‘Four hours of driving for five hundred words … really!!?”

That’s often the eruption from our children in the back seat when we leave with the whole family in tow on our way to a dubious tourist attraction. Why? Because Mom needs to scout out a possible subject for her next piece in the newspaper. A family outing enforced by the imminent hatchet of a missed deadline.

Illustration by Eliane Gerrits.

Just like a crocodile in the zoo, a columnist needs to be fed at least once a week. Preferably with a juicy story that can be chewed on, without a bone getting stuck in the reader’s throat. We call it “column food” in our family. And like any other animal, the writer has to forage around for a long time before such a tasty morsel pops up. A hungry writer is a veritable omnivore, a vulture who sniffs and scratches at the smoking dump of news and life without reservation.

My motto is writer Nora Ephron’s famous saying: “Everything is copy” — everything and everyone is fodder for a possible piece. Our children are therefore always extra alert when I ask their friends once again how they are doing exactly. Watch out, before you know it, your most intimate secrets, whether or not exaggerated, will be in the newspaper.

It is said that the news is on the street, but in my experience you have to lift a lot of paving stones to find it. Certainly here in America, where a lot is always happening. Especially if you get past the headlines and the screams on cable television and want to leave “him with the orange hair” unmentioned.

Then you run into a towering wall of sameness. America largely remains a well-behaved and proper country that still has one foot stuck in the 1950s. Especially in the neat “burbs” where we live, with their cocktail parties, handwritten thank-you notes, faithful church attendance, and practical clothing. Or, as someone recently described it to me, “You won’t find garbage that’s not picked up here.”

Not that this region is a top tourist destination. Princeton may be a leafy, picturesque town, but New Jersey is happily sniffed at by the rest of America as “an exit on the Turnpike.” Mostly, however, they refer to the thick fumes emanating from the many oil refineries and chemical installations, the maze of 10-lane highways, and the stinking reputations of dubious politicians and Mafiosi. Here even Tony Soprano craves respectability.

I know, I tell the kids, not everything I write about is a five-star destination. But rest assured, the result of our forced day out is often so disappointing that I drive home after the four-hour quixotic journey with the fear of an empty page looming in front of me. Then you won’t get to read about my expedition to see Lucy the Elephant, a three-story house in the shape of an elephant in Margate, New Jersey, with a museum about… Lucy the Elephant. Even the worst trash-bin scavengers among writers have their principles.

Pia de Jong is a Dutch writer who lives in Princeton. She writes a weekly column for the NRC Handelsblad, a major newspaper in Amsterdam. She can be contacted at pdejong@ias.edu.