightly Higher Than a Dog's, by Al Martinez

Writing a personal column is like having a baby when you're past 50. It's possible, but it's not easy.

I've been writing them for a total of 25 years in L.A. and Oakland and still haven't come up with any kind of adequate formula. I can only speak in general terms.

Ideally, you have to begin with an IQ slightly higher than a dog's, some degree of writing talent and a burning desire to be heard. This usually, though not necessarily, could involve a knowledge of something, although columnists have been known to exist for years without any.

Implicit in one's quest to write a personal column is a creative bent. I went for a column because I decided that the essay form was probably the most challenging of writing's many forms and because a column is the most creative part of newspapering.

I say this after years of writing books, long-form magazine pieces, poems and movies for television. Despite all of that, I still turn to the essay, to my 800 words of prose, to define what I'm really trying to say about something.

A column can be almost anything that works. Pontification, I suppose, is the most common type, on everything from politics to personal relations. Lofty and straightforward, it's often the easiest kind to write. You state your opinion and hurrying off the stage.

I most enjoy writing about people caught up in the blur of big city chaos. I compose my columns with humor, with drama and occasionally with anguish. I see people at play, at work and in need. I focus in on them, painting on a small canvas, because I believe that the
patchwork will someday fit into a larger tapestry of life as we live it. Here. Now.

If issues impact with severity on the people, I acknowledge that too, but even then the people are generally more important than the issue. I believe what Walt Whitman knew, that even when institutions falter, the people endure. The people, yes.

My background is that of a kid during the Depression on the streets of East Oakland. I lived life at its worst and I can't help but empathize with those who, despite this age of affluence, continue to live life at its worst. This drives me and, at times, overwhelms me.

There are columnists able to stand back and observe with dispassion those events that pulse through our lives. I'm not one of them. Tell me I write with emotion in an area of work that so often lacks emotion and I will say yes, you're right, of course. An editor once said of
me, ''When you write, dogs howl.'' I don't think it was intended as a compliment. To hell with him.

I involve myself in what I write. I don't select the subject unless I am involved. Approaching it with humor, which I love writing, does not necessarily lessen its intent or impact. I tell a better story sometimes by letting ironies seep in. For an example, my recent columns, very personal columns, that told the story of managed health care through my own travail... travail offered with whimsy, a kind of chuckling through pain to make the story of HMOs clear.

Did it work? More than 300 e-mailers plus another 50 telephone calls plus an unknown number of letter writers (I work at home and haven't yet picked up my mail downtown) got the message. So did Cigna, my HMO. They're rethinking the system.

I wish I could leave you with a defining thought regarding personal columns. I'm an instinctive writer, and have been since the day I was born, and have never tried to take apart my rattle to see what's inside. I just do it. I can't tell you specifically how.

If the spirit's in you, you'll write. If the burning desire to say something is there too, you might want to write opinion columns someday. That is, of course, if your IQ is slightly higher than a dog's.

--- almtz ---

Joel Bellman has contributed several pieces to LA Observed

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