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.


How the Southern press foiled FBI’s attempt to smear MLK

Is it possible that we have to thank the white Southern press of the 1960s – even the segregationist press – for its restraint in resisting FBI attempts to smear the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., with sexual scandal?

That question is raised, but not sufficiently developed, in a Nov. 11 New York Times piece written by Yale historian Beverly Gage. She discovered in the files of FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover an uncensored draft of what has been called the “suicide letter.”  The letter was part of an elaborate effort to discredit King, who was about to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

Based on wire taps and audio tapes, the one-page letter, supposedly sent by an outraged black citizen, described in the vivid language of the day examples of King’s marital infidelities and sexual adventures.  The writer, actually an FBI agent, threatened to go public in 34 days with details of King’s affairs.  “There is only one thing left for you to do,” it read near the end.  “You know what it is.”

The letter is considered one of the low points in the history of the FBI.  Tapping phones and bugging hotel rooms, Hoover became outraged at what he considered to be King’s moral hypocrisy.  “FBI officials began to peddle information about King’s hotel-room activities to friendly members of press,” wrote Gage, “hoping to discredit the civil rights leader.  To their astonishment the story went nowhere.”

We might expect that the FBI could have found some editor at some paper in the South – especially one with segregationist leanings – to try to expose King’s moral failings.  “Today,” wrote Gage, “it is almost impossible to imagine the press refusing a juicy story.  To a scandal-hungry media, the bedroom practices of our public officials and moral leaders are usually fair game….Faced with today’s political environment, perhaps King would have made different decisions in his personal affairs.  Perhaps, though, he never would have had the chance to emerge as the public leader he ultimately became.”

The best inside look at how the Southern press restrained itself – and why — is offered by the late Eugene Patterson, who was editor of the Atlanta Constitution from 1960-1968.  Patterson would become editor of the St. Petersburg Times and a powerful force in the creation of what is now the Poynter Institute. He hired me to become one of America’s first newspaper writing coaches.

On May 1, 1965, Eugene Patterson and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., appeared together on a panel at “Law Day U.S.A.” at the University of Pennsylvania. Patterson was the moderator. (Poynter Photo)

On May 1, 1965, Eugene Patterson and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., appeared together on a panel at “Law Day U.S.A.” at the University of Pennsylvania. Patterson was the moderator. (Poynter Photo)

When I arrived in St. Pete in 1977, Howell Raines was political editor of the Times, an immensely gifted reporter and writer who would one day become editor of the New York Times.  That same year he would publish a comprehensive oral history of the civil rights movement titled My Soul Is Rested.

It is in that book that Patterson describes to Raines how he was approached by the FBI to smear King, a deeply troubling narrative, not just about the nightmare of American apartheid, but about the dangers of intelligence agencies that pry into the private life of its citizens.

Here’s my condensed version of Gene Patterson speaking to Howell Raines, used with Howell’s permission:

“An FBI agent was sent to see me with the bugging information that Dr. King had been engaged in extramarital sexual affairs.  The FBI agent, obviously under orders of the director, Hoover, because nobody acted without his direction, urged me – he said, ‘Gene,…here you on this paper have raised Dr. King up to be some kind of model American, some kind of saint, some kind of moralist.’  He said, ‘Now, here’s the information, and why don’t you print it?’  The FBI, the secret police of this country! And I had to explain to him, ‘Look, we’re not a peephole journal.  We don’t print this kind of stuff on any man.  And we’re not going to do it on Dr. King.’  And I said, ‘Furthermore, I’m shocked that you would be spying on an American citizen, whether it’s Dr. King or some other person because if it can happen to him, it can happen to all of us.’ And I asked him if he thought this wasn’t a misuse of the FBI. But he was highly offended at me, seeing us as an immoral newspaper for not printing back-alley gossip that the secret police of the United States were trying to ruin this man with.”

That agent had provided Patterson with the name of a Florida airport where King and a woman would be leaving, perhaps for the Caribbean, for a sexual affair.  He encouraged Patterson to send a reporter and photographer to catch King in the act: “Get a picture of this as well as a story on this man and expose him to the South and to the world.”

Patterson replied:  “Well that’s dangerous stuff, and it’s not our kind of journalism.” Undeterred, the FBI sent the agent back a second time, and once again, Patterson showed him the door.  By that time both Patterson and his mentor Ralph McGill were known for their progressive positions on racial justice in the South, and might have been expected to fend off J. Edgar Hoover and his minions. But Patterson revealed something deeper, and, I think, more inspiring about the response of the Southern press.

Patterson told Raines that one of the editors contacted by the FBI was Lou Harris of the Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle, a paper that supported segregation on its editorial pages.  Patterson recalls:

“So I had a phone call from Lou Harris one day, and he said, ‘Gene, I had a call from an FBI agent over here, and you’d be amazed at what he told me about Dr. King.’ And I said, ‘Lou, you mean sex exploits.’ …He said, ‘Have you heard about this?’ I said, ‘Yeah, the FBI has been to see me, too.’ And I said, ‘What are you gonna do with it?’ he said, ‘Hell, I wouldn’t print that stuff.  That’s beyond the pale.’ And this was a segregationist editor talking to me.  And I said, ‘Lou, I’m proud of you.  I’m not gonna mess with it either.’”

Patterson concludes, “I’m sure that story was spread to other Southern editors.  It’s a tribute to the press in the South, the segregationist press of that period that not one word of this ever came into print until after the death of Dr. King.  There were certain fences beyond which the press would not go in vilifying and damaging a man, and we didn’t do it to Dr. King.”

As I have thought about Patterson’s actions a half-century ago, I wondered why he didn’t do something to expose the reckless actions of the FBI.  Why not expose J. Edgar Hoover?  It occurred to me, of course, that such disclosure was a double-edged sword.  It could not be accomplished without evidence, and that evidence would include the smears against King.

