Gail Rosenblum and the art of column writing

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Confession of the day: I’m a social media addict. I love Facebook and I write posts about absolutely everything, from the wonderful latte art on the cappuccino I had this morning to the random conversation I had with the Uber driver who turned out to be an aspiring sci-fi writer and a firm believer in conspiracy theories. I post photos of everything and sometimes I overshare. 

I never imagined that my annoying habit of posting everything on social media would land me a job as a weekly columnist for the Guatemalan newspaper Soy502. The idea was to write creative nonfiction pieces aimed at urban millennials, explained my editor Dina Fernández. “Just like the stuff you write on Facebook,” she said.

Since publishing my first column in Soy502 in March this year, I have written about interviewing a gang member, the illiterate woman I met in a supermarket one day, and sexual harassment on public transport in Guatemala City.  I’ve also written confessional pieces on relationships, bullying, my family and other issues. The online version of my 450-word column is posted online on Wednesdays and the print version is published on Fridays.

During my time in the Twin Cities, I spent some time with Star Tribune columnist Gail Rosenblum, who writes about trends, social issues and the complexities of human relationships. She shared her thoughts on the art of column writing.

On a sunny afternoon in Minneapolis, we got the light rail to the University of Minnesota, where Gail interviewed Laura Reiman, a young researcher working on an initiative called Project Teddy Bear. It’s a restorative justice project in which inmates at the Federal Correctional Institution in Sandstone, Minn., teach one another to crochet animals and hats to be donated to children at the Ronald McDonald House.

While I listened to Reiman, I tried to imagine men convicted of armed robbery and drug sales delicately crocheting stuffed animals. It’s a project that allows inmates to give back to the community and prove to themselves and others that they can turn their lives around. I look forward to reading Rosenblum’s forthcoming piece on this project and the importance of a restorative rather than punitive approach to criminal justice.

Rosenblum says that since she began writing her column in 2009, she has learned that “everyone struggles and everyone wants to be heard” and that “health, physical and mental, is the great equalizer.”

In her opinion, the keys to writing a good column are to make the piece both personal and universal, to pay attention to detail, and to use good quotes.

Dina Fernández, my editor at Soy502, agrees with Rosenblum. “The most successful columns forcefully argue a point or tell a story with a lot of emotion. They should portray characters skillfully and allow their voice to be heard,” she says. ”The stories that reach the reader’s heart focus on a specific story. They’re well reported, well-written, with an engaging first paragraph and a strong ending.”

In recent years, confessional writing has become hugely popular with websites such as XoJane, Salon, Thought Catalog and the New York Times’ Modern Love section, specializing in this genre. Rosenblum believes “first-person writing is some of the toughest writing possible” and urges writers to strike a balance and avoid being “too personal or too distant.”