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By Erin Sherbert
We Take Jon Carroll's Learning Annex Class, So You Won't Have To
Stumbling from weekly deadline to weekly deadline, Dog Bites usually has little leisure to reflect on big-picture questions -- like, where exactly is our career going, anyway? Sure, soliciting lipstick from total strangers (see below) is working now, but boy, it won't be when we're 60.
So in an effort to improve our fundamental skills, we signed up (pseudonymously, of course) to take beloved Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll's Learning Annex course "How to Succeed as a Writer."
For the first few minutes of the class, we worried that Carroll -- nattily dressed in a well-cut gray suit, darker gray shirt, wine silk tie, and charcoal knit vest -- wouldn't be able to help much. He started out with some disappointingly pedestrian remarks about the importance of deciding on whether to write in first or third person, past or present tense, and so on.
The partisan crowd, many of whose members were middle-aged women wearing bold, vaguely ethnic jewelry, seemed content to laugh knowingly at Carroll's little allusions to Camus and Degas, but Dog Bites began to feel first restless, then paranoid. Where were the keys to creating the Carroll magic, that seemingly effortless ability to move readers to rueful laughter, to act as a moral compass for everyone, or at least everyone who's an East Bay-dwelling, Dockers-wearing, Chez Panisse-frequenting boomer?
"The nice thing about having a newspaper column," said Carroll, "which you can't, is that people get to know you, and you can have jokes.
"Even if you have a weekly column of some sort" -- and here Dog Bites started guiltily: Did he know? -- "you can begin to develop a persona of some sort that you can come back to, refer to."
Then, getting even more specific, Carroll told us, "A good column is about 1 1/2 things. Scott Rosenberg told me that about four years ago, and I really believe it."
The assiduous note-takers in the audience jotted this down as Carroll elucidated: "You could start out with one thing -- cats. The reason to write about cats is that lots of people like cats."
(The woman in front of us underlined "cats" on her pad.)
"If the next 10 cat columns got no reaction at all, I wouldn't write any more cat columns," said Carroll.
His next suggestion was that we read our work aloud in order to learn to "use your music. If you read your columns out loud, you will get to a sentence that you know is wrong, and you won't know why."
Next on the class agenda were transitions. "Transitions are just a bitch, and everyone knows they're a bitch," Carroll said, thrilling all those who'd been hoping to become privy to their idol's writing process. "In fact, you might consider losing the transition entirely. We live in the world of the universal cut."
A man in the audience raised his hand to ask earnestly, "But how does that affect the music?"
Several other class members swung around in their seats to glare at him, apparently jealous they hadn't thought of this question themselves.
The answer wasn't completely clear to Dog Bites -- it seemed to involve the Paul Simon album Graceland, but we can't be sure -- and Carroll had just gotten back on his roll when he was interrupted again.
"I think I missed out on either the one or the half of what makes a good column," said a woman.
Carroll looked slightly pained for a moment, but graciously recovered. "Say you're writing a column about cats, about weird cat behavior when cats fight," he started. (Our classmates perked up.) "It might be amusing if you added rain. Because then you've got mud. That's off the top of my head."
"So, the one thing is the point, and the other thing is the style?" wondered the woman, confused.
"Nooo ...," answered Carroll. "The one thing is the thing, and the other thing is the thing you add. So then you have cat behavior and rain."
"Would you give some examples on how you would introduce the rain and the mud?" asked a man at the back.
Attentively poised pens around the room suggested that anticipation of Carroll's answer ran high.
"Well, you could start with the rain," he replied. "Or you could start with the cats, and put the rain in the middle."
The genius of the latter approach apparently struck Carroll as much as it affected the attendant loyalists, so he outlined the putative column: The cats chase each other around, then run out through the cat door ... into the rain.
"And then you follow them outside and they knock over a pot. And because you wish to save this thing from further damage, you go outside in the rain yourself. Only you're only in your socks. And then the cats go inside again, with all that implies. So all of a sudden you've got two things going on, you've got contrasting themes -- warmth and cold, chaos and order, civilization and nature.
"And then you're one joke away from a column."