Roy Peter Clark

Roy has taught writing at every level--to school children and Pulitzer Prize-winning authors--for more than 30 years, and has spoken about the writer's craft on The Oprah Winfrey Show, NPR and Today; at conferences from Singapore to Brazil; and at news organizations from The New York Times to the Sowetan in South Africa. He is the author of "Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer," the book and the blog.


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Lauren Bacall and the value of reading your old stories

Lauren Bacall signing copies of her successful autobiography " By Myself."   (AP Photo/Press Association)

Lauren Bacall signing copies of her successful autobiography " By Myself." (AP Photo/Press Association)

A couple of days after Lauren Bacall died, I ran into an old friend who remembered that I had once interviewed her for the St. Petersburg Times. To my shock, he even quoted a line from the story: “You wrote that she could scratch your back with her voice.” There was a lesson here about the power of the written word, that a reader could remember a story that the writer had mostly forgotten, and that the language of that story could stick with the reader for 35 years.

With the help of the good folks at what is now the Tampa Bay Times, I unearthed my profile of Miss Bacall. The exact date of publication was March 16, 1979. I had been writing and coaching writers at the newspaper for two years, and was in the middle of a stint as a substitute film and theater critic.

During my watch, Robert Altman came to town to make a movie called HealtH, a star-studded dud of a flick, meant to be a parody of national politics, that, in spite of the efforts of Miss Bacall, James Garner, Carol Burnett, and Glenda Jackson, never saw the light of day.

For me, though, covering the film was a professional bonanza. Over three months, I wrote more than two-dozen news stories, profiles, and features. I learned a lot, and I am about to learn something more.

I’ve come to believe in the value of re-reading your old stories. At the age of 66, I am asking myself today, “What can you see in yourself as a 30-year-old writer that was invisible back then but may be useful to you now?”

Before I can answer that question for you, I’ve got to read the my story again, and I hope you will read it too.

The Look of Lauren Bacall
By Roy Peter Clark
March 16, 1979

Lauren Bacall plays the ancient grand dame of HEALTH, a national health food organization. Her name is Esther Brill, an octogenarian who does not look her age because she has spent her life eating health foods and avoiding sex.

She espouses the belief that “sex is a killer” and campaigns under the slogan “The Pure President.”

“I play an 83-year-old virgin, which I am,” said Miss Bacall at a press conference Thursday in the Don CeSar Beach Resort Hotel. She was dressed in a striped blouse and a long, purple skirt.

“How do you validate your age and your virginity in the film?” I asked shyly.

She laughed. “Well, honey, if you can suggest a way that I can validate my virginity, I’d be most happy to do that.”

Maybe it was the way she called me honey. Her voice has that wonderful texture to it, something that you can feel as well as hear. The voice is warm, husky, sensual. She can scratch your back with it.

I heard in that voice the echoes of To Have and Have Not, her first film with Bogie where she made the promise that all men dream of: “If you want me just whistle.”

Or maybe it was the look in her eyes, eyes that were still youthful, bright, intelligent, full of good humor, yet profoundly alluring.

It was Lauren Bacall, all right. The Look.

The Look that launched a thousand magazine covers, that offered a generation of moviegoers some sweet unspoken promise of love.

Lauren Bacall may be the most seductive actress in the history of American films. There are few scenes in this age of cinematic explicitness that rival the torrid intimacy of her famous love scenes with her husband Humphrey Bogart. They stroke the imagination years after we’ve seen them.

“I think for everyone to see everything is boring,” she said. “I think to use your imagination is more exciting. When you see a love scene and you imagine what might go on is more stimulating than to actually see it. That’s the thing about films: you see these enormous people – you know the size of us on the big screen is ridiculous – and you can be kind of encompassed by these characters. You can lose yourself for that period of two hours.”

Lauren Bacall understands the movies. They have been her life, a life that she describes with humor and passion in Lauren Bacall By Myself, the best-selling nonfiction book in the country.

Her affinity for films may have begun in the womb: “As the nine months came to a close,” she relates in her book, “Mother went to a movie one hot September evening, started to feel the anxious creature within her make her first moves to push her way out, left the movie house, and at about two o’clock in the morning…I was born.”

She wrote the book herself, in an easy intelligent style.

“Writing the book was almost like childbirth, in a way. I almost had post partem depression when I turned the manuscript over. It was a tremendously cathartic experience. It’s much easier to write about something than it is to talk about it. What I wrote, I wrote. And that is self-explanatory. So I certainly don’t feel obliged to talk about any of it in detail. And I also have kept one or two things to myself.”

Miss Bacall punctuated her answers with hearty, unaffected laughs and projected a warmth that could melt the most stone-hearted of interviewers.

Her director, Robert Altman, has said that he cast Miss Bacall in HEALTH “because I like her and it’s the only way I could get close to her.”

She returns the affection: “We all feel very much together on this film. It’s a very happy combination of people and personalities. None of us have ever worked together before. But there is much more of a sense of unity than is normally on a film. Bob Altman is very open to actors’ ideas and suggestions. An actor could not work in a more open or easier atmosphere.”

Born in New York City, her real name was Betty Joan Weinstein Perske and everyone on the set still calls her Betty. It’s a plainer name than Lauren, but it fits. Because beyond everything else, it takes only a few minutes with Lauren Bacall to understand that she is a wonderful, down-to-earth woman, who has not let fame cloud her sense of herself.

She explains in her book that she learned her values from Bogart: “To be good was more important than to be rich. To be kind was more important than owning a house or a car. To respect one’s work and to do it well, to risk something in life, was more important than being a star. To never sell your soul – to have self-esteem – to be true – was most important of all.”

I know there are writers who never read their old stories. The reluctance, I believe, stems from the impostor syndrome, that all of their insufficiencies and fallibilities will surface in the re-reading. They will look at their old stories the way I look at videos of my golf swing and opine, “Man, I really do suck.”

When I go back to look at an old story, my response is usually different. I may cringe at this phrase or wish I had revised that, but my overwhelming impression goes something like this: “Hmm. This stuff is pretty good. The kid can write.”

I’ll ignore, for the most part, the elements in my profile that I’d wish to change. There is a star-struck quality to the prose that I would have toned-down a bit. And who can know for sure if Bacall was really a “wonderful” person or merely a good actor? In the age of Snark, my profile might look like a puff piece.