But Patterson, it turns out, did take action, which he recounts in his interview with Raines.  One night, Patterson found himself on a plane to Atlanta with John Doar, one of Bobby Kennedy’s top aides in the Justice Department.  Hoover was a powerful man, but supposedly subject to the direction of the Attorney General.  “I want you to tell the attorney general about this,” said Patterson.  “He should know what the FBI is up to.”

“Because the more I thought about it,” Patterson said, “the more worried I’d become about the misuse of secret police powers.”  Patterson remembered that throughout his narrative, Doar never looked at him, staring straight ahead in stony silence.  “And all of a sudden,” said Patterson, “it hit me like a thunderclap that Bobby Kennedy knew about it.  I had made Doar very uncomfortable by relating it to him. Not one expression crossed that deadpan face of his.  He just did not respond.  It was like talking to a dead man.”

(Coincidently, Doar just died at the age of 92 on Nov. 11, the day Gage’s article on the “suicide letter” appeared in the Times.)

There are powerful lessons to be drawn from this story that involve race, politics, privacy, and power:

  • Patterson admired King and was, for a white Southerner, considered liberal on matters of race.  He accepted no credit for his action in the case.  As was his personal and rhetorical habit, he shined a light on the segregationist editor who did the right thing, the man whose professional ethics, however unsophisticated, would hold sway over political ideology.  (Something we need more of these days, I think.)
  • A half century after these incidents, the American intelligence and security apparatus have snooping powers well beyond anything that could be imagined by Dr. King, Patterson, and their contemporaries.  Imagine the corruption of a J. Edgar Hoover armed with the weapons of the digital age.  His original bugging of King, whom he hated and criticized publicly, was not in search of sexual indiscretions.  Hoover’s goals were measured by the paranoid politics of his time:  that King had consorted with Communists.  Patterson’s concerns about our secret police snooping on our citizens are more pertinent than ever.
  • Patterson articulated for Raines an ethic of public and private life that is worth revisiting, perhaps re-mounting on the wall:  that as long as a person’s private life did not impinge directly on his public service, that it was nobody’s business.  That is the ethic of secrecy that protected JFK and many other leaders from exposure of their irresponsible behavior. If the FBI leaked the indiscretions of a contemporary American leader, how long would it take to get to my Twitter feed?
  • The library at the Poynter Institute is dedicated to Gene Patterson, along with a Patterson chair – an actual leather chair – that once rested his body, and now his soul.

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Journalists join rock bands for more than just fame

On Friday evening, Nov. 21, a ragtag group of amateur rock musicians will play a gig for charity at a venue in St. Petersburg, Florida, called the Palladium. The group has the strange name The Fabulous Nosecaps, and I am proud to be a founding member and keyboard player. In my mind, the Fab Caps remain the greatest newspaper band of all time, rocking for almost 13 years in the 1980s and 90s in front of large groups and small, in venues from living rooms to public parks filled with thousands.

There were seven of us at first: Dave Scheiber, Greg Huffman, Mike and Kathy Foley, Jeff Klinkenberg, Bev Childs, and yours truly. Kathy Foley is singing “My Boyfriend’s Back” in rock ‘n’ roll heaven. The remaining six – accompanied by countless fill-ins, groupies, and hangers-on – launch our reunion show next Friday with two sets of dance party favorites, ranging narrowly from “Wooly Bully” to “Hang on Sloopy.”

No doubt, writers, especially the introverts, are show-offs. They like nothing better than the sight of their byline on a front page. They want to be noticed, respected, and, I think it’s fair to say, loved. Let’s stipulate that there are no bigger show-offs in the world than rock musicians. So why should it surprise us that writers might want to join a band?

It's not the Beatles in Liverpool,but eht Fabulous Nosecaps at their first gig. (Left to right) Mike "Mad Dog" Foley on drums, Dave Scheiber, Jeff Klinkenberg (front), Roy Peter Clark, Greg "the G-Man" Huffman. (Photo courtesy of Dave Scheiber)

It’s not the Beatles in Liverpool,but eht Fabulous Nosecaps at their first gig. (Left to right) Mike “Mad Dog” Foley on drums, Dave Scheiber, Jeff Klinkenberg (front), Roy Peter Clark, Greg “the G-Man” Huffman. (Photo courtesy of Dave Scheiber)

I am writing about this event not just to sell the few remaining tickets, but to recall an experience that meant a lot to a lot of people in journalism. It turns out, there were newspaper bands all over the country, in LA, Boston, St. Louis, some of them very good, and some delightfully bad.

The Tampa Tribune had the Pop Tarts. The Philadelphia Inquirer had the Bing Bell Band, made up of guys from the photo department. Long Island’s Newsday offered a band with a particularly great name: Bluesday. (More recently, St. Pete also produced the hottest band of women reporters in history, the hard-charging Doll Parts.)

The Nosecaps were the best, I’d argue, not just for our longevity, but for the intensity of the parties we inspired. Our origins were modest enough. Folks would gather at someone’s house for a party. Someone would have a guitar or a piano and before long we’d be singing our favorite classic rock songs into the night.

We came to learn that a few of us had belonged to a band at one time or another. Mine included: The Henchmen, T.S. and the Eliots, Tuesday Children, and the O.B. Williams Review. Some of us got to rub shoulders with rock celebrities: for Huffman it was Tom Petty, for Mike Foley it was Chuck Berry, and, for me, it was playing a dance concert with Question Mark and the Mysterians, famous for “96 Tears.” (Question Mark always wore shade sails gold coast
and would write his name “?” Maybe that encounter shaped my interest in punctuation.)

How our band got its name is a matter of great speculation. My version is that I was walking along Central Avenue in St. Pete and looked in the window of an old pharmacy. There in a dusty display were these white plastic caps tourists connected to their eyeglasses to protect their noses from the sun. “Fabulous Nosecaps” said the sign, “Fifty cents.” Given our modest aspirations, the price seemed just right. I bought the whole bunch, and we wore them at our first gigs.

