Mary Schmich's metro journalism.
By Grace Adee
Mary Schmich has been a metro columnist for the Chicago Tribune since 1992. In 2012, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary “for her wide range of down-to-earth columns that reflect the character and capture the culture of her famed city.” She received international attention for her 1997 essay “Wear Sunscreen,” a hypothetical commencement speech that was adapted into a popular Baz Luhrmann music video and remains part of the cultural conversation to this day. Prior to her column, Schmich was a national correspondent for the Tribune and a reporter for several other newspapers around the country. Investigations editor Grace Adee visited the swanky new Tribune office to speak with Schmich about shifting newsrooms, Brenda Starr comics, and the role of the “quiet column” in the information age.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Blue & White: How do you describe your column to people who may not have read it before?
Mary Schmich: The great, what is your column about? People will ask me that. They’ll say, what do you do? I’ll say I write for the Chicago Tribune. They’ll say, what do you write at the Chicago Tribune? I’ll say I write a column. They’ll say, what is your column about? And I always feel stumped. It’s about everything. Years ago, a reader wrote me, back in the days when we only had snail mail. It was a postcard, and I still remember it. He said, you write an “anything” column—he put “anything” in quotes—and I like that. It’s the exact right description. I write an anything column, or an everything column. Because, from the time I started doing this, I’ve always thought that life is big and life is broad. The column that I wanted to write reflects that.
I think when people think newspaper column, they automatically think politics. My philosophy is that politics is a piece of life, but most of us on any given day are thinking about a lot of other stuff. I want to write a column that taps into both what people are thinking and what they might not know, and what they might be interested in if they knew about it. It started off as a Metro column. It still technically is a Metro column. That’s a specific thing, too, and I always take that very seriously—this idea that it should reflect the city of Chicago somehow. Metro columns are almost extinct now, because the columns that are going to hit it big on the web are political outrage, especially national political outrage, or something involving a celebrity. I’ve taken the stance that we are in Chicago, and so let’s root all of this in Chicago, even when the focus is on everything else.
Illustration by Kate Steiner
B&W: Would you say that the personal is political in the case of your column? That even through the specificity, the focus on various aspects of life in this city, it’s still a political column in a sense?
MS: No, I would not define my column as political. But I would say that the personal is universal. I would say that the political is philosophical. I think we’ve really warped the way we think about the world by thinking that politics is the big barrel that everything exists in. No. It’s a thing in the barrel. At the same time, things that are not overtly political do have some political tinge.
I once had dinner with Studs Terkel and Margaret Atwood. Margaret Atwood completely ignored me until at some point it was kind of rude to just pretend I wasn’t at the dinner. So she turned to me at some point and just said, “So what do you…..do?” I said I write a column, and she said, about what? And Studs intervened. He said, “Well, it’s not a political column….but, you see, it is.” And I thought, that’s exactly right, Studs. It’s not, but you see, it is.
B&W: You talked a little bit about the extinction of the Metro column. Could you talk more about how the role of the columnist has changed across the past few decades that you’ve been writing?
MS: I think several things have changed since I started writing a column, which was in 1992. I think there is less room for being ruminative, and just kind of thinking stuff through. There is less room for the quiet column than there used to be. I think there’s still a market for it—I think a lot of people yearn to be talked to in a quieter way. But it is hard to sell that online, and anything you can’t sell online might as well not exist anymore.
I think since the election of Donald Trump, almost everything has been overridden or tinged by him. He drives it all. I try to resist that, because I continue to think that even on days like today, when you would think that there’s only one story going on in the world and it’s what Donald Trump said about the four young Congresswomen, there’s still a lot of other stuff going on. But I do think that the columns that make the loudest noise, even more than before, are the ones that are about—not even just national politics—it’s the ones that are about Donald Trump. I think there’s less space for the classic Metro column. Again, I hold onto the idea that there remains an audience, a market for it. It’s just harder to sell. So those are two distinctions—the quieter columns and local columns that aren’t necessarily built on outrage are more difficult to sell.
B&W: Do you have writers of that “quieter column” that you’re describing that you have looked to as role models in your career?
MS: You know, I haven’t ever had columnist role models, with one exception. I would say that the writer Ellen Goodman invented the mold that I think I work in—not that I was really trying to write like her. She was a columnist at the Boston Globe. When I first got into journalism, her column ran in the San Jose Mercury when I was living in Palo Alto. It was the only column that spoke to me. There were all these huffing and puffing writers, all men. All huffing and puffing about politics. And Ellen Goodman created this genre that now a lot of people work in, men and women—this writing that was both personal and public. So sometimes she would write about falling asleep at a dinner party, and sometimes she would write about the big issue of the day. But she did it in a different tone, and I responded to that. It was a less bombastic tone than so many of the columnists I had encountered before. She had an effect on me. In general, I would say that poets and novelists have had a greater effect on me than columnists.