But let me dwell on the good stuff:

  • I can see and hear myself in the prose. Without the byline, I could still tell it was me. This is a quality we call “voice,” that illusion that the writer is speaking directly to the reader. I can trace a governing intelligence in the prose, a quality that poet Peter Meinke calls “wit.”
  • I was clearly prepared for the press conference – a format that can be deadly to writers – by having read her autobiography, a best-seller at the time. Not only could I derive ideas and questions from the book, but more of her own language as well, including the anecdote about her birth and her powerful mission statement about life and work that I save for the end.
  • I remember going into the event with a theme in mind: that at a time when more and more explicit sexuality was being revealed on the big screen, Bacall and Bogart had set a different – and better – standard. After she fielded some boring questions from a local TV guy, I asked her, “Miss Bacall, can we please talk about sex.” To which she replied, “Oh, let’s do.” The fact that I was writing about sexuality will come as no surprise to my friends and colleagues. It has been a trademark of my work and life and I have, on occasion, toed the danger line. No retreat, baby, no surrender.
  • Finally, I admire in my own work a not yet fully developed playfulness with language. “The look that launched a thousand magazine covers” feels slightly derivative but works in context. And I can also admire the passage that would be remembered by an old friend three decades later:

“Maybe it was the way she called me honey. Her voice has that wonderful texture to it, something that you can feel as well as hear. The voice is warm, husky, sensual. She can scratch your back with it.”

This story turns out to have a highly personal kicker. At the time of the interview, my wife Karen was pregnant with our third child. If it turned out to be a girl, we would call her Rene. Months later we got tired of that name, and I came forward with a suggestion, “What if we called her Lauren, after Lauren Bacall.”

[Try this exercise: Go back and find a story you wrote three months or three years ago. The older the piece, the “colder” it will feel to you, enabling you to read it more objectively. Ask yourself these questions: What pleases me? What would I now change? How would I describe the voice of this writer? What important lessons about writing have I learned since?] Read more

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The Kardashian Family Celebrates the Grand Opening of DASH Miami Beach

Dashes — the Kardashians of punctuation

The dash is the Kim Kardashian of punctuation marks: misplaced, over-exposed, shamelessly self-promoting, always eager to elbow out her jealous sisters the comma, colon, and semicolon.

My friend and mentor Don Fry has for years waged a holy war against the dash. Not the hundred-yard dash or a dash of paprika, but that most horizontal mode of punctuation, also known as an em dash — so named because it’s about as wide as a capital “M” in some typefaces.

Don, known as an enthusiastic exaggerator, has drummed up his opposition to the dash to ramming speed, and, truth be told, I can’t remember seeing a single instance of that mini-flatline in his own writing. He argues that writers use the dash profligately as a substitute for another more precise mark, and that the failure to learn, say, the colon or semicolon has created a dependence on the dash as the fallback punctuation tool.

I followed Don’s lead for a while and found that in most cases I was better off with something other than the dash. Then one day I sat staring at a sentence in frustration until my eyes went out of focus and my nose started to bleed. Suddenly it hit me: I needed a dash! Once liberated from Don’s orthodoxy, I began to see useful dashes everywhere, especially in the work of some of my favorite authors.

You know, every now and then, that Kim Kardashian looks pretty hot, doesn’t she?

Kim Kardashian, Khloe Kardashian and Kourtney Kardashian attend the opening of their boutique Dash -- seriously, that's its name -- in Miami Beach, Florida, in March. (Photo by Omar Vega/Invision/AP)

Kim Kardashian, Khloe Kardashian and Kourtney Kardashian attend the opening of their boutique Dash — seriously, that’s its name — in Miami Beach, Florida, in March. (Photo by Omar Vega/Invision/AP)

My reading reminded me that the dash has two important uses: 1) a pair of dashes can be used — like these two — to embed one sentence or important thought in another; and 2) a dash can be used for emphasis in sharp moments when you want to end a sentence with a stab — like this.

Verlyn Klinkenborg writes essays that often appear in the New York Times, as did this one about a striking coincidence concerning an infamous rocker of the 1960s:

It has been nearly 40 years since the rocker Jim Morrison died. But last week — the day after Morrison would have turned 65 — he appeared in the New York Times in two obituaries: his father’s and that of the owner of the Los Angeles club, Whisky A Go Go, where Morrison’s band, the Doors, got its big break.

Let’s revise that second sentence using commas to replace the dashes:

But last week, the day after Morrison would have turned 65, he appeared in the New York Times in two obituaries…

Those commas would pass Don Fry’s abolitionist test, but I don’t think they make the sentence better. Marking off the embedded clause with dashes sets it apart from the rest of the sentence and highlights an interesting pair of coincidences. With 65 being the traditional retirement age, that clause contains a backstory and a moral lesson of sorts, reminding us of the great music Morrison might have created if a dissolute lifestyle had not led him to an early and much-visited Paris grave.

Klinkenborg wonders aloud about such lessons:

You can play this kind of moral Sudoku — finding the patterns — with the obituaries every day. Look at those summary lives. See how they fit together — or not.

To fit together his words and ideas in those three sentences, the author uses two dashes to embed “finding the patterns” and another at the end to emphasize “or not.” So Don, I say with the love of a true brother: Abolishing baseball’s reserve clause was good; abolishing the dash not so good, especially when that tool is used with care.

It takes a nerd badge to proclaim a favorite dash of all time, but here’s mine, from one of the most famous endings in American literature:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther….And one fine morning —-

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

In the authorized text, that dash after “morning” is twice as long as the one after “matter.” Its length, position, and purpose turn it into end punctuation, more than a period, perhaps something like a “double full stop.”

This proves an important point about marks of punctuation: They may come to us as a set of rules, but they serve the writer as tools of meaning and emphasis.

As for the Kardashians, I have just been informed — I am not lying — that they have created a chain of retail outlets called Dash.

Parts of this essay are reprinted in The Glamour of Grammar. All the Kardashian stuff is new. Read more

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Brazil WCup Top Five Highlights

Killing the game story would be a shame

My love for almost everything began with a love for sport writing, and it remains my favorite kind of journalism.

In the early days it was the game story that most excited me. There was so little television coverage of sports back then – no replays or ESPN and the like – that if you wanted a good accounting, you read a rundown of the game in the New York Daily News. A sharp game story accompanied by some data visualization – uh, I mean the box score – and you were good to go.

You would think that the game story would be obsolete, that sports networks and the internet would have provided countless replays accompanied by endless commentary by both players and a clone army of talking heads. Or that by now the game story would be the job of a robot journalist.

But guess what, the game story lives. Proof positive comes from Steven Goff, the soccer writer for the Washington Post.  His game story, which played on page one, has the benefit of describing one of the most shocking matches in World Cup history, the demolition of the home team Brazil 7-1 on July 8 by the stereotypically methodical Germans, who would go on to win it all.

I’ve been reading and re-reading Goff’s story for more than a month now.  I am about to X-ray it for you to reveal what I think makes it special.  You can read it now. Or you can follow along as I quote passages and then analyze them.

Great journalism comes at the intersection of talent, preparation, and opportunity. The readiness is all.

Red Smith was ready when Bobby Thomson hit “the shot heard round the world” to lead the New York Giants in a shocking 1951 defeat of the Brooklyn Dodgers in the most famous baseball game ever played.  Smith’s lead for the New York Herald Tribune read:

Now it is done.  Now the story ends.  And there is no way to tell it.  The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic can ever be plausible again.

The kicker of the story, describing the downcast pitcher who threw the infamous pitch to Thomson, remains just as memorable:

Ralph Branca turned and started for the clubhouse. The number on his uniform looked huge. Thirteen.