Everyone in the band had some connection with the St. Pete Times (now the Tampa Bay Times). Scheiber was a writer and editor. Huffman worked in marketing. Mike Foley rose to the rank of executive editor. Over 35 years, Klinkenberg became the paper’s most popular feature writer. Bev Childs, a veteran of community theater, was married to Joe Childs, a Times writer and editor.

Klinkenberg just accepted a buyout, severing the final connection between the band and the newspaper.

“Glory days, well they’ll pass you by,” Bruce Springsteen reminded us. But the memories stick, as well as what those memories teach us about the deep connection that exists between the worlds of writers and musicians.

If we think of reporters as musicians, then it is only fair to think of musicians as reporters. Sometimes, of course, the message is nothing more than fun. But in many cases, it is the makers of music whose commentary on the news and social trends grabs the public’s attention and sticks for decades. The times — and the Times — they are achangin’.

Dave Barry, one of America’s most beloved and versatile writers, has on two occasions sat in with the Nosecaps. Barry plays lead guitar and sings on classic hits such as “Susie Q.” His band, the Rock Bottom Remainders, featuring the likes of Stephen King and Amy Tan, have played for years at book festivals. Springsteen himself noted that the band was pretty good, but encouraged the Remainders not to get any better, lest higher expectations destroy their garage band mystique.

Among the writers/musicians I know, the most talented may be Mitch Albom, the sports columnist, radio and television personality, and best-selling book author. Yes, Albom sat in with the Nosecaps at a convention of sports editors. Albom is a skilled keyboard player and composer. I once asked him about how he connects writing and music. He replied that it was fitting that his instrument in both cases was a keyboard, and that there may have been moments when he was typing a sweet passage when his body was moving to a rhythm that only he could hear.

Rhythm, tone, meter, sound, voice, crescendo, notes, lyrics, pace, echo, phrase, dissonance, resolution – these are all words I have used in my teaching to describe effects I can hear in both music and writing.

A writer does not have to be a musician, of course, to benefit from music’s power. A lyric from Chuck Berry, a move from a Mozart sonata, Aretha Franklin’s transformation of Otis Redding’s “Respect” – these are at our fingertips, as close as our iPhone. Some writers use music to inspire their writing; others as a reward for finishing.

Whatever artistic benefit may have accrued from playing in a newspaper rock band, there was another set of wonderful collateral benefits:

*Without sacrificing our independence, we connected with citizens and community groups at a grass-roots level. We helped raise a little money for free clinics, church groups, and soccer clubs. We became part of the social capital of our city and region.

*The folks who danced to our music got to know journalists as people, rather than as remote, objective authority figures. We got to talk to them about their families, schools, and neighborhoods. (Our drummer, Mike Foley, now an award-winning journalism professor at the University of Florida, played in a high school band called “The Mad Dogs” and sometimes wore a spiked dog collar to our gigs. You’d think that newspaper readers would be concerned to see a top editor wearing a dog collar, but this was not the case. If anything it had a soothing, funny, demythologizing effect.)

So I noticed that Bruce Springsteen just played a massive concert in Washington, DC, to support American war veterans and their families. The Boss is 65-years-old. That’s about the median age for a Fabulous Nosecap. There are many younger journalists now who have succeeded us in newsrooms, I know, a function of retirements, buy-outs, and the general decline of newspapers. I hope they find a way to join a band. Read more


Why so many people loved Tom Magliozzi’s storytelling

FILE In this July 9, 1991 file photo, Brothers Tom, left, and Ray Magliozzi pose under a car hood in Boston.   Tom Magliozzi died today of complications from Alzheimer's disease. He was 77. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

FILE In this July 9, 1991 file photo, Brothers Tom, left, and Ray Magliozzi pose under a car hood in Boston. Tom Magliozzi died today of complications from Alzheimer’s disease. He was 77. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

The one thing about the news that is eternal, I guess, is that you never know for sure who is going to die next.  One day in 1977 I was walking through the newsroom of the St. Petersburg Times and ran into Mike Foley, the city editor. “What’s new?” I asked him. “Elvis is dead,” he said.

Back then it was Elvis, and today, I learned, it was Tom Magliozzi, a dimmer star in the celebrity heavens than the King, but a special personality in his own right. With his brother Ray, he hosted Car Talk, a radio feast for almost 40 years, now in syndication.

If you’ve heard the show once, you know the ingredients:

  • Chatter about popular cultural and the events of the day.
  • Brainy jokes about language, wives, or automobiles.
  • The vestigial remains of what we used to call a “Boston accent.”
  • Four or five phone calls from all over the nation and sometimes beyond, complaining about that squeak coming from under the dashboard or the smell of gas coming from the trunk.
  • A brain teaser called the Weekly Puzzler.
  • And lots and lots of laughter.

What was great about these guys is that they were authentically from the Boston-Italian working class, kids from the neighborhood who happened to have degrees in chemical engineering from MIT. They could talk about engines the ways the Jack Nicklaus can talk about a golf swing, the way Shakespeare, I imagine, could talk about the sonnet.

Part of their genius was to latch themselves on to something huge and almost universal. It could have been music, food, or love. In their case it was THE CAR.  Their interest of course, was not just the car, but all of the human relationships the car enabled or distressed.

Coincidentally, I just spent a couple of lucky days in Detroit working with the good journalists from Automotive News. I told them, though they already knew, how lucky they were to be writing about cars.  No other invention, I argued, had inspired more song lyrics or stories than the American automobile.  At least one of us, I opined without evidence, was probably conceived in the back seat of a Ford or Chevrolet.

Write down the themes you think of when you imagine a car: Freedom, escape from home, commuting to work, going on vacation, the drive-in movie, the drive-through window, crime, sex, family, the suburbs, pollution, accidents, speeding tickets, love, and, of course, death.

