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4 of 5

By Patricia Volk
One summer day, I got a call at work from the deputy editor of The New York Times Magazine. He'd read some columns I'd freelanced and wanted to meet for lunch. The maƮtre d' at La Goulue led me to a table. Two of the handsomest men I've ever seen rose and introduced themselves. The blond one looked like F. Scott Fitzgerald, only manlier. The dark one looked like the young Norman Mailer, only taller. I ordered salmon and we chatted, but for the life of me, I couldn't figure out why Ken and Bruce were taking me to lunch. As we left the restaurant, Ken turned to me and said, "How'd you like to write an On Language column? William Safire is going on vacation."

"Sure," I said, thinking, Isn't he nice? Who wouldn't want to write an On Language column?

Two weeks later, on a Friday afternoon, the phone rang. "How's the column coming?" Ken said. "It's due Tuesday."

I hadn't realized I'd been given the assignment. How on earth could I write an On Language column? I read and worshipped William Safire. William Safire was a genius. William Safire not only plugged into the Zeitgeist, he created the Zeitgeist. He had a weekly column at the magazine of record. I got a 53 on the geometry regents. I was no William Safire.

I hung up the phone and told myself, You gotta do this. It's Friday. Go to the library. Read everything you can on semantics. Read Noam Chomsky. Study linguistics and etymology. Read Roget's Thesaurus and The Elements of Style. You may never get a chance like this again. If you don't write a William Safire On Language, you'll regret it every waking day of your life. You have four days in which to become a genius.

I couldn't move.

I was paralyzed.

The kids wanted lunch. Mashing mayonnaise into tuna, it occurred to me: Wait a minute. They didn't ask you to do this because you write like William Safire. You don't write anything like William Safire, and they know that. They asked you to do this because they liked something you wrote. They met you. They talked to you. They've read your stuff. You don't have to be somebody else. You can be you.

I sat down and wrote the column. I wrote it in my own voice, which has pretty much nothing in common with William Safire's. That day, I understood that if somebody asks me to write something, it's because they like what they think I'll do, not because they want me to write like somebody else. I never felt that gut-rocking panic again.

Ken liked the column. I got more assignments. His estimate of my ability was more generous than mine. He saw something I was too close to me to see. We think we know what we can do. Happily, luckily, blessedly, the Kens in our lives know better.