Most striking about Steven Goff’s game story out of Belo Horizonte, Brazil is its unconventional approach to news writing.  It begins with two long paragraphs that almost ignore the details of the game.  What might have been expected in the report of a routine match flew out the window in the wake of a historic loss and humiliation.  Goff was ready:

It’s been said Brazil has never fully recovered from its greatest sporting tragedy, the 1950 home loss to Uruguay in the World Cup final.  Despite proceeding to win a record five global crowns and injecting beauty in the beautiful game, for blessing the sport with legendary players such as Pele, Romario and Ronaldo, Brazil remains haunted by the ghosts of “Maracanazo” – a term capturing the heartbreak of that day before 173,000 spectators at Rio’s Maracana stadium.

While that 76-word lead has no news in it, per se, it was news to me.  Perhaps students of the game would automatically understand the reference to the 1950 disaster (the way that I know about Bobby Thomson’s famous home run). This lead provides something that we say we want more of these days in journalism: context.  In a single paragraph, we come to understand the place of Brazil in the history of world football, and the place of world football in the history of Brazil. Now we are ready to put into that context what happened “yesterday”:

After what unfolded Tuesday, a 7-1 loss to Germany in the cup semifinals, Brazil will have to coin a new idiom to pass through the generations, an expression to capture what it looked and felt like at Estadio Mineirao, what it meant to concede four goals in six minutes of the first half, to suffer one of the most humbling setbacks in World Cup annals, to lose at home for the first time in 12 years and to equal the largest margin of defeat in its eminent history.

Has there been a better 88-word sentence in the history of game stories?  I’m ready to see it.  This one will suffice for now.  Let’s examine the parts:

  • “After what unfolded Tuesday” – The obligatory When of the story, but “unfolded” is a verb I associate with the beginning of a surprising narrative.
  • “…a 7-1 loss to Germany in the cup semifinals” – This is the What, the news, but it can be embedded in apposition because most people will already know what happened.
  • “…Brazil will have to coin a new idiom to pass through the generations,” – This phrase picks up the focus of the first paragraph, not only the idea of national disaster, but something so devastating that a new word may be needed to describe it. One part of a story sticks well to another; we call that stickiness “cohesion.”
  • “…an expression to capture…” – This phrase introduces a list of four discrete elements of the national humiliation. The entire sentence should remind us that the well-organized long sentence – one that takes a reader on a journey – must be on the workbench of every successful writer.

A good game story almost always answers the question ‘How’ for the reader.  How did the Giants defeat the Dodgers in such a surprising fashion? (By cheating – stealing signs – as it turned out years later.) How did a world soccer superpower allow seven goals in a game on its home field? Take these three short paragraphs:

Between the 23rd and 29th minutes, Brazil imploded. Without Thiago Silva, their defensive sentry, the Brazilians looked like a team of schoolboys new to the sport.

Kroos passed to Muller, who crisscrossed with Klose inside the penalty area. Cesar blocked Kloses’ initial shot but had no chance to stop the second.

“It was a great shock to them,” German Coach Joachim Loew said, “and you realized they were confused. They did not know what to do.”

The phrase that stands for me is: “the Brazilians looked like a team of schoolboys new to the sport.” The great flamboyant food critic, Alan Richman, was once a sports writer, and he and I once tangled in a playful debate as to whether the game story was more news or criticism. I argued news. He argued criticism.

Over the years, I find myself drifting towards his side. I know enough about soccer to understand in real time how badly the Brazilians were playing.  What I needed from Steven Goff was an explanation and a validation of that perspective. There are moments when the skillful writer can merge the elements of information and judgment, the kind of move we might expect from a Frank Rich reviewing a Broadway play or a presidential debate.

This final paragraph did the trick for me:

After the final whistle, Brazil’s players gathered at midfield and applauded the spectators. It was almost a plea for forgiveness. None was offered.

I love it that a story that began with two sentences that totaled more than 150 words, ends with a sentence of three words.

What this story reveals most of all is how ready Steven Goff was to write it.  That readiness – a combination of preparation and physical energy – reminds me of one of the great stories in the history of sports writing.  (I am retelling it from a chapter in my book Writing Tools.)

I end with the story of a famous foreign correspondent and novelist, Laurence Stallings, who was assigned in 1925 to cover a big college football game between Pennsylvania and Illinois.  The star of the day was Red Grange.  Known as the Galloping Ghost, Grange dazzled the crowd with 363 yards of total offense, leading the Illini to a 24-2 upset victory over Penn.

The famous journalist and author was awestruck.  Red Smith wrote that Stallings “clutched at his haircut” as he paced up and down the press box.  How could anyone cover this event?  “It’s too big,” he said, “I can’t write it,” this coming from a man who had once covered World War I.

Someone should have quoted Shakespeare to him:  “the readiness is all.” Read more

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Sochi Olympics Pussy Riot

Could the c-word soon be finding its way into news headlines?

If orange is the new black, then the c-word may be becoming the new f-word? It certainly seems that way. With the f-word drifting to more common usage, we need another word for its shock value.

When I write c-word, I do not mean “cable.” But it is on cable television where the c-word is creeping out of the shadows. Tony Soprano and his cronies used it. I hear it on episodes of the popular fantasy drama Game of Thrones, sometimes used to describe a body part, more often as a corrosive epithet against women and men.

Surprisingly, the c-word has taken on a political connotation. In his comedy routines and on his HBO show, Bill Maher has described Sarah Palin as a c—. He defends the use on First Amendment grounds: that Palin is a public figure and that nasty name calling is as old as the Republic.

In a recent episode of HBO’s True Blood, a Palin-type character is referred to as a “Republic–t” by one of the heroic vampires. In the series, vampires are allegorical representations of gay men and women. Many have “come out of the coffin” and into the mainstream, seeking tolerance from humans. The enemies of the “fangers” include religious bigots and conservative politicians. Hence the verbal assault in “Republic–t.”

As we watch the c-word inch away from deviance, it will help to understand the nature of this semantic shift from a historical and literary perspective. Let’s start with a definition from the American Heritage Dictionary: “Vulgar Slang 1.The female sexual organs. 2. Sexual intercourse with a woman [this was new to me]. 3a. Offensive Used as a disparaging term for a woman b. Used as a disparaging term for a person one dislikes or finds extremely disagreeable.

I think there’s something missing here. When used against a woman, the term is offensive enough and more than “disparaging,” more loaded than “bitch.” It’s one of the ultimate language weapons, a word designed to reduce her to the most basic objectification, defining her by the part men can use for their pleasure. I’d prefer not to elevate it by placing it in a rhetorical category, but it’s a form of synecdoche, in which a part represent the whole, the way we call a sailor a “hand.”

Men might be objectified as “dicks” or “pricks,” but those words are derringers vs. the c-bomb. When used against a man, c— takes on a powerful emasculating homophobic connotation, defining him by a body part he doesn’t have. Crude, nasty, and then some. A fighting word.

The etymology of the c-word goes back at least to the French Middle Ages. In English literature, versions or analogues of the word can be found prominently in the works of Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare.

