By Annabelle Tometich
This post is part of a HippoCamp 2021 recap series, with guest blog posts written by HippoCamp attendees. Learn more about our conference for creative nonfiction writers.
Kelly Caldwell seems charming, put-together, highly intelligent. The screen glowing behind her reads: “If I Want Your Opinion, I’ll Pay You For It”. Armed with a slide-show clicker and a lapel microphone, she strides across the carpeted floors of the Heritage B conference room; a woman with a purpose.
I like her, I want to get to know her, she’s exactly the kind of person whose opinion I’d trust.
I’m the lady huddled in a corner, the one cocooned in place by the screen of her laptop. I try to look scholarly and astute, as opposed to hesitant and terrified. I try to quiet the not-so-little voice in my head, the inner-journalist who keeps screaming: WE DON’T GET TO HAVE OPINIONS!!! REMEMBER?!! WHAT ARE YOU EVEN DOING HERE??!! YOU SHOULD BE IN ATHENA DIXON’S SESSION LEARNING HOW NOT TO WASTE YOUR GODDAMN TIME!
It’s a voice I know well, one I’ve molded and strengthened through my 17 years in journalism. As our industry has weathered layoffs and buyouts and furloughs (which sound much nicer than they are), the one constant has been our neutrality. We are Switzerland. We don’t get to play sides.
And aren’t sides what op-eds are all about? Picking one, dragging your soapbox to it, yelling at the top of your lungs about how being on this side makes you an all-around superior human and better in bed. That’s an op-ed, right?
For me, writing such a thing would be like writing a novel in French. I could maybe do it, but it wouldn’t make much sense, and it would involve a lot of baguettes (for purposes of research/stress eating — I stand with baguettes! sounds like an op-ed I could handle).
Then Ms. Caldwell starts speaking.
“You’re not persuading them to agree with you,” she tells her masked and rapt audience on the art of the op-ed. “You’re trying to shed light, to get people to view an issue from a different perspective.
“You’re saying: While we’re on the subject, look at it from my point of view.”
Her words sink into my head. And that not-so-little voice falls silent.
Maybe I can do this.
Ms. Caldwell tells us effective op-eds blend artful argument — less soapbox screaming, more insight and intellect — with the craft of writing. She asks us to list five things we’re knowledgeable and passionate about.
Easy: journalism, baguettes, grammar, being un-opinionated, croissants.
She asks us to list current events we’d like to weigh in on: the bitter and protracted death of newspapers; the nationwide trucking shortage and its impact on baked goods; European luxury tariffs and their impact on baked goods.
She asks us to write down an opinion that we’d like to persuade people to share: Baguettes and pastry should never be subject to taxation.
Ms. Caldwell congratulates us: “You now have your conclusions,” she tells the class.
Next, she asks for our “givens,” for the societal assumptions that have led us to hold these opinions. I jot down notes on the Atkins diet and Mark Zuckerberg.
Ms. Caldwell clicks through more slides showing outstanding works of op-ed from the Washington Post, Vox, Time.
“Now it’s your turn,” she says.
Her next slide reads: I ______________________ and what you should know about that experience is _________________________.
She asks us to fill in the blanks using our passions and the current events. I shoot my shot: I am a devout eater of baguettes and what you should know about that experience is I won’t let trucking shortages or gourmet-food tariffs ruin this for me.
That not-so-little-voice in my head seems — impressed. Also hungry.
Ms. Caldwell asks the less-cocooned among us to read their titles. Surprisingly, few share my fervor for patisserie. What I hear from my peers are honest and important opinions, on the plights of motherhood, the failures of government, the nonexistent state of mental healthcare.
I listen to their words and see the world from their perspectives for a few seconds. I realize Ms. Caldwell is part writing pro and part wizard.
She emphasizes the need for op-eds to have snappy ledes, how we as op-ed writers must get to the point, how we must provide evidence, be it personal or research-based, to prove our opinions, how we need to leave our readers with a kicker, a takeaway that will linger.
I realize the op-ed I need to write isn’t about chewy, warm-from-the-oven baguettes dripping with rivulets of good butter. It’s about Kelly Caldwell, and how she took an ever-neutral journalist and showed her that opinions, when well crafted, can be powerful.