When I first pitched a column to the editor of a gay newspaper in Chicago, I was expecting to write some short, snappy, girl-around-town pieces for a year or two.
I thought I'd write about what was going on in the bars, in the conference rooms - I'd pass along the gossip everyone wanted to know.
"Nah," my editor said, after listening a moment. "I don't like that idea. But I like the idea of you writing a column. Just tell your own stories."
"Tell your own stories," he said.
Tell my own stories?! I thought. I was 24 years old. What stories did I have to tell?
But it turned out that a recently out lesbian living in a city for the first time did have stories, about what it was like to come out over and over, about struggling to accept that my dad would never accept my lesbian self, and - most popularly - about my dog Max, still barking at 16.
For 14 years, I've been telling my stories to readers of gay papers from Washington State to Washington, DC. And somehow, sharing them persuaded readers to share their own with me - originally through the actual mail (I still have all of those and tried to answer most of them), then email, and now as comments on posted columns, or as commentary on blogs of their own.
One reader, from Oklahoma, asked if he should come out to his parents, even though they were socially conservative. I still wonder how he's doing, though he wrote me about seven years ago. Another engaged me in a debate about whether there's a place for gays and lesbians in Evangelical churches. He just wrote again recently.
When I still lived in Chicago, I met readers for drinks and for breakfast, sometimes in their homes. Occasionally, someone strolling along a side street in Andersonville would call out to me while I was walking my dog. In my pajamas.
In those days, the days before the web, writing a column for newspapers felt intimate. People picked up their free paper from the box on the corner and shared it with a cup of coffee. I felt like I was writing for a community - and I could be pretty sure that someone responding to a column had likely read others and knew me pretty well. It was like we were continuing a conversation.
The web changed life for columnists. It became more important that columns were topical riffs on the news (the web is fueled by hits and hits are fueled by keywords which are easy to search for). When I started running a website myself (I'm the editor of the news site 365gay.com), I started writing columns I wanted to run, things that clarified or put a new spin on the news story of the week.
There were fewer of my own stories. And that made me start to feel like what I was doing, anyone could do. And maybe I should step aside and make room for the new young woman or young man who could.
When the Chicago Free Press closed at the beginning of this month - a paper that was my editorial home longer than the city was my actual home - the conversation came to an end.
But oh, I'm going to miss you, Chciago readers. I'm going to miss your stories. I'm going to miss sharing mine, as if we were friends talking quietly over an afternoon cup of tea. Thanks for being there.
And if you ever see me in New York - walking Max, I'm sure in my pajamas - I hope you'll say hello.