B&W: You write some poetry yourself, don’t you?
MS: I call it doggerel, bits of rhyming poetry. When I do write that, it tends to be political, so that’s often the way I address politics. I write my Trump poems.
B&W: Do you remember a moment in your early life or early career when you knew you wanted to be a writer?
MS: A few moments pop into mind. One was in fourth grade, when we had to write an essay about something funny that had happened in our house. I had five younger brothers, and I wrote about how my brothers had taken all the fuses out of the fusebox. The thing that excited me about it was when I realized that I could title it “Fuse Confusion.” I just remember the excitement, how I thought, oh my goodness, that’s fun, isn’t it? You can make words do fun things. Then in seventh grade, I had a teacher named Mrs. O’Neil and we had to write little essays, like if I were a millionaire, if I had 24 hours to live, that kind of thing. At one point, she wrote on one of my essays, “You could be a writer.” I remember looking at that and thinking, really? I don’t even know what that means. But yeah, I suppose I could.
B&W: You grew up down South, didn’t you?
MS: I grew up in Georgia, and then moved to Arizona for high school.
B&W: Though you grew up in the South, your writing is all about capturing the essence of Chicago. Considering that, and the fact that you used to be a national correspondent as well, I was hoping you could talk about how place has affected your writing.
MS: That’s a great question. I don’t know that anyone has clearly asked me that before. Someone did ask me once if growing up in the South has affected the way that I cover Chicago, which it does. Because I moved around so much as a kid, I was simultaneously not anchored in place, but also very aware of place. I think when you live in the same place all the time as a child, you don’t have to be aware of place. You don’t have anything to compare it to, you don’t have to learn it, it’s just there. Every time we moved, and even in Georgia we moved, I thought, oh my God, it’s a new place. Where am I? I’d have to look around, get my bearings. When I got to Chicago, I worked here for a couple years in features and then I went down to cover the South for the Tribune. When I came back in ’92 to write a column, I realized that there would be people who just thought I was a fraud. Who is she? This woman who grew up other places—Georgia, Arizona, California, a couple years in France—who is she to be writing a column in Chicago? And I just decided that I was going to treat it the way I treated being a national correspondent. I was just going to learn it. I was going to go out, I was going to report stories, I was going to go into all the neighborhoods. That has served me well, because I had to learn Chicago.
I think I’ve learned some things that aren’t necessarily evident to people who grew up here. Because if you grew up here, you have your neighborhood, you have your box. So I treated it as a foreign territory. I wrote this down on a yellow notepad, sitting in a coffee shop, I wrote down, “Make people see Chicago.” Because I realized that a lot of the coverage, even in the way Chicago newspapers wrote about Chicago, presumed that everyone here knew where a neighborhood was, or what that neighborhood looked like, or who lived in that neighborhood. Like nothing ever changed, and everyone was from here. This city is always changing.
B&W: You talked a little bit about how Trump dominates the discourse. It’s notoriously overwhelming to try to consume information in 2019, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you attempt to do that. How do you read the news?
MS: Like so many people, I feel like I’m on all the time. I’m always looking, looking, looking, trying to find out what’s going on—but I’m looking through my screen. That makes me nervous. And yet, I feel like I have to do that, I have to know what’s trending on Twitter, I have to know what’s on Facebook, I have to look at the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune. That’s what I will do in the mornings. I’ll go down mini-rabbit holes. Recently, I’ve been refusing to do that as the first thing I read. So now, I get up in the morning and I read something else. I’ve almost finished Moby Dick. I’ve just realized that I’ve got to take back some of my mind, because this constant news coming at you through your multiple screens will not make you wiser. It will suck you into cliché. It will not leave you time to actually go out. I wrestle with it all the time. But anyway, that’s what I consume: mostly online, but I read the Sunday New York Times and the Tribune in print.
B&W: What do you think is the most common misconception people have about newspapers and news organizations today?