In 1972 medieval scholar Thomas Ross compiled Chaucer’s Bawdy, a lexicon of the poet’s sexual and scatological words. One of the longest citations is for queynt (pronounced quaint), which was the Middle English equivalent of the c-word, but one that could be used with much more subtlety.

In addition to being the “normal if crude” synonym for vagina, explains Ross, in other contexts it could mean: “strange, curious, elaborate, ornamented, neat, artful, sly and graceful.” These multiple meanings allowed Chaucer to describe the way that the clever and handy clerk Nicholas grabs the lusty young Alison (I will modernize the language a bit): “As clerks know how to be quite subtle and quite queynte (sly), he in private caught her by the queynte (her privates).”

An earlier lexicon is Shakespeare’s Bawdy by the great British slang master Eric Partridge. He explains that a French version of the c-word is coun, and that one of Shakespeare’s characters mispronounces “gown” as “coun,” causing embarrassment and laughter. A more memorable usage occurs in Hamlet where the young prince torments the fair Ophelia with punning accusations. He tells her to “get thee to a nunnery,” when that term meant both convent and brothel. At one point, when Ophelia seems shocked by his reference to her “lap,” Hamlet asks her “Do you think I meant country matters?” That double-meaning places emphasis on the first syllable of country. In her book Filthy Shakespeare British scholar Pauline Kiernan has an entire chapter with the title C—.

Let’s move ahead 400 years to a recent overheard conversation among four men drinking beers in the clubhouse of a municipal golf course. They took turns complaining about the women in their lives, including girlfriends and wives. The complaints included repetitive use of the c-word. “You know what C— stands for?” asked the loudest of the bunch. “It stands for Can’t Understand Normal Thinking.” (I had a fantasy that the woman warrior knight from Game of Thrones, Brienne of Tarth, would appear, take names, and kick ass.)

There have been feminist efforts to reclaim the word, not unlike the habit of some African-American’s to reclaim the n-word. The most notable of these is a 2002 book by Inga Muscio with a one-word title, spelled out: C—. The sub-title is “A declaration of independence.”  The dedication speaks to its aspirations: “To everyone with C—love in their hearts, especially my Sacred Mother. I thank you for giving me life.”

Who knows to what extent the word will experience what semanticists would call “amelioration.” It remains one of the most powerful weapons of hate and de-humanization, used by both men and women, against both men and women. Yet if it continues to be used in the culture and political wars, we may find ourselves wanting to use it in places we haven’t used it before, perhaps in news stories, even in headlines. “Never,” you say?

There is a recent precedent for this shift in the experience of the c-word’s younger and more playful little sister, the word pussy. Ian Fleming let that cat out of the bag decades ago with one of the most memorable “Bond girls,” Pussy Galore, played in the film by Honor Blackman. Bond you may remember turned this lesbian into a has-bee-an.

But now there is Pussy Riot, the Russian girl punk band whose members have suffered the consequences of proving to the world that the Emperor Putin has no clothes. Their political courage has put the word Pussy on the map – and on the pages of all the big newspapers – and on the lips of all the respectable news anchors. As 007 once reminded us with that inimitable gleam in his eye: “Never say never.” Read more

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50ShadesofGreyCover-cropped

What writers can un-learn from ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’

The release of a hot trailer for the movie version of Fifty Shades of Grey has stirred up renewed attention to the book trilogy that spawned it, the work of a very lucky British woman named E.L. James.  I very much like the arc of her personal story: from self-publishing the first book to sales of more than 90 million copies worldwide, with translations into more than 50 languages.  So perhaps I should make this a very short essay with this advice to writers everywhere: Sex sells.

But just as there is good food writing and bad food writing; good sports writing and bad sports writing; there is also good sex writing and bad sex writing. To illustrate this, I have chosen a scene – almost at random – from one of James’s book to analyze.  As you will see, it turns out to be much less graphic than the bondage scenes for which the work has become famous and notorious, but the style of writing remains consistent:

Christian nods as he turns and leads me through the double doors into the grandiose foyer. I revel in the feel of his large hand and his long, skilled fingers curled around mine. I feel the familiar pull—I am drawn, Icarus to his sun. I have been burned already, and yet here I am again.

Reaching the elevators, he presses the call button. I peek up at him, and he’s wearing his enigmatic half smile. As the doors open, he releases my hand and ushers me in. The doors close and I risk a second peek. He glances down at me, gray eyes alive, and it’s there in the air between us, that electricity. It’s palpable. I can almost taste it, pulsing between us, drawing us together.

“Oh my,” I gasp as I bask briefly in the intensity of this visceral, primal attraction. “I feel it, too,” he says, his eyes clouded and intense.

Desire pools dark and deadly in my groin.  He clasps my hand and grazes my knuckles with his thumb, and all my muscles clench tightly, deliciously, deep inside me.

Holy cow. How can he still do this to me?

“Please don’t bite your lip, Anastasia,” he whispers.

I gaze up at him, releasing my lip. I want him. Here, now, in the elevator. How could I not?

“You know what it does to me,” he murmurs.

Oh, I still affect him. My inner goddess stirs from her five-day sulk.

Oy.  What I usually call X-ray reading, which I reserve for great works of journalism or literature must briefly descend to SEX-ray reading (and let’s see if I can get through it without revealing anything too weird about myself).

There is nothing original or interesting or even mildly erotic about this passage. We’ve seen or heard it all before:  Icarus flying too close to the sun.  (When I saw it, I blurted out:  Oh, not Icarus, again.  Can’t we find another less abused mythological figure?)  The encounter in the elevator is a staple from everything from porn movies to TV commercials. What follows are those suspiciously large hands and long fingers.  There are those coy glances, and electricity in the air between them.  Can you imagine that?  Electricity in the air between them – in an elevator?  There must be pulsing – don’t forget the pulsing. Add some gasping and basking, and let’s not forget a dash of visceral and primal.  There is clenching, grazing, and clenching.  No mommy porn can be complete without the appearance of the word “deep.”  The closest thing to original language is “Desire pools dark and deadly in my groin.”  But all that alliteration cannot muffle the screams in my head that protest against the collision of “pools” and “groin.” Is this passion, I wonder, or a urinary tract infection?

To neutralize the poison of this passage, I offer a counter-example, also written by a woman, Florida’s own Zora Neal Huston.  Their Eyes Were Watching God was published in 1937 to mixed and controversial reviews but is now counted among the important novels of the 20th century.  A blurb on the 75th anniversary edition by Alice Walker reads: “There is no book more important to me than this one.”

There is a photo of a pear tree on the cover, and beneath the title, an image of a bee.  That artwork pays homage to the book’s most famous passage.  The main character Janie Crawford thinks back to when she was 16-years-old.  Her memories of a young lover, Johnny Taylor, turn into an erotic reverie.

