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The Inside Scoop on Writing a Column for The New York Times

Wednesday, January 21, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Roger Cohen wrote about World Zionism and Paris's personal and political problems. His newest book, The Girl from Human Street: Ghosts of Memory in a Jewish Family, is now available. He has been blogging here this week for the Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

I write a column for The New York Times. Eight hundred words, twice a week. When I describe that as a full-time job, some people are unconvinced. That’s nothing! Believe me, it’s something, accurately compared by a colleague to life under a windmill. Avoid one blade and the next one is coming to get you. A column done, it’s hard not to start thinking immediately about what the next one might be. Two ideas a week is a lot to ask of anybody.

Nobody ever suggests a column to you, even at times of overwhelming news developments. The phone never rings with a request (order) to go somewhere, as it would during the many years I spent as a foreign correspondent. The column is yours, alone. For as long as you have it.

This freedom is an immense privilege. I can travel anywhere without explaining to anyone what I have it in mind to do. But of course this unfettered existence leaves the columnist with a list of potential subject matter that is limitless. Not everyone responds well to limitlessness. Not everyone responds well to such a solitary line of work.

I’m not expecting anyone to shed a tear. It’s an amazing job.

I mentioned two ideas a week. Perhaps that’s a conservative estimate. A good column often needs one-and-a-half ideas, the first to get you down to about 500 words, and the half-idea for a twist carrying the reader through to the end. That would be three ideas a week. A strong column often writes itself fast. A column that is looking for its core, its central idea, takes longer. You can’t hit the ball out the park every time. You just have to get used to that. Nor is the way a column idea takes shape consistent. Sometimes I know well ahead of time what I will write. More often, it’s a last-minute decision. Occasionally an idea will come in a flash: the cry of eureka in the shower. Then all previous plans get shredded.

There’s a book-writing side to my mind and a journalist’s side. I tried for a while to write one column a week and push forward with The Girl from Human Street in my spare time. This set-up did not work well. I needed to leave that windmill behind, completely. Having the blades coming at me more slowly still locked me in the columnist’s mindset. Only when I went on leave for some months did the book begin to take form.

A column, in general, relies on pithiness, brevity, synthesis. There is little room for narrative or character development. Its form could not be at a greater remove from a book. I like both forms but cannot flit from one to the other. I admire friends who rise early to write and then go to their day jobs. I am not made like that.

Book writing is a form of complete immersion. Begin the next morning where you left off the previous evening with no distraction, preferably having dreamed of how the next few pages will be written. There are good moments and bad. In general writing is a form of exquisite suffering. You learn to hate that question: “How’s the book going?” Mumbling inevitably ensues. But when it’s done there is no satisfaction like it. A part of the psyche is satisfied that journalism, even at its best, is unlikely to reach.

Roger Cohen is a columnist for The New York Times, where he has worked since 1990: as a correspondent in Paris and Berlin, and as bureau chief in the Balkans covering the Bosnian war (for which he received an Overseas Press Club prize). He was named a columnist in 2009. He became foreign editor on 9/11, overseeing Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage in the aftermath of the attack. His columns appear twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays. His previous books include Soldiers and Slaves and Hearts Grown Brutal. He lives in London, and will move back to New York in June.

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World Zionism and Paris's Personal and Political Patterns

Monday, January 19, 2015 | Permalink

Roger Cohen is a columnist for The New York Times, where he has worked since 1990: as a correspondent in Paris and Berlin, and as bureau chief in the Balkans covering the Bosnian war (for which he received an Overseas Press Club prize). He was named a columnist in 2009. He became foreign editor on 9/11, overseeing Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage in the aftermath of the attack. His columns appear twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays. His previous books include Soldiers and Slaves and Hearts Grown Brutal. He lives in London, and will move back to New York in June. His newest book, The Girl from Human Street: Ghosts of Memory in a Jewish Family, is now available. He will be blogging here this week for the Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

As a New York Times columnist, I move regularly back and forth across the Atlantic. I carry my Jewish identity with me, of course, but Jewishness is lived differently in Europe and the United States. Expression of strong support for Israel raises eyebrows among Europeans inclined to view the Jewish state as bellicose or colonialist. Palestinian victimhood plays well on a continent of strong pacifist tendencies. By contrast, in the United States it is criticism of Israel that tends to cause a frisson of disapproval. The Israeli saga – of courage and will in the face of implacable foes – resonates in American mythology, far beyond the Jewish community. Perhaps no other foreign state prompts such intense feelings of identification and sympathy.

Since the heinous Paris attacks on freedom of expression in general, and on Jews in particular, I have been pondering these differences anew. It is 120 years since the Dreyfus Affair involving a French Jewish officer wrongly accused of treason. The case divided French society into Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards, who were also anti-Semites. Among those who covered the case as a foreign correspondent in Paris was Theodor Herzl. The founder of modern Zionism’s conviction that Jews would only escape anti-Semitism through the creation of a state of their own was reinforced by this experience; his seminal “The Jewish State” was published in 1896, in the midst of Capt. Dreyfus’ legal tribulations.

Today, Zionism is a dirty word in Europe. Say you are a Zionist, as I sometimes do, and you may encounter a scarcely suppressed gasp of incredulity. Yet, four French Jews have just been killed in a kosher supermarket by an Islamist fanatic. Their bodies will be taken to Israel for burial. The necessity of a Jewish homeland has been illustrated yet again.

It is a necessity born of a simple fact: millennia of diaspora wandering that culminated in the Holocaust (which even Herzl could not have imagined) demonstrated that Jews could always be turned upon when a scapegoat was needed, that they would never belong entirely, and that in the end only self-reliance would save them. Looking into the wanderings of my family over four generations – from Lithuania to South Africa and on to Israel, Britain and the United States – I was left with no doubt that Jews needed a safe harbor, a place where scrawny scholars would become vigorous tillers of the soil, and no Jew would ever again go meekly to her fate. If Jews reached this conclusion, it was with reluctance. Having reached it and forged their state, they will never renounce it.

I would like to see a discussion of Zionism in Europe on the basis of last week’s events. I would have liked to see Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas shake hands in Paris and commit themselves to the two-state peace that remains the only viable outcome in the Holy Land. Israeli-Palestinian peace would not eliminate jihadism but over time it could help stanch it. I am convinced that Muslim leaders must do far more to denounce the murderous ideology that finds its inspiration in a Wahhabi reading of Islam and turned Paris last week into a city of fear.

Last time I was in Israel I saw an old friend, Micha Shagrir, a movie producer who is dying of cancer in a Jerusalem hospice. We talked about old times. It was a tender moment. Micha mused on projects he still dreamed of completing. His body had become the frail vessel of an unbowed spirit. A year ago, in Paris, he was found wandering around, lost, the first sign of the tumor in his brain. Thirty-five years ago, in 1980, his wife Aliza was killed in the bombing of the synagogue on Rue Copernic in Paris.

Life’s patterns, the personal and the political, how one contains the other, how time is not linear but may eddy in circles: these have been and remain the themes that interest me most.

Check back on Thursday for more from Roger Cohen.

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