MS: The current president has planted the seed in many minds that you can’t trust any media. This has infiltrated even the minds of people who don’t think like Donald Trump. I have a lot of friends who will say, well, you just can’t trust any media any more. That’s not true. More than ever, there’s this pervasive belief that all newspapers are intentionally biased to the point of fake, and that individual reporters are all part of the lefty complex. I do think reporters tend to lean more left than right, but it breaks my heart that people don’t understand how hard reporters and editors work, how deeply they care about getting at what’s true, and how hard it is.
If you are not in this business, you have no idea how hard it is to figure out what’s true in a story. Because what seems true on the first day will prove not to have been exactly right by the second day. It will have shifted again by the fifth day. So how do you write what you know in a way that says, look, this is what we know now. These are our best efforts at truth. If something proves not to be true later, it’s not because we’re trying to hide something. And people don’t understand how much the news industry has shrunk and how that’s affected how much we can do. The old Tribune readers want it to be like it was in 1989. Those days weren’t even all that good. We do some things better now, frankly. We’re leaner, sharper.
BW: I know you wrote the comic strip Brenda Starr, Reporter for a number of years. How do you think working with that character for so many years has impacted your writing?
MS: I don’t know that working with that character per se, changed my writing. But I do think that writing a story strip affected my writing, and in a good way. Because I had to learn how to tell a story in a really efficient way. Now, a lot of those Brenda strips were not very efficiently told. I had a full-time newspaper job at the same time, and so I’m writing those strips a week at a time, sitting on a courthouse floor and FedExing them to the artist. God forbid anyone try to go back and read those as coherent stories. But it just did make me think in terms of dialogue and plot in a much more acute way. It has helped my newspaper storytelling.
B&W: You’re probably sick of it by now, but I wanted to talk a little bit about your famous 1997 column, “Wear Sunscreen,” in which you dispensed advice to the class of 1997 in the form of a graduation speech. Your words reverberated across the early internet and across culture in various ways in this really early example of going viral.
MS: Yes, before viral was even a word!
B&W: Did that overwhelming response that people had to your words take you by surprise?
MS: Everything about the phenomenon of that column was surprising. Part of the weirdness of that story was that, as you say, it appeared at a particular moment. The internet was new—that’s hard to imagine. Google was new. Email was new. The fact that something could get around the world that fast….we had almost no examples of that happening before. So all of that was really startling. It used to be that you wrote a column, it would appear in print in the newspaper, and then people would write you letters or call you up, but your audience was limited. And now, all of a sudden, this thing went around the world, aided by the fact that it was attributed to a very famous author with a cult following, Kurt Vonnegut. There were all these things that came together: the novelty of the internet, Kurt Vonnegut’s name on it—so that began the first wave of the explosion—and then Baz Luhrmann, who’s more famous now than he was then, but he was a movie maker, and when he put it to a song, it was on the radio. To me, it’s an interesting example of how the medium is the message. It’s very alive today. People write me all the time about it, Tweet it at me. The BBC just called me last week because they’re doing a whole thing for the 20th anniversary of the song. But the combination of the medium of the internet, and the medium of a recorded version that could be played on the radio….print was eh.
B&W: Do you think that changed your relationship to the work as an author? Did you feel that you were kind of divorced from it as it spread?
MS: A little bit. I realized pretty early on that I had to give up any deep sense of proprietariness about it, because it would forever be out there under Kurt Vonnegut’s name or under Baz Luhrmann’s name. To this day, well, most people probably think it’s Baz. But not long ago, I got a grumpy email from someone castigating me for stealing Kurt Vonnegut’s graduation address. I’m like, my God, have you been in a cave for 20 years? But it’s another example: Once something is wrong on the internet, it can be wrong forever. People have stolen it in various ways. They’ve stolen it and pretended it was their graduation speech. There was a high school principal in Florida who was fired for doing that, but she wasn’t the only one. And then there were these greeting cards and mugs and t-shirts that had the phrase “Do one thing every day that scares you” on it, attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt. That really got under my skin. Because I get the Kurt Vonnegut thing, I get the Baz Luhrmann thing, I get the idea that these words are out there and maybe nobody said them, but when you claim that Eleanor Roosevelt said something and then you’re selling stuff? That really made me mad. Finally, a guy who runs a good website called Quote Investigator exonerated me. But it will never be fully rectified.
B&W: This Conversation in particular is for the Blue and White’s Orientation Issue, so the first readers of this will be Columbia’s class of 2023, just stepping onto campus and feeling very anxious. I was wondering if you would update the words in that column at all for an incoming class of students today.