It was a spring afternoon in West Florida.  Janie had spent most of the day under a blossoming pear tree in the back-yard.  She had been spending every minute that she could steal from her chores under that tree for the last three days.  That was to say, ever since the first tiny bloom had opened.  It had called her to come and gaze on a mystery.  From barren brown stems to glistening leaf-buds; from the leaf-buds to snowy virginity of bloom.  It stirred her tremendously….

She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her.  She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight.  So this was marriage! She had been summoned to behold a revelation.  Then Janie felt a pain remorseless sweet that left her limp and languid….Through pollinated air she saw a glorious being coming up the road.  In her former blindness she had known him as shiftless Johnny Taylor, tall and lean.  That was before the golden dust of pollen had beglamored his rags and her eyes.

You don’t need your X-ray glasses to realize that this passage is a highly stylized description of a sexualized sensibility. I’m all for sex – in life and literature.  I’ve studied the ways in which human sexuality is portrayed in popular culture and in art.  You would think that decades of such contemplation would lead to wisdom, but I admit to being as confused as ever about the power that sex holds over us.  Only religion can compete.  Sex, beyond its biological imperatives, is a cultural force that fascinates us, dominates our thinking, and drives us to acts that help us, hurt us, and complicate our lives.

Descriptions and depictions of sex, I would argue, in media, advertising, literature, and drama are easy enough to create, but difficult to do well.

Let’s consider for a moment the difference between creative work that is erotic vs. pornographic.  My inclination is to identify pornography by what it says, and erotica by what it does not say.  Porn is, by practice if not definition, prone to exaggeration and overstatement; eros works by suggestion, imagery, and understatement.  Both porn and eros have the same desired effect:  to excite the body, to prepare it for sex.  Porn does this primarily through the eyes; eros through the imagination.

What interests me most about Hurston’s passage – beyond its erotic allure – is the way in which the most standard metaphors of language are transformed from something common and euphemistic into something astonishing and exciting.

To use the most old-fashioned language, a woman who lost her virginity was said to be “de-flowered.”  When young teens began to learn about sexuality, it was all about “the birds and the bees.”  The parts of the flower, we might have learned in high school biology, had their male and female equivalents.  We can find traces of all these comparisons in Hurston’s passage, and yet the power and originality of the language unveils the sex act in ways we haven’t seen before.

Sometimes a pear tree, Dr. Freud, is more than a pear tree.

There is a name for Hurston’s technique, and as an anthropologist and author, she would have known it:  Anthropomorphism.  Here’s the definition from the American Heritage Dictionary: “attributing of human motivation, characteristics, or behavior to inanimate objects, animals, or natural phenomenon.”  This process is easy enough to recognize when the subject is a mammal or primate but becomes harder as we move down the chain of being.  When it’s a flower, Hurston gives its bloom a “snowy virginity.”  The breeze has a “breath” and even “pants” like an energetic lover.  There is a “love embrace” and even a “marriage” between the parts of the tree.

Then there is a cluster of words and images that in a different context or via expressions of connotation remind us of sexuality.  A tree blossoms and blooms, and so, in a sense, does a young woman. Janie is “stretched on her back beneath the pear tree” as if it were her lover.  A bee will  “sink into the sanctum of a bloom” bearing pollen, and carrying countless associations with sexual union, fertility, and procreation.  The “thousand sister-calyxes” describe the sepals of a group of flowers, but a “calyx” also describes the cup-like structure of a human organ, such as a pelvis.  It arches, as a lover would arch her back, and the result is a kind of sexual orgasm:  “the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight.”  (In porn, that’s called the “money shot.”)  At the end of that passage, Janie is a spent lover, feeling “limp and languid,” alliterative words beginning with liquid consonants that offer their own kind of lubrication.

What a great move of perspective to look down a road through the glorious haze of “pollinated air,” to see the human object of her desire.  He is transformed now through the lens of her Sex-ray vision. “the golden dust of pollen had beglamored his rags and her eyes.”  There is magic at work here.  The pollen is a form of fairy dust.  To be “beglamored” means to be transformed as if in a spell or trance.

To understand how good this is – how artistic and controlled — all that is needed is to compare it to Fifty Shades of Grey.

The key to writing good sex (good anything) is original language.

Recall how Vladimir Nabokov describes Humbert Humbert’s first sighting of Delores Haze, who would become his beloved Lolita:

With awe and delight…I saw again her lovely indrawn abdomen where my southbound mouth had briefly paused; and those puerile hips on which I had kissed the crenulated imprint left by the band of her shorts….The twenty-five years I had lived since then, tapered to a palpitating point, and vanished.

At one point early in the novel Humbert laments, “Oh, my Lolita, I only have words to play with!”  Rather than a lament, Nabokov could adopt it as a boast for I know no other novelist who is as relentlessly playful with the English language. Enjoy some of the phrases above, from “indrawn abdomen” to “southbound mouth” to “crenulated imprint” to “palpitating point.”  Appreciate the balance, alliteration, assonance, repetition, variation – the wild and witty texture of the prose.

Now hold it up against “Holy cow. How can he still do this to me?” Read more

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semicolon

Restore the semicolon to journalism; before it’s too late

Maybe it’s the oppressive Florida heat and humidity, but I find myself in a mischievously contrarian mood these days. First I flew the flag of the Oxford comma. Then I raised the roof on behalf of the passive voice. So why not try for a trifecta: a proposal that we restore the undervalued semicolon to its proper place in journalism – ahead of the dash.

It could be that I’ve been shaped by the influence of one of my favorite writers, more importantly, the richest writer in the world: J.K. Rowling. If a woman now worth more than the Queen of England peppers her prose with semicolons, why should we deny their power and influence.

Writing under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, Rowling has given us The Cuckoo’s Calling, a detective mystery with her flawed and injured hero Cormoran Strike. Check out this passage:

An overdose had simply seemed consistent with the trend of Leda’s life; with the squats and the musicians and the wild parties; with the squalor of her final relationship and home; with the constant presence of drugs in her vicinity; with her reckless quest for thrills and highs. Strike alone had asked whether anyone had known his mother had taken to shooting up; he alone had seen a distinction between her predilection for cannabis and a sudden liking for heroin; he alone had unanswered questions and saw suspicious circumstances. But he had been a student of twenty, and nobody had listened.

For the record, that’s six semicolons in a paragraph of 101 words, about one every 17 words. Let it be known, that no language was injured in the making of this paragraph.

If you’d like to brush up on your semicolon skills, please follow this argument, which I have adapted here from a chapter of the book The Glamour of Grammar:

Come to think of it, the semicolon does look a little like a colon with a polyp. In truth, it is probably used more often these days in winking emoticons ;-) than as an alternative to the period or the comma. Maybe because a period sits atop a comma in the semicolon, it sends off a “neither here nor there” aura, threatening me with its indifference.

Whenever I’m having unsettled thoughts about punctuation, I turn to the work of Tom Wolfe. It was in the 1960s, after all, when Wolfe and his buddies began to bust the boundaries of conventional nonfiction. Among those innovations was a tendency to use punctuation like hot spice in a Cajun stew. A little this!…A little that*!*!…Bada boom!!!