The Magliozzi Brothers tapped into that culture like few others in American entertainment history.  They understood the almost universal American experience of wanting, needing a set of wheels, and the incredible frustration when that vehicle lets you down, or costs you money.

I once suggested to someone in Boston, I forget who, that what was then the Nieman Narrative Conference should invite Tom and Ray to do a panel discussion, or even better, to do a live broadcast of their show at Harvard. The reaction I got suggested that they would prefer someone like Tom Wolfe or Norman Mailer.

But in their own mode, Click and Clack (their nicknames) were masters of the narrative arts. When a caller called, there was often banter about how the caller got her unusual name and something about the city, town, or village from whence they came. The more remote the town or the more interesting the name, the more occasion there was for some lively anecdote.

More storytelling might precede the automotive problem, “My husband and I are having an argument about when to use the emergency brake, so we turned to you guys to find out which one of us is right.” Or, “I just got a divorce, and I want to know what kind of a car I should buy to attract women who are in their 40s.”

Then of course, came the description of the problem, which almost always had narrative elements. “On cold mornings the sound is really loud until I get on the Interstate. It goes away when I hit 60 mph, but then my steering wheel starts to shake.”

What follows is the automotive equivalent of a mystery story, with Tom and Ray sifting through the evidence like Holmes and Watson. What did it sound like? When did you first hear it? What did your mechanic say? And, when they hit on a possible explanation, there was one more story to be told: “This is what I think is happening with your Subaru.”

I suddenly realize that I’ve been writing about Tom and Ray as if they are both now dead, T-boned, perhaps, by a tractor trailer on their route from the garage to the recording studio. Ray, the lead singer of the duo, it turns out, is still with us. But there are certain acts that never seem to work as a solo. This, I fear, is one of them. My condolences, of course, go to Ray and the entire Magliozzi family. They gave me and my wife (who is from Rhode Island and used to talk like them!) many laughs and, from time to time, saved me a few bucks when it came to fixing my car. But nothing was more valuable than those stories. Read more


Public fear and ‘an abundance of caution’

I wonder how George Orwell would react to a phrase that has been repeated time and again by government and university officials to justify recent stringent actions — such as quarantines and dis-invitations — in response to the Ebola crisis.

These officials say they are acting “out of an abundance of caution.”

It seems to be one of the phrases of the day, expressed by leaders who are trying to limit or eliminate contact, not just with sick people or people who have cared for the sick, but with almost anyone who has worked or traveled through countries where Ebola has spread.

Orwell was a famous critic of political speech, especially of the kind that used euphemism or passive constructions to cloud misbehavior or avoid responsibility. Mistakes, after all, are made.

To my ears, “an abundance of caution” is a peculiar phrase. It sounds like a parody of collective nouns such as “a gaggle of geese” or “an exaltation of larks.” How much caution will you exercise, Governor? Why, an abundance of caution, of course, sir.

“Abundance of caution” also carries the kind of tension you might find in an oxymoron (such as “jumbo shrimp”). “Abundance” is not the opposite of “caution” at the literal level. At the level of connotation, however, abundance suggests expansion while caution suggests contraction.

Which leads me to this strategy for journalists: Any time a political figure or thought leader wants to operate “out of an abundance of caution” – especially when the risk is demonstrably slight – look for the many ways in which they are operating out of a “scarcity of caution” – my term – when the risk is great.

Not a single American, to my knowledge, has contracted Ebola in the USA and died from the disease in the USA. On the other hand, here is a list of much more serious dangers to life and limb, based on statistics taken from the CDC. After each real danger is my fantasy of what a leader might say “out of an abundance of caution.”

  • About 35,000 Americans were killed in motor vehicle crashes in 2009. Twenty-two percent of them were people 15 to 24 years of age. “Out of an abundance of caution, we have decided to raise the legal driving age to 25, and to greatly improve the quality of mass transit in our community.”
  • 16,250 people were victims of homicide in 2010, most of them from handguns. “Out of an abundance of caution, we have decided to initiate a Constitutional Amendment that will allow reasonable restrictions on gun ownership.”
  • 38,360 Americans took their own lives in 2010. “Out of an abundance of caution, we will establish community based mental health facilities, whatever the cost, to create a safety net for those suffering from mental illness.”
  • According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, as many as 22 American war veterans, maybe more, take their own lives every day. That’s more than 8,000 per year. “Out of an abundance of caution, we have decided to multiply by ten the budget for the care of soldiers and other first responders suffering from post-traumatic stress, and will raise taxes to pay for it. Out of an even greater abundance of caution we have decided to no longer send our sons and daughters into protracted distant wars that we cannot win.”

Fever? Headache? Muscle aches? Forget about Ebola, chances are astronomically higher that you have the flu or some other common bug. That message still hasn't reached many Americans, judging from stories ER doctors and nurses swapped this week at a Chicago medical conference. Misinformed patients with Ebola-like symptoms can take up time and resources in busy emergency rooms, and doctors fear the problem may worsen when flu season ramps up. . (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Fever? Headache? Muscle aches? Forget about Ebola, chances are astronomically higher that you have the flu or some other common bug. Misinformed patients with Ebola-like symptoms can take up time and resources in busy emergency rooms, and doctors fear the problem may worsen when flu season ramps up. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

There are many more real things to be afraid of in the USA. Influenza and pneumonia caused 53,826 deaths in 2010, and yet we don’t require folks to get immunized for these common diseases. Using the logic of the governors, perhaps we should “out of an abundance of caution.”

