Bob Bestler

How The Great American Novel plan turned into a career unlocking truths

Newspaper front pages are displayed at the Newseum in Washington.
Newspaper front pages are displayed at the Newseum in Washington. AP

As I watched Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, speaking on television the other day, I was reminded again of the influence her dad, Jim Klobuchar, had on my newspaper career.

No, I never met him, but his daily columns in the Minneapolis Star Tribune helped ignite my interest in newspapers.

I had known since I was a young teenager that I might do something in writing. In fact, I remember the day friends and I pondered what we wanted to be when we grew up. This was long after the policeman/fireman phase and I said I hoped to write The Great American Novel. Or something like that.

I actually wanted to play shortstop for the Yankees, but I knew that would not happen. Writing, however, was a possibility. English was always my best subject.

I took several steps toward the goal of writing The Great American Novel.

I read most everything written by Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Mailer and Capote.

I subscribed to really serious magazines, Harper’s and Atlantic and, yes, Playboy (for the articles).

One time, I moved into a hotel room in Los Angeles, on a week’s leave from the Marines, and tried writing The Great American Novel on a little portable typewriter. I accomplished little, beyond tossing a bunch of crumpled wads of paper.

Later, I enrolled in something called Famous Writers School. I finished only a couple of lessons; eventually I learned this was something of a scam when muckraker Jessica Mitford published an article in Atlantic Monthly called, “Let Us Now Appraise Famous Writers.”

When I headed for college, I chose journalism as my major, thinking newspaper work – yuck, newspapers – would at least give me a job while I labored over The Great American Novel and the fame and fortune it would bring.

Then two things happened.

First, I began reading Jim Klobuchar’s columns and realized how much fun newspaper writing could be. Klobuchar seldom wrote about politics, but he was big on human interest, spicing his columns with pathos and humor. Former Charlotte residents will get this: Klobuchar was Kays Gary before I knew Kays Gary.

And he was creative. I still remember a column he wrote kidding a fellow Tribune columnist for, among other things, owning a typewriter that magically bold-faced all names. It was a classic.

The other factor in my newspaper progression was a course in editorial writing. As I studied editorial pages from major newspapers, I began to realize the importance of the daily newspaper in the search for truth.

I came to believe the editorial pages of newspapers gave life to the First Amendment every day and stood as an unwavering bulwark against attacks on our democracy. I believed it then; I believe it now.

Eventually, I got a chance to write editorials for another great newspaper, The Charlotte Observer, before getting the opportunity to write my first column for The Sun News in 1989.

Almost 30 years later, The Great American Novel remains on hold.

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