So on a whim, I pulled out a copy of Wolfe’s 1998 novel, A Man in Full, and thumbed through it until my eye caught this passage on page 262:

Outside, Conrad threw the newspaper away in a receptacle on this corner. He now had two twenty-dollar bills, a five, a one, two quarters, a dime, and a nickel. He started walking again. Over there – a telephone. He deposited a quarter. Nothing; dead; it was out of order; he couldn’t get the quarter back; he jiggled the lever; he pounded the machine with the heel of his hand. A panic rose up in him, and now his extremities seemed to shrink and grow cold. He walked all the way back to the first telephone he had found. His heart was beating much too fast. Gingerly he deposited his last quarter – and placed another collect call to Jill – and told her the whole sad story.

I admire this paragraph for many reasons, but especially for the ambitious varieties of punctuation, including ten periods, seven commas, five semicolons, and three dashes. I am especially intrigued by the unusual use of the semicolon in that central sentence:

Nothing; dead; it was out of order; he couldn’t get the quarter back; he jiggled the lever; he pounded the machine with the heel of his hand.

I admit that I would have been tempted to replace each semicolon with a period. In its current form, the sentence seems unparallel and out of joint. But then, isn’t that the point of the sentence? In a panic, a man without a cell phone needs coins and a working pay phone to make an important human connection. By means of those semicolons, Wolfe describes a frantic series of actions that proceed in chronological order and together form a single sentence, a complete thought.

Abandoning Wolfe (and fiction), I went from author to author looking for semicolons and was surprised to see the radically different preferences of writers, scholars, and critics. A collection of essays by 20th century philosopher Hannah Arendt revealed very few among hundreds of pages, while cultural critic Greil Marcus relies on them again and again, especially when he is trying to connect/divide two short important points: “Innocence is the colorless stain on the national tapestry,” he writes in The Shape of Things to Come. “It violates the landscape; the only way to kill it is to cut it out.”

What strikes me about such uses of the semicolon is their arbitrariness, as if the semicolon were a mark of choice rather than of rule. Let me demonstrate the array of options inspired by the Marcus sentence:

  • “The Swede is the good son; Jerry is the bad son.”
  • But why not, “The Swede is the good son. Jerry is the bad son.”
  • Or “The Swede is the good son, but Jerry is the bad son.”
  • Or “The Swede is the good son, Jerry the bad son.”

If none of those possibilities is incorrect, then what impulse governs the writer? It sounds to me as if the writer is left with a musical decision. To the ear of Marcus, the semicolon without conjunction creates a balance achieved by simultaneous connection and separation.

What kind of object connects and separates at the same time? I supposed there are a number of correct answers, including the Cross Your Heart bra, but I’m thinking more of the swinging gate. That’s how I see the semicolon in my own writing, as a gate that stands between two thoughts, a barrier that forces separations but invites you to pass through to the other side.

Flickr Photo by Satish Krishnamurthy https://flic.kr/p/krnedH

Flickr Photo by Satish Krishnamurthy https://flic.kr/p/krnedH

New York standard bearers went gaga when reporter Sam Roberts found a semicolon in this subway sign: “Please put it in a trash can; that’s good news for everyone.” Roberts wrote in the New York Times: “Semicolon sightings in the city are unusual, period, much less in exhortations drafted by committees of civil servants. In literature and journalism, not to mention in advertising, the semicolon has been largely jettisoned as a pretentious anachronism.”

But one person’s pretentious anachronism may be another’s timely solution. So when would I use the semicolon in my own writing? My choices are governed more by sight than sound, especially on those occasions when the run of the sentence threatens to overflow the banks established by weaker forms of punctuation (for example, I do not think the Rowling passage would hold together if you replaced the semicolons with commas; periods would be blood clots in the flow of the sentence). Consider this autobiographical passage:

Growing up a baseball fan in New York in the 1950s was to be engaged in an endless debate with neighbors on who was baseball’s greatest center field: Duke Snider of the Dodgers, who was a sturdy defender and one of the most reliable sluggers in the league; or Willie Mays of the Giants, one of baseball’s first great black superstars, a man who on any given day could astonish you with his bat or his glove; or my idol, Mickey Mantle, the Yankee heir to the crown of Joe DiMaggio, who, when he was healthy, could run faster and hit the ball farther than anyone who ever played the game.

If I used only commas in that rambling and energetic sentence, there would have been ten of them, too many to help the reader keep track of its parts. When I substituted semicolons, the parts became clear. You can see them with your eye: a topic clause, followed by one part Duke, one part Willie, one part the Mick.

Just walk through the swinging gates to get from one part to another.

MORE: Copy Editor Essentials — What You Should Know in Your Sleep Read more

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In this April 10, 1996 file photo, the ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in the 1939 film "The Wizard of Oz" are shown on display during a media tour of the "America's Smithsonian" exhibition in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Ed Zurga)

Why we love stories about ‘coming home’

In this April 10, 1996 file photo, the ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in the 1939 film "The Wizard of Oz" are shown on display during a media tour of the "America's Smithsonian" exhibition in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Ed Zurga)

In this April 10, 1996 file photo, the ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz” are shown on display during a media tour of the “America’s Smithsonian” exhibition in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Ed Zurga)

Journalists are suckers for homecoming stories, which is part of the reason the LeBron James story has gained such traction. The essay he wrote for Sports Illustrated with Lee Jenkins is titled “I’m Coming Home,” which is also its final sentence.

I’ve written about the power of the short sentence. It has the ring of gospel truth. Even if there are money and control and competitive issues involved for James, the dominant narrative is that the King, who once lost his way, has now returned… home.

Or has he? What about it, Thomas Wolfe? What about it, Kareem Abdul Jabbar: “LeBron can’t go home again. At least not the home he once knew. They may be grateful and joyful, but they are also wiser. Like the betrayed spouse, they will have to wait and see, they will have to be wooed, they will have to be convinced that his sincerity, to quote Porgy and Bess, ain’t a sometime thing.”

Those of you who read “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy will remember how Frodo Baggins, after destroying the ring of power, returns to his beloved Shire. It’s his best reward, of course, except the Shire is not quite the same, and neither is Frodo.

This pattern, Tolkien called it “there and back,” is so ingrained in the human narrative that we can trace it to the earliest examples of Western literature. What is “The Iliad” except a story about a king leaving the security of his homeland to wage a futile war to regain his faithless queen?

What is “The Odyssey” except a story of how much more difficult it is to return home than to go off to war in the first place.

By the time Odysseus returns to his beloved Ithaca, he finds his house, property, even his wife under siege. Such is his anger that the only remedy is brutal revenge. So much for coming home.

Back then they called it heroism. If it happened today, we’d call it mass murder. When I make this point, I am reminded of a painful fact: that war is still being waged near the land where the Greeks and Trojans battled. We are still sending men and women off to their deaths. We celebrate countless examples of their emotional homecomings. We cry when a child or spouse encircles the beloved warrior with an embrace. We hold aside for a moment that the soldier has returned home without a limb, or that he will be haunted – even to suicide – by the things he has seen.

