The Real World
texasmonthly.com: Where do you find inspiration for your columns? Do you have any main theme you try to address in each of your columns?
Michael Ennis: What I’m fundamentally inspired by, and what is the basic theme of many of my columns, is the enormous gap between the popular perception of Texas and the much more complicated reality of Texas. We’re a demographic and geographic giant with an extraordinary myth or mystique that people have been writing about for generations, yet very little of this ubiquitous myth has anything to do with Texas anymore. The gap between perception and reality is this vast, virgin frontier that remains almost unexplored right now, because very few of us want to stray too far from the comforting stereotypes of our state. The future is simply running away from our ability—particularly our political leadership’s ability—to figure out what’s going on here. But my message is that we shouldn’t be afraid of the future, we should understand it and embrace it. What’s going to make us a twenty-first century giant, far beyond anything we imagined in all our vainglorious mythology, is our remarkable diversity, the clash of cultures and civilizations we’re going to have to resolve within our own borders.
texasmonthly.com: In the past, your columns were often art-based. How did you decide to shift to more political topics?
ME: I’ve always felt that politics and culture are inseparable and you can’t talk intelligently about one without being conversant in the other. I didn’t feel I could be a good art writer without being steeped in history and politics—in fact I got into art history from a history background—so to me its not a very difficult transition. The real difference is that it’s a lot easier to write about political culture than it is to write about “high” culture, because most people are intimidated by the latter and you have to do a lot of metaphorical hand-holding for your audience, translating from what is often essentially a foreign language. We all pretty much speak the language of our political culture, so as a writer I can really take the gloves off. We also give politicians a lot more power than we do artists, so it’s fair to be far less merciful when they fall short of expectations.
texasmonthly.com: You frequently write about Dallas. What motivates you to keep writing about that city in particular?
ME: Well, I’m writing what I know, because I’ve lived in Dallas for most of the past 45 years. I’ve always considered Dallas the iconic Texas city, and now it’s the hub of the nation’s next great megalopolis. And it’s a very complicated place that can’t be explained by any of the old repertoire of Texas clichés—though a lot of people in Dallas still try real hard to do so.
texasmonthly.com: How long do you spend working on a column?
ME: In totality, it’s a long process that begins with an idea or observation that I might kick around for months or years before it suddenly acquires a more topical hook. Then, after I’ve researched the story, I’ll sit down and write it, only to discover what the story really is when I’m finished. When the story has truly jelled, I know it, but until then it takes as long as it takes.
texasmonthly.com: How do you research your columns? How is that different from researching feature stories?
ME: I’m not trying to contribute to the typical “he said, she said, and I don’t really know anything beyond what they said” journalistic model so prevalent today. I think there’s too much of it, just like there’s too much knee-jerk ideological punditry. I do a huge amount of background work using the tools that are available on the Internet today, much of which wasn’t available even five years ago. By this I don’t mean Wikipedia and blogs—I mean the think tanks, researchers, scholars, scientists, and government and non-governmental organizations that have posted a huge database of knowledge and ideas waiting to be mined. What I’ve been finding, to my astonishment, is that there’s a whole world of information out there that only a relative handful of esoteric specialists is really looking at, and that with the kind of search engines we have today and the speed of broadband, you can cover ground and make connections between people and ideas at a pace that was unimaginable just a few years ago—what might have taken a month can literally be done in a day. It’s a stunning revolution, and we’re just starting to see how it will change our world. On the other hand, I also place great value on old-fashioned things like newspapers and books (poky old books are probably the hottest news vehicles in the media today, because people have a real craving for the kind of big-picture view of current events that just gets lost in the daily he said, she said political spin). But there again, the Internet has also become the best place to read a range of newspapers and to find out about useful books.
I could easily have written 10,000 words on any of the columns I’ve done. But when you write to that length, you need faces, places, textures, voices; there’s a different dimension added. My job in writing a column is to cut to the chase and make the ideas as interesting as the people and places that embody them.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most unexpected piece of information you learned while working on your column about the Metroplex?
ME: That Fort Worth is the fastest-growing big city in the nation, and it’s already more populous than Boston. I don’t think Fort Worth is going to remain a footnote to Dallas much longer. (Back in the early eighties, when Dallas was doing Dallas, Fort Worth’s leaders commissioned a major pollster to find out what influential people around the country thought about Fort Worth, and they were stunned to discover that nobody ever thought about Fort Worth.) But what’s exciting is that these two cities, so long divided by petty bickering and a cultural chasm, are probably going to find a creative synergy that’s going to give growth in the Metroplex real legs.