Saturday, September 18, 2010

At least he wasn't anonymous

I have written a weekly "slice-of-life" column in local newspapers for the past 15 years or so, with topics ranging from the excitement about the birth of my son to the trepidation I felt the first time that son got behind the wheel of a car. I write about what I know best -- being a dad of two teenage boys and the husband of a woman who has to put up with my corny sense of humor and my maddening habit of procrastination. I don't apologize for the content, because I hope that the stories I tell can relate in some small way to the lives of those who read it. Maybe one week I'll give a reader a laugh and maybe the next week I'll make them get choked up. Either way, I hope people will spend three to five minutes with the column, because that means they read the whole thing. I generally get positive feedback about what I write, perhaps because most people aren't bold enough to criticize me face-to-face -- unless they are a relative. It makes me happy when someone tells me they enjoyed my column. Last week, a reader took the time to hand write a two-sided note and mail it to my home. I'm not sure how he got my address, but I give him credit for including his return address on the envelope. Too many people these days hide behind the anonymity of online comments, so I can respect this man for identifying himself. His note, written in a fairly legible script with a few phrases highlighted in yellow for some reason, essentially was a dressing down of my column's approach. He wanted to advise me in a condescending way that my column, which is titled "Breen Damage" and features a picture of me, is too much about me. He wanted to tell me "something you have never learned in life," that I should "learn to get away from (my) self-centeredness and the number of I's and we's" in my articles. Zing. "It seems as though most of your articles are about the 'Breen' family," he continued, which is a fact seemed pretty obvious to me, since when I write about a slice of life, it's going to be about the Breens. The majority of people who read the paper, he said, "are not interested in the Breens" and "should best be kept for family use." Double-zing. He said there is so much more in our community to write about -- and he is right. He apparently doesn't read the two or three other articles I write each week as a reporter for The Pinnacle. I cover city government and education and environmental issues. I write features and captions and news briefs, none of which have to do with me or my family. "Get off your family and Breen kick," he advises. "Grow up." Wow, this guy is full of zingers. As brazen and denigrating as his letter is, I actually didn't mind receiving the criticism. Like anyone, I love getting praise for my work. But there is something energizing about being critiqued. It's a reminder that not everyone thinks I'm as witty or insightful as I might feel when I get a slap on the back from a faithful reader. It's a reminder not to get lazy or too full of myself. We all need to be humbled now and then. My wife wasn't as understanding about or appreciative of the letter; she wanted me to send him a letter of my own telling him that he was rude and "how dare he complain about an article in a free paper." It's OK, I told her. Though he may speak for others, I'm a big boy who can handle the zingers. Perhaps his criticism will remind me to branch out beyond my family when coming up with a column idea. It's called "Breen Damage" for a reason. I'm a Breen and I'm going to write about what happens to me and my family as long as the editors allow me to do so. Maybe one of my upcoming columns will win this guy over and I'll get another letter from him saying I've matured as a writer. Or maybe he'll continue to open up the free paper every Friday and curse my name. Bottom line is, newspapers want readers who care, and this guy clearly does. Like me or hate me, just don't stop reading me.

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