Here are some possible translations for various uses of the phrase “out of an abundance of caution”:

  • Because our lawyers told us to.
  • Because I know my constituents don’t believe in science.
  • Because I know my constituents don’t trust the government.
  • Because I don’t want to get blamed for something outside my control.
  • Because I don’t have the backbone to do the right thing.
  • Because I’d rather demonize heroic caregivers to make myself look decisive.
  • Because our lawyers told us to. (Oh, sorry, I already said that one.)
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Get the name of the dog – and the nickname

dog-catThe first writing tool I ever learned came from my city editor Mike Foley: “Get the name of the dog.” What he could have added, but didn’t: “…and get the dog’s nickname, too.”

When it comes to characters in stories, nicknames are as important as names – maybe more important. Behind every nickname there is a story.

Let’s begin with the Oxford English Dictionary’s etymology and definition of “nickname.” The Anglo-Saxon work “eke” means “also”; the phrase eke-name, then, means “also name” or “another name.” When you add the indefinite article, you get “an eke-name” and over time the “n” switches over, giving us “a neke-name” or finally “a nickname.”

The definition in the OED: “A name or appellation added to, or substituted for, the proper name of a person, place, etc., usually given in ridicule or pleasantry.” This is followed by historical uses of the word in literature, including this sentence from 1710 in which Joseph Addison writes in The Tatler of a peculiar physician: “He unfortunately got the Nickname of the Squeaking Doctor.” (More about this doctor later.)

We once had a grey cat named Voodoo. When we acquired another cat – this one black and white – we named her Abracadabra to continue the magical associations. That five-syllable name was shortened to Abbie. But part of her life story included the fact that she was discovered by a neighbor on Interstate 275, so her nickname became Highway. After a while, she developed a medical condition and suffered the indelicate and embarrassing nickname: Worms.

My youngest daughter Lauren was named after the actress Lauren Bacall. She has attracted many nicknames, each with a story behind it: Lulu, Lou, Lolly, Lollychops, and Lala.

If you would follow me into my favorite coffee shop, The Banyan, you would be surprised that no one there – server or customer — calls me Roy. There I am GoGo. When I first entered the shop, I looked around and blurted: “This place would be perfect if it had margaritas and GoGo dancers.” The proprietor heard me and said, “OK, what would you like to drink, GoGo?” And that was that. Inside the Banyan, GoGo no longer answers to the name Roy, and only refers to himself in the third person, as in, “GoGo would enjoy an iced latte – to go go.”

Nicknames are ancient, applied to people from all walks of life. Even kings and tyrants acquired extra names, from England’s unfortunate Ethelred the Unready (aka Ethelred the Ill-Advised) to the figure that inspired the Dracula legend, Vlad the Impaler.

This is where the nickname bleeds over from popular culture into history and journalism, especially in two conspicuous areas: sports and crime, from Pete Rose (“Charlie Hustle”) to John Gotti (“The Dapper Don”).

One of the best places in sports to find interesting and revealing nicknames is in the world of boxing. The novelist Joyce Carol Oates offers this litany in her nonfiction book “On Boxing.”

For the most part a boxer’s ring name is chosen to suggest something…ferocious: Jack Dempsey of Manassa, Colorado, was “The Manassa Mauler”; the formidable Harry Greb was “The Human Windmill”; Joe Louis was, of course, “The Brown Bomber”; Rocky Marciano, “The Brockton Blockbuster”; Jake LaMotta, “The Bronx Bull…” Roberto Duran, “Hands of Stone.”

In 2011 the FBI conducted what was described as the “largest organized crime bust in New York history,” involving 100 mob figures from five famous crime families. Writing for the Village Voice, Joe Coscarelli thumbed through the list of the indicted and was struck “that these dudes have great nicknames.”

He listed his 20 favorites, which included: Tony Bagels, Johnny Bandana, Hootie, Meatball, Vinnie Carwash, Baby Fat Larry, Jimmy Gooch, Cheeks, and Fatty.

Digital technology has ushered in an age of alternate online identities, which include self-selected handles and nicknames. A weird chapter in my book “How to Write Short” examines the use of such names in dating profiles. I wrote:

I read about fifty profiles from women, and the first thing I learned is that your user name is important, a form of short writing in and of itself. I did not understand this before I listed FluffyZorro as my handle, which sounds like the name of a backup singer for the Village People. So among the women who are supposedly ready to hear from me, there is suzy, Julie, love, jellybelly, lisa, pina, purplerose, BethWithGreenEyes, cuttincutie, kisses48, sexpo, truevine, lovingheart, Filipina Heart, juicygem, twinklestarmama, and sandspur 007.

Please don’t judge me too harshly for confessing my preferences among these names. I must say I’d be curious about jellybelly for her willingness to take risks, BethWithGreenEyes for her good judgment in calling attention to her best feature, and twinklestarmama for…I have no idea. On the other hand, plain names strike me as too safe, and juicygem and sexpo scare the hell out of me. I am conflicted about sandspur 007. That number might make her a James Bond fan – good – but sandspur suggests she may be too sharp and clingy.

The next time I write a profile about someone, I plan to ask the main character, and those who know that person, about nicknames. I’m persuaded that the history of a person’s nicknames turns out to be a kind of language shorthand to their personal history, interests, family, values, behaviors, and connections. In short, a valuable resource for any writer or reporter.

Oh, about that character, in Addison’s gossip piece from 1710. Turns out a woman named Mrs. Young decided she wanted to be a physician, impossible at the time because of her gender. So she masqueraded as a man. She tried her best to disguise her voice so she could recite “Take these pills” with authority. Too often, it appears, her voice cracked. Though her impersonation was not revealed until her death, her voice earned the nickname “The Squeaking Doctor.”

See, every nickname has a story hiding inside it.

Dear Readers, help me prove my point and add some fun to the process. Give me your examples of: 1) your interesting nickname and the brief story behind it, or 2) interesting nicknames you have discovered of the characters you have written about. Send them to me at: Anything you send might appear in a future column. Read more


From AIDS to Ebola: Journalism, disease, and the mentality of fear

I remember a day back in the 1980s when I first met a person who I thought had AIDS.  I was sitting at the front desk of the old storefront building of the Poynter Institute when a tall gaunt man entered through the glass doors and approached me with a question. I have forgotten his question, but I do remember being frightened by his appearance.