MS: There are some references I would take out. “Keep your old love letters”—well nobody has love letters anymore! “Throw away your old bank statements”—nobody has printed bank statements anymore! But I think that most of it holds up. It’s basically saying, you know what, it’s going to be okay. You’ll look back in 20 years—I’m 65 now, right? I wrote that when I was 43. There’s a line in there that says “Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth. Oh, nevermind. You don’t understand the power and beauty of your youth until they’ve faded. But trust me, you’ll look back in 20 years and see how much possibility lay before you and how beautiful you really looked.” I would say that now—you will look back, as a 65-year-old, and think man, what was I worried about? I am guessing that at the age of 85, you will look back at yourself at 65 and think the same thing. Life is pretty good. There are hard patches in there. But I think that’s the basic message, and I think it holds up, even in 20-whatever the heck it is.
B&W: Last week, you wrote a column about how it takes a village to enable sexual predators like R. Kelly and Jeffrey Epstein, and how it also takes a village to stop them. We often think of the group being silent and individual heroes standing up to stop things. So as a follow-up to that column, what does that village-wide collective action look like to you?
MS: I think the Me Too movement is a village action. As one person speaks up and the next person speaks up and the next person speaks up, there’s this collective consciousness that has arisen, one that allows more people to speak out and allows more people to hear the people who are speaking out. I think Me Too is an example of the village in action, but somebody has got to speak up first and somebody has got to get heard first before people have the courage or the knowledge. I think the fact that we are seeing all the publicity, not just around Me Too, but around R. Kelly, Larry Nasser, Jeffrey Epstein. These are outgrowths of Me Too, in a way, because these allegations have been out there for a long time and didn’t get heard. Now, because there are enough people in the village that are speaking out about how sexual abuse has played out in their lives, now we say, that’s not okay Mr. Epstein, Mr. Kelly.
B&W: What have you been doing this summer that you’ve never done before?
MS: I have been really conscientious about using my summer mornings for something besides reading the news. Or sometimes the afternoon. Yesterday, for example, Sunday afternoon, after I taught yoga, I drove over to Humboldt Park because I wanted to see what was going on with that crazy alligator loose in the lagoon. I felt like this is part of my summer get-out-of-your-routine program. It was the perfect thing to be doing: walking around the park, with everyone dancing to Puerto Rican music and looking for the alligator. I just make sure that I go out in the mornings, I walk, I read. I don’t let the morning get away.
B&W: You have to find time to be a person outside of your career.
MS: I have to, but it takes vigilance!
B&W: Columbia students especially need to hear that.
MS: I say this all the time, but the time you invest in going for a walk somewhere beautiful, in reading a book that nourishes you, in going to yoga, that time pays you back. It’s a miracle. You invest an hour, and it gives you two hours back. You think it won’t, but it does.
B&W: How long have you been a yoga teacher?
MS: 15 years.
B&W: How do you think that’s influenced your mindfulness and how you interact with your surroundings?
MS: I’ve done yoga since 1994, 25 years. In addition to just calming me down, which is a necessary thing, it’s really affected everything in my life. I think it affects the way I approach the news, which is not always convenient. Because having a somewhat more detached, philosophical, kinder but disciplined view of the news is not always the most marketable tone for journalists. But I try to be honest about it. The other day, I got tons of hate mail on this column I wrote about immigration. Most of it I just deleted, it was just people calling me the worst kinds of names—all columnists get this. It’s the price you pay. After I had gotten just too many insults, I got one from some guy, and I just wrote him back. I just said, I’m sorry, buster, you’re the lucky one! And my response wasn’t vulgar, though I was tempted to be vulgar, but it was really testy. I just said, this is ridiculous. Stop romanticizing your parents and grandparents, because he said that they were the “good immigrants,” and these are the “lazy immigrants” who are sucking away at our resources, and I told him to get away from his Fox TV news and go out into the world and see who’s doing the work in this country. I didn’t even sign it. Afterwards, I thought, you know, I meant that. But I don’t really like acting and responding just in heat like that. I sat on it for a day, and I decided, you know, I’m going to write him and say, “I meant everything I said, but I do regret my tone.” When I went back in to respond, he had already written me back. He said, “You’re the first columnist who ever answered me!”
B&W: He just wanted someone to listen!
MS: Exactly. He said something like, “What makes you think that just because you write a column your opinion is more important than mine?” Oh boy. So I did write him back saying, “I mean this genuinely and with no rancor. I do regret my tone, but you have to understand that if you write someone with an insult, you’re likely to get an insult back.” But I let him goad me, and there was something in my little yogic brain that told me that I needed to fix that. Because you feel like you win, but….won what?