My attitude to the homecoming story was shaped early by an important American story titled “The Man Without a Country.” Written by Edward Everett Hale and published in The Atlantic in 1863, it was a patriotic allegory at the time of the Civil War. The story involves a young man, Philip Nolan, who becomes involved in an early episode of rebellion against the United States and then curses his country during a court proceeding. He is sentenced to spend his life as a captive on American sailing vessels never able to visit or even hear news of his homeland again.

He becomes a man without a country.

Someone should send a copy of that story to Edward Snowden. The young man who released national security secrets is a hero to some and a traitor to others. His actions have placed him in a kind of phantom zone. He has expressed a desire to return home, but under what terms? A big part of that story, if it ever happens, will be the power of the archetype. The return of the lost son. The homecoming.

“Prefer archetypes to stereotypes,” I wrote in the book Writing Tools. “Use subtle symbols, not crashing cymbals.”

The difference between an archetype and a stereotype is the difference between opening and closing a window. A stereotype limits what we can see. An archetype expands our vision of what a story can be by recognizing that our feelings about LeBron James – and his return as a kind of prodigal son – grows out of our most profound identification with a place: kith and kin, hearth and home.

Let’s plug James into the plot of one of America’s most iconic stories. Think of James as Dorothy. Think of South Beach as Oz. Think of his Nike Elite Laser Crimson basketball shoes as the ruby slippers. Think of Ohio as Kansas. There’s no place like home.

LeBron James' shoes are seen during an NBA basketball game against the Brooklyn Nets Friday, Nov. 1, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

LeBron James’ shoes are seen during an NBA basketball game against the Brooklyn Nets Friday, Nov. 1, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

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Walter Cronkite

Accept praise for something great in your story – even if you didn’t mean it

We writers say we want more praise for our work, but, when it comes, we are often not ready to accept it. We are better at absorbing the blows of negative criticism, perhaps because we suffer from the impostor syndrome, that fear that this is the day that we will be found out, exposed as frauds, banished to law school.

If you are one of those writers who fend off criticism, this essay is for you. As I learned years ago, praise can come at some surprising moments, and for surprising reasons. When it arrives, let it wash over you like a waterfall.

My career in journalism was launched by a short essay I wrote for the New York Times in 1974. It was called “Infectious Cronkitis,” and an editor at the Times by the name of Howard Goldberg told me later that while he liked the essay, he really liked that title.

I was raised in New York, but in 1974 I taught at a small college in Alabama. As I watched local news programs in the South, I was puzzled that all the anchors sounded like they were from the Midwest. I later discovered that most of these news men and women grew up in the South but had been trained or coaxed to abandoned Southern dialects for the “cracked twig” standard. It was as if they all wanted to sound like Cronkite.

This seemed to me like an illness, a form of self-loathing, a prejudice against even educated forms of Southern speech. I remember so clearly writing my essay in a makeshift office in a rented apartment, sitting on a metal chair, banging on a Remington portable typewriter, my baby daughter Alison toddling nearby.

I paused for some inspiration. I needed a name for this conceptual scoop. I was using words like “disease,” “illness,” and “syndrome.” My hands rested on the keyboard, and I looked toward the ceiling, as if in prayer. I needed a name. Suddenly, I thought of a college teacher whose nickname was “The Disease,” not because of the state of his health or his teaching style, but because of his last name: Jurgalitis.

Then came the list of associations: Jurgalitis…Appendicitis…Bronchitis…

I fell back in my chair and hit my head on the floor, a blow cushioned by a pea-green shag carpet.

Cronkitis!

That word changed everything. The column was reprinted in papers across the nation. I got miffed mail from Dan Rather and Uncle Walter himself. I was invited by Edwin Newman to appear on the Today show to talk about language prejudice. Word got to Gene Patterson, then president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, who hired me to lead a writing improvement effort for newspapers. I became a writing coach at the St. Petersburg Times and then the first faculty member at the Poynter Institute, a school that now influences the work of journalists across the globe. I’ve taught there 35 years and have my name as editor or author on 17 books.

Credit Cronkitis, or the Muse who gave that word to me.

I wrote more op-ed columns for the Times about the emerging culture of the New South. During a visit to New York City I was invited to the Times to meet the editors who had been promoting my work, especially Charlotte Curtis and her deputy Howard Goldberg. They were generous in their praise, and I was flattered and grateful.

Then came that comment from Goldberg about “Infectious Cronkitis.” He liked the content of that column, but he loved the title.  “Cronkitis, a great pun in TWO languages,” is the way I remember it.

Two languages? Goldberg explained to someone else in the room: “You know, the German word for disease is krankheit – pronounced Cronkite. In vaudeville, the crazy doctor was always called Dr. Krankheit — Dr. Disease.”

I knew not a single word of German, and my only brush with vaudeville was through sketches by Abbott and Costello and the Three Stooges. But I sat in that room like the young genius I was not — aglow with misdirected praise.

Who among you – especially you writers — get praised too much? I didn’t think so.

I learned a lesson as a writer that day that I pass on to all of you: Never fend off praise. Just accept it. By all means, take credit for things you did not mean. Why? Because you will be blamed for lots and lots of stuff you also didn’t intend.

So repeat after me, scribes: “Yes. I meant it all along. Cronkitis. A pun in TWO languages. Actually THREE if you add krankhayt from the Yiddish.”

Read the letter Walter Cronkite wrote to Roy Peter Clark after the Infectious Cronkitis article came out. Read more

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Man reading a newspaper

How I might have responded to Clay Shirky’s student

Is it unfair to steer journalism students to jobs in print publications?

That question rumbled in my mind like a storm cloud after reading a provocative recent essay by Professor Clay Shirky. I learn a lot from his work and was eager to learn more.

Shirky described a recent moment in which he addressed about 200 students in a college journalism class. One student asked him, “So how do we save print?”

Shirky answered: “I was speechless for a moment, then exploded, telling her that print was in terminal decline and that everyone in the class needed to understand this if they were thinking of journalism as a major or a profession….This was a room full of people who would rather lick asphalt than subscribe to a paper publication; what on earth would make them think print was anything other than a wasting asset?”

Shirky concluded that adults were “lying to them.” Those lies, according to the professor, included futile efforts to save print by various revenue generating schemes.

I am no expert on the business side of journalism. But I know something about journalism students and their aspirations. If that young woman had been my student, I think I would have responded differently, not in terms of the literal language of her question, but in terms of its spirit.

I sense that this student is no “nostalgist” about print, to use Shirky’s language. But I’d bet that she sees something worthy in her experience over time that she associates with print. Perhaps she’d like to see her name on the cover of a book or magazine – or on the front page of a newspaper atop a powerful investigation or suspenseful narrative.

I would frame my answer to her in terms of something that Neil Postman once told me in my only personal conversation with him. He said that every technological change carries with it two competing forces: the creation of new benefits and the loss of things we treasure. He said that it was our job to take full advantage of the benefits and to compensate for the losses.