He had several lesions on his face, the kind that people got after their immune system had been compromised by the AIDS virus. I did not reach out to shake his hand, my usual gesture, but babbled some reason to direct him out of the building. I am not proud of this. I just want to establish my credentials as someone capable of panicky, irrational fear.

About a decade after that meeting, 1996 to be exact, I published a month-long series in what was then the St. Petersburg Times called “Three Little Words.”  It told the story of a seemingly normal Midwestern family in which father died of AIDS. I learned a lot during the reporting and writing of that narrative. The most important lesson: Be not afraid.

I learned, for example, that HIV was much harder to contract than I had originally thought. Turning back the clock a decade, I could have shaken hands with that man that came into Poynter; I could have embraced him like a brother; we could share a meal without fear of infection. It would have been different if we had shared a needle to shoot up drugs or if we had engaged in anal intercourse.

There is that phrase. Anal intercourse. The one that so many news outlets were afraid to use, paralyzed by their inhibitions over what was possible to publish in a “family newspaper.”  So they resorted to euphemism:  “the exchange of bodily fluids.”  As a result of such squeamishness, I believe that ignorance was spread and that lives were lost.

In addition, we unleashed a decade of hate and discrimination. Two groups felt it most harshly:  poor people of color who looked – in the eyes of suburban whites – to be drug addicts; and gay men, all of whom were suspected of dangerous sexual practices with dozens if not hundreds of partners.

While my series on AIDS was running, I was invited by Times sports editor Hubert Mizell to appear on his morning radio talk show. A couple of prominent athletes had been diagnosed with the disease, and Mizell thought the conversation would have news value. I remember one phone call from a hockey fan who said he would no longer attend games because he might become infected with the AIDS virus. We looked at each other, puzzled. Here was his rationale:  hockey players get into fights along the boards and if they bled, their blood might splatter into the stands, infecting fans with AIDS.

I can remember my response years later, almost word for word. “Yeah, you might die as a result of attending a hockey game, sir. You might get hit in the head with a puck!”

I am no expert on Ebola, just a concerned American and writer who has been following a lot of the news coverage. Much of it has been very good. But even the best, most cautious, most nuanced coverage, I fear, has a hard time gaining traction.

Journalists, medical professionals, political leaders, people of reason and good faith everywhere must remember that we are fighting one of the most powerful forces in human history: the narrative of the leper. To be called, even metaphorically, a leper means that you are someone who is despised and feared. You will wear a bell around your neck. At your approach, people who fear you will stone you or put you in quarantine to die: leper colonies. Only holy men and women – Jesus, Damian, Mother Teresa – owned the moral courage to comfort the afflicted.

To move from the sublime to the ridiculous, even our popular culture reinforces the ignorant fear of infection. Exhibit A: the zombie. How many thousands and thousands of cinematic zombies have had their heads cut off, their brains blown out, or their bodies torched?  If I lived in Zombie Land, that, no doubt, would be my reaction, too. Why? Because if I am bitten, I will become infected, and, after infection, I will join the legions of the living dead. At their core, most horror stories are allegories about disease.

There is another old narrative that has raised its ugly head, one that I have known as a boy, but existed much longer than that. It is the story of Darkest Africa, and it expressed the worst fears of a privileged white race. As great a literary artist as Joseph Conrad succumbed to it in his novel Heart of Darkness. In this narrative, the Dark Continent is a place of primitive and pervasive dangers, where wild animals abound and dark-skinned humans engage in barbaric practices such as cannibalism. Even the cartoons of my youth played out versions of this theme.

I do not believe the irrational public fear of Ebola would be nearly as great if the disease had not come “out of Africa.”

So there is a lot of work to do, my brothers and sisters in journalism. The more we learn, I will predict, the more reason and proportion we will bring to the process. It took me a decade to overcome my fear of AIDS. I know we can do better than that.

When I began this essay, my plan was just to compare Ebola to AIDS. That move led me to something much deeper, the narratives of the despised leper and the primal fears of the Dark Continent.  Fear of disease has always been linked to the enemy, the scapegoat. In Shakespeare’s time, the English called syphilis the “French disease.” European Christians blamed the Black Death on Jews, even as they would eventually carry diseases, such as smallpox, to the inhabitants of the New World.This is the mythology of disease. We blame its transmission on people we despise.

In many cases, it is the role of the journalist to point the public’s attention to things they should be afraid of: that hurricane brewing in the Gulf; air bags that blast shrapnel onto drivers; that sinkhole near the bridge. But there is another – I am tempted to say more important – role. That is to take corrosive fear, the kind that leads to prejudice and hate, and apply the disinfecting light of cool reason and reliable information Read more


Fear not the long sentence

A year ago I wrote an essay for the New York Times titled “The Short Sentence as Gospel Truth.” It argued that authors express their most important ideas or dramatic moments in the shortest sentences. This turned out to be a popular piece, the most emailed of the day. Teachers and editors anointed the short sentence as the solution to many writing problems.

trainFrom my shot comes a rebound:  “If the short sentence is the gospel truth, then what is the long sentence?”  My best answer is metaphorical:  “It’s a journey on a westbound train.”

Editors advise, “When it comes to the long sentence, children, be afraid, be very afraid.”  In the common view, the long sentence too often spins off the tracks, a wreck on the road to comprehensibility. It is not an irrational fear. In almost every story I have written comes a moment when I must take that overly ambitious sentence and cut it in two.

When I fight this anxiety, when I advise writers to “Fear not the long sentence,” my encouragement inspires looks of alarm from teachers as if I were advocating taking all the garter snakes out of high school terrariums and replacing them with anacondas.

