Mary Schmich
Nieman Class of 1996

Screen Shot 2013-08-26 at 1.15.46 AMWhen the Pulitzer committee awarded Schmich the 2012 prize for commentary, jurors cited the strength of her “wide range of down-to-earth columns that reflect the character and capture the culture of her famed city.” Range, along with a keen eye for the moving detail, is part of what distinguishes Schmich, a veteran Chicago Tribune columnist in a city known for its columnists (Hecht, Landers, Royko). In the past few weeks alone, Schmich has written about the death of the beloved novelist Elmore Leonard, gang shootings outside a church, the coming of a Target superstore, the mayoral race in Paris, performance-enhancing fakery a la A-Rod, and the beauty of park benches. Three times a week, for two decades, Schmich has given Chicago a steady backbeat of insight with columns containing passages such as this one, about Leonard: “He was a small man, gentlemanly, cerebral. He insisted on picking me up at the airport and he arrived in a cashmere coat, leather driving gloves and white Reeboks. James Bond meets suburban grandpa.” Schmich was a Pulitzer finalist in 2011, and a finalist for feature writing in 2006, and she received another mark of distinction when her column was moved to Page 3, former home of the legendary Mike Royko. Also, she wrote the Brenda Starr comic strip. Also, she once delivered graduation advice later attributed to the author Kurt Vonnegut. Her thousands of columns, which represent a “wide view of things,” as she puts it, were recently collected into an ebook, Even the Terrible Things Seem Beautiful to Me Now: The Best of Mary Schmich. In the introduction, she writes that her columns are “about Chicago — this astonishing city I’ve had the great fortune of inhabiting, chronicling, working to understand — but they’re also about more ethereal realms, like the meaning of friendship, the power of poems, the contents of my mother’s refrigerator.”

Recommended reads:

>Remembering a writing hero, Elmore Leonard,” on the novelist, who died recently. Excerpt:

Opening “LaBrava,” a 1983 thriller set in Miami Beach, I instantly landed on a paragraph that helps explain his appeal:

“I have a feeling you might be in danger. All the next day he would hear himself saying it. The tone was all right, not overdone, and he believed it was true she was in danger. But it didn’t sound right. Because people who were into danger on an everyday basis didn’t talk like that, they didn’t use the word.”

Those lines come from the mind of one of the book’s characters, but you can also hear Leonard talking to himself about his writing:

Got to get the tone right. Got to find the right word, the everyday word, the word people really use.

As last week’s obituaries noted, an ear for common speech was at the heart of Leonard’s success, an approach summed up in what may be his most quoted sentence: “If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.”

>The Journey of Judge Joan Lefkow,” a 2006 Pulitzer finalist in feature writing, about the murders of a federal judge’s husband and mother. Excerpt:

What do you do with the memory of a murder? Of two? How can you witness annihilation without it annihilating part of you? Write it down, Lefkow’s therapist tells her. So on a laptop in her corporate apartment, with the marshals on guard outside, she starts writing one day in late April. Stops. Resumes the day before the movers come to the house in May. She writes in the naked style of a legal brief.

The bodies. 911. The phone call to a daughter’s fiance.

She writes of how she called one of her girls that night and shouted, “Come home! Run!” How she reached another in California, told her to get on a plane, now, heard her daughter say, “No. No. No. Mom, you’re joking.”

She keeps typing.

The ride to the police station. The friends who gathered there to cry. The interrogation, then the ride to the hotel where her family hid for the next two days.

More than once she types, “I don’t remember.”

Other people who were there that night and the days right afterward would remember things she didn’t remember, or didn’t feel inclined to write:

The rumpled hotel beds and curtains drawn against the daylight. The girls drifting in and out of rooms, holding each other, weeping.

One daughter sobbing, “I want my daddy, I want my daddy, I want my daddy.”

>Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young,” her famous graduation column. Excerpt:

If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it. The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience. I will dispense this advice now.

Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth. Oh, never mind. You will not understand the power and beauty of your youth until they’ve faded. But trust me, in 20 years, you’ll look back at photos of yourself and recall in a way you can’t grasp now how much possibility lay before you and how fabulous you really looked. You are not as fat as you imagine.

Don’t worry about the future. Or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4 p.m. on some idle Tuesday.

Do one thing every day that scares you.


Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts. Don’t put up with people who are reckless with yours.

The Featured Fellow series highlights Niemans who have distinguished themselves in narrative journalism and other artful storytelling, and honors the founding of the Nieman Foundation, which turns 75 in September. For more installments, go here.

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