So I would think that the question “So how do we save print?” was at its essence a question about how we preserve the best things we have associated with the print tradition, which formed, in a nutshell, would include good writing, reporting, and editing in the public interest.

If she asked me about jobs, I would have told her and her colleagues that if they wanted to imagine a life for themselves as storytellers in the public interest, they might still give print – even newspapers – a try.

Given the shrinking resources of newspapers, reporting jobs are hard to come by. But consider this: In the glory days of fully-staffed newsrooms, young reporters had to wait a long time to land a big story. There were hoops to jump through, a series of beats to cover before you got to “enterprise” work.

With smaller staffs, with the replacement of older higher-paid employees with younger cheaper recruits, the “cub” reporter can now hit the ground running. There are fewer editors to guide this reporter, to be sure, but also fewer forces to rein her in.

I hope I am not a “nostalgist.” I believe in Poynter president Tim Franklin’s vision of helping print institutions build a bridge to a digital future. I am not looking for a return of some golden era of newspapering, and I don’t know anyone who is.

My residual good feeling about print is sparked instead by a recent experience as a judge of a writing contest. This was the Best American Newspaper Narrative competition, sponsored by the Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas, home of the prestigious Mayborn literary conference.

The contest included 46 narrative entries. Every one of them was exceptional in some way and worthy of praise. Every one of them advanced the public interest. They covered most of the important issues and stories of the day: mass shootings, terrorism, mental illness, immigration, education, catastrophic weather and other natural disasters, drug abuse, soldiers coming home from war, unemployment, urban renewal, child neglect, and much, much more.

Some of the best work came from the biggest papers: The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and The Wall Street Journal. The bigger regional papers also submitted outstanding work: The Arizona Republic, Tampa Bay Times, Detroit Free Press, The Charlotte Observer, The Dallas Morning News, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Boston Globe, The Virginian-Pilot, Sarasota Herald-Tribune, and Asbury Park Press. While all of these papers have lost resources and staff, you can see in the quality of the submitted work, which I read in digital form, a continuing commitment to outperform their resources, to do the best possible job in both narrative and investigative modes.

And lest we think that such quality is a big dog’s game, let’s hear it for the Wausau Daily Herald, The Galveston County Daily News, Archer County News, Opelousas Daily World, and The Lafayette Daily Advertiser.

At a lunch at Poynter years ago, my colleague Don Fry declared that newspapers in print form would no longer exist by such and such a date. In front of witnesses, I bet him $1,000 that he was wrong. That date passed a while back, but I haven’t collected and don’t feel I deserve to. Taking the long view, Don was right. As is Clay Shirky. But no one practices journalism in the long view. It’s called journalism, after all, from the French word jour, meaning the day– this day — today.

Taking a job in a newspaper remains, I believe, one of the best investments a young journalist can make.

I agree that the young writers who write great stories for newspapers may not even subscribe to the print publication that supports them. It doesn’t matter. They have a chance to learn their craft, to practice the discipline of finding things out and checking them out, to write stories about the great characters who populate our towns and cities. They have the chance to right wrongs, pursue their creative vocation, and get paid for it.

And guess what, if their newspaper closes its doors tomorrow, they will be prepared for the next job – in or out of journalism – in whatever medium and platform it is expressed. They will possess the skills and the sense of mission and purpose they need for the next challenge. If I had been that journalism student, I would have hoped for something like that in reply. Read more

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active or passive

In praise of the passive voice

Of all the technical advice I offer writers, none is more controversial than encouragement to use the passive voice. Most writers prefer the active, and so do I. But that preference has been distorted to the point of making the passive a taboo, expressed in useless phrases such as “avoid the passive,” or “there is no excuse for the passive,” or, with more humor, “the passive voice should not be used.”

  1. Criticism of the passive includes these arguments:
    It makes a sentence longer, requiring the addition of a helping verb.
  2. It is too indirect, violating the one-two-three progression of subject, verb, object, as in “Putin split his pants.” (Hard to imagine a writer preferring “Putin’s pants were split by him.”
  3. It allows the writer to avoid attribution of action, creating all kinds of evasion, especially in the political sphere, the classic example being “Mistakes were made.”

In “Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch,” a book devoted to verbs, Constance Hale notes that confusion springs from the word “voice” to describe the relationship between subject and verb. More confusion comes from mischaracterizations. In a popular and otherwise helpful book, “On Writing,” the prolific Stephen King refers to the “passive tense,” a mistake since active and passive can be expressed in any sequence of time. (Passive and tense could be used to describe any number of King protagonists waiting for some horror to beset them.)

I argue that the passive has its uses and that writers should learn them, a position shared by Connie Hale in this New York Times essay.

But before I describe those uses, it will help first to overturn the conviction of the passive as “dull,” using DNA evidence of a textual nature. The standard critic argues that passive verbs are “weak,” “flabby,” or “soft.” The favored active verbs are then said to be “strong,” “vivid,” or “muscular.” It makes sense that, by definition, the active should usurp the passive, in the sense that we prefer the active student, soccer player, or lover to the passive.

Let me offer, as exhibit A, a phrase written by the Alabama author Daphne Simpkins in her essay “Two Clocks.” The piece describes the not-always-happy burden of escorting an elderly neighbor to doctor appointments, including a 40-mile trek to the foot doctor, where the woman’s “bunions are peeled and the toenails sawed off….” Many years ago, Daphne was a student of mine and probably heard my preference for the active. Now she is teaching me a lesson: that the passive can be vivid – to the boundary of yuck, as in “peeled” and “sawed off.”

That’s when it hit me like a pool cue to the solar plexus. The passive can be vivid, and the active dull, as in the sentence “Travis went downstairs,” as opposed to “fell” or “tripped” or “tumbled.”

This led me to an insight that may be ancient, but that is new to me: verbs are not active or passive at all. The activity or passivity rests in the subject, not the verb. When Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey complained that “I was blindsided” by the bridge scandal, it portrayed him as the passive receiver of the malpractice of others. That is exactly when the passive is most useful.

I often teach a passage from the journalist Thomas French, who wrote the story of an aging chimp named Herman, a charismatic creature who died violently at a Tampa zoo. We learn that as an infant, Herman “was taken from his mother…then sold in an orange crate for $25 and a thumbprint. He was carried across an ocean, installed inside a cage, taught to depend on the imperfect love of strangers.” These verbs (my italics) are vivid enough: taken, sold, carried, installed, taught. They describe Herman as an orphan, a captive, a victim. He is passive, not the verbs.

When Herman grows to become an alpha chimp, the virtual king of his zoo, his status changes, and so do the author’s verbs: “He charmed Jane Goodall, threw dirt at the mayor of Tampa, learned to blow kisses and smoke cigarettes, whatever it took to entertain the masses.” Herman is no longer the pauper, but a prince. He is the agent, the doer, the active one.

In those adjoining examples we see a lesson for all writers. Prefer the active, if you will, but when you want to focus on the receiver, the victim – be it bunion or chimp – the passive rules. There, I said it. In the active voice. Read more

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