Care must be taken with the long sentence of course, the care of craft, because mastery of the long sentence is an arrow in the quiver of almost every writer I admire. As always, the exercise of craft begins not with technique but a sense of mission and purpose. By my count, there are three main reasons to cast a long sentence:

  • To take a journey through a physical or emotional landscape.
  • To create a catalogue or inventory.
  • To build a mosaic of logic or evidence.

Let’s test an example of each, beginning with this excerpt from one of my favorite novels, Herzog by Saul Bellow:

The wheels of the cars stormed underneath. Woods and pastures ran up and receded, the rails of sidings sheathed in rust, the dipping racing wires, and on the right the blue of the Sound, deeper, stronger than before. Then the enameled shells of the commuters’ cars, and the heaped bodies of junk cars, the shapes of old New England mills with narrow, austere windows;  villages, convents; tugboats moving in the swelling fabric-like water; and then plantations of pine, the needles on the ground of a life-giving russet color.

Think of yourself as riding northeast on a train through Connecticut, as is the protagonist in Bellow’s novel. You chug along slowly (with a seven word sentence); then accelerate (with 31 words); by the time you reach your highest speed  (50 words), you are rattling between the landscape and the seascape with the detritus of civilization flying by you. With that longest sentence, the author takes us on a journey. We see what he wants us to see in the order he wants us to see it.

There is a bit of an inventory in Bellow’s sentence, a list of things that fly by you on a moving train. That effect is magnified in this controversial sentence that begins David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel The Pale King:

Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-​brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the a.m. heat: shattercane, lamb’s‑quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscadine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-​print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek.

I describe this 88-word sentence as controversial because I have found it listed among the best and worst sentences ever written, and it does convey a look-at-me quality that some critics find self-indulgent. But make believe, for a second, that you love it. Take a ride across a symbolic American landscape, populated by (count them) 19 species of weed and wild plant – each with a wonderful name – all headed for the verb “invaginate,” DFW’s pregnant synonym for “enclose.”

Take a journey, review an inventory, or, if you prefer, follow the path of an argument. Consider this example from Robert Caro’s biography of LBJ describing a plan of action immediately after the Kennedy assassination:

No single gesture would do more to demonstrate continuity and stability – to show that the government of the United States would continue to function without interruption despite the assassination of the man who sat at its head – and to legitimize the transition:  to prove that the transfer of power had been orderly, proper, in accordance with the Constitution; to move, in the eyes of the world, any taint of usurpation;  to dampen, so far as possible, suspicion of complicity by him in the deed; to show that the family of the man he was succeeding bore him no ill will and supported him, than the attendance at this swearing-in ceremony of the late President’s widow.

Caro has proven countless times that he understands the power of a short sentence. His description of the second that changed LBJ’s life forever – and America’s — during the motorcade through Dallas is told in a single sentence, serving as a paragraph, just six words long:  “There was a sharp, cracking sound.”

Contrast that to the 115 words in the example above. Notice that it contains the two qualities we have already described as characteristic of long sentences. It takes us on a journey of sorts, not across a landscape now, but across a plan of action. And it contains an inventory, not of physical objects but of a set of purposes. It adds a final element though, and that is a body of evidence. The case is framed early and late in the sentence: that the best way to show the peaceful transfer of power in America was by the presence of Jacqueline Kennedy at LBJ’s swearing-in ceremony. Every word between those frames is designed to persuade.

From my study of the long sentence, I have concluded that:

  • It helps if subject and verb of main clause come early.
  • Use the long sentence to describe something long.
  • It helps if the long sentence is written in chronological order.
  • Use the long sentence in variation with sentences of short and medium length.
  • Use the long sentence as a list or catalog of products, names, images – saving the most important for the end.
  • Long sentences need more editing than short ones.

By contrast to some famous sentences written in the 17th century – “sentences that resemble processions or a funeral cortege in their sheer ceremonial lavishness” as novelist W.G. Sebald described them — contemporary long sentences seem modest in their ambitions: to take the reader on a little journey of discovery amidst an endless sequence of 140-character bits of language. Read more


Shark-hunting for ‘Old Hitler’ reveals storytelling tips

When I arrived at the St. Petersburg Times in 1977, the first writer I bonded with was Jeff Klinkenberg. We were the same age. Our desks were side by side. We both had young families. Our oldest daughters became best friends. We played in a rock band together. You get the idea.

On Tuesday, Klinkenberg took a buyout from what is now the Tampa Bay Times. His announcement on his Facebook page inspired more than 500 likes and almost 400 comments. These fervent expressions of admiration and respect from readers and other writers did not surprise me.

There is pride in knowing that a great newspaper could sustain the work of such a talented feature writer for almost four decades, especially one who is so identified with a place and a culture and the odd and interesting Floridians who have created it. There is also some sadness attached to the realization that newspapers, weakened economically, find it so hard to retain and sustain such talent until they’re ready to leave.

But today I am focused on the pride, not the sadness.

It turns out that Klinkenberg was the first writer whose work I studied at the Times, and the first of many that I interviewed to learn their habits, values and best practices. Here’s an example. On July 21, 1977, this story appeared on the front page of the sports section of the Times. Here is the top:

Ron Swint moaned in the dark about the shark called Old Hitler, the largest shark in Tampa Bay, as traffic roared by on the Skyway Bridge. Somebody in a car shouted and Swint automatically winced. He has been hit by beer cans thrown from passing cars. A huge truck rumbled by so fast the bridge shook. Diesel fumes hung in the air.

The first shark to come along was not Old Hitler, but it was a big one, a shark Swint later estimated at 500 pounds, a shark that swallowed a three-pound live ladyfish bait and swam toward the lights of Tampa. The shark almost killed Swint.

Swint was pulling on the shark rod with all his strength when the line snapped. His own momentum carried him into the lane of traffic. The truck never slowed down, but Swint was quick enough to scramble back onto the sidewalk with his expensive rod and reel. Shaken, he said: “That’s why I never drink when I’m out here. You need all your faculties to fish for sharks. If I’d had a few beers tonight, I may not have been quick enough to get out of the way. I’ve almost been pulled in the water by sharks, but this was the first one that almost got me killed by traffic.

“And that wasn’t even Old Hitler.”

Four times Ron Swint has hooked the shark he calls Old Hitler and four times it has escaped. “Last year I wasn’t even a challenge,” Swint said. “Old Hitler ripped me off.” Last time Swint was ready. “Old Hitler took 1,500 yards of line and I turned him. I thought I had him. Then my line broke.”

Swint is obsessed by Old Hitler, the most intimidating shark in the bay. Old Hitler, Swint says, is a 22-foot hammerhead. Its head is 5 feet wide. Old Hitler, Swint says, weighs 1,500 pounds, easy. If Old Hitler is indeed that large, it is twice the size of the biggest hammerhead ever taken on rod and reel. The world record, captured off Jacksonville in 1975, weighed 703 pounds and was 14 feet long. Swint intends to catch Old Hitler and break the record. “That SOB is mine,” Swint said, voice rising in the night. “I’m gonna get him.”

I republished Klinkenberg’s story in a newsroom newsletter I named “The Wind Bag,” and introduced an interview with this text:

In this excellent story about shark fisherman Ron Swint, Jeff gives us a character sketch about a modern day Captain Ahab. Ron Swint engages in an obsessive hunt for a shark called Old Hitler. Jeff captures Swint’s peculiarities with effective description, interesting anecdotes, and lively quotes.

The lead paragraph reveals the power of active verbs to give prose precision and vitality. And Jeff makes his prose readable by varying the length and structure of his sentences. In the following conversation, Jeff discusses this particular article. He also touches on his “method” for organizing his stories and for making “specialized” topics accessible to all his readers.

[Note: Howell Raines, mentioned in the interview, was political editor of the St. Petersburg Times in 1977. He eventually became executive editor of the New York Times.]

RPC: Under what circumstances did you meet and interview Ron Swint?

JK: Howell Raines and I went fishing one afternoon on the Skyway. And while we were standing there on the bridge catching nothing, this guy came walking by with about 60 pounds of equipment. He looked at my puny stuff and said “You’ll never catch anything with that.”

Then he just launched into a monologue about how he was going to catch this shark “Old Hitler.” For a few minutes he talked about catching Old Hitler as if I should know who Old Hitler was.

I called him up about two weeks later, and I went back out there with him. We went out to the bridge about 6 p.m. and stayed until about 2 a.m., fooling around with sharks and ladyfish. I hoped that he wouldn’t be pulled off the bridge and leave me out there.

The next day I came into the office and wrote out my notes. I had three pages of single-spaced notes. I typed them out, underlined my best quotes, and organized my story from there. I started writing it that day and finished it up the next.

RPC: Is it a general method of yours to organize your story around the quotes you’ve collected?

JK: One of the things I’ve done when I’ve had the time: I’ll type them, and then I’ll assign different values to different quotes. My best quotes I’ll try to get up high in the story and then proceed in kind of a descending order. I’ll try to save a couple of good ones for the end. I think it’s a good way to organize a story.

RPC: What about the structure of the story? It’s blocked off into section by checkmarks [design elements]. Is that your doing?

JK: Sometimes I think it’s a good way to structure a story. It’s easier for the reader to handle. When you break up a story into anecdotes like this it gives each littler story more impact. They’re not lost 15 paragraphs down. You can use the checkmarks to introduce a new littler story.

RPC: Why did you choose to end with a short section…two or three short sentences? [“Last summer Swint says he lived four days on the Skyway. He slept during the day on the sidewalk. Old Hitler never touched his baits.”]

JK: I thought it was kind of a dramatic way to end it. And to punch home the fact that this guy was fanatical about the thing to spend four days on the bridge to track down a shark. I have some misgivings after I did it. Someone asked me if the story had just been chopped off at that point.

RPC: I notice at various points in the story you are careful to attribute statements he has made about what he can do with the sharks once he has caught them. Fishermen are notorious BS artists….Do you often encounter problems of credibility in the people you interview?

JK: No, but in this instance, some of the stuff he was telling me was so remarkable I had to protect myself a little bit. Many of the things he told me I double-checked and found them to be true. Things I couldn’t check I went with an attribution. And there are quite a few in this story.

RPC: Did you try to balance the dramatic story with news about fishing equipment and fishing techniques that might be of interesting to shark fishermen?

JK: The story needed some hard information. Some of the things he was saying were so sensational…you needed some hard facts about exactly what this guy does and how he does it. I think the secret, if there is a secret, to writing about any kind of special interest is to make it accessible to people who ordinarily wouldn’t give a damn about it. But at the same time you have to satisfy certain number of people who are looking for information. How do I improve my own fishing or whatever. But general that type of ‘how to’ information in my stories is incidental to the rest.

RPC: What techniques do you use to make the story accessible?

JK: Well I begin with some kind of personality sketch. Try to find a person to build the story around and kind of sneak in the facts…maybe after a quote. What makes outdoors writing bad in many newspapers is that the writer is writing for other experts in the field. The average reader finds it incomprehensible. Anyone who has done any fishing or hunting has a lot of personal experiences that he can’t wait to tell and embellish in many instances.

RPC: How about your lead? What were you trying to do there?

JK: I was trying to set the whole picture in three paragraphs. I also wanted to set the scene of the area that he fishes from. All of his problems: the cars going by, this Old Hitler that threatens to drag him into the bay. It establishes him as a character right off…This is what I call a can’t-miss story. You’ve got a shark. You’ve got Hitler in the same story. All I needed was a retiree and a dog and it would have been the perfect story.

It surprises and delights me how many of the themes and strategies raised in this interview 37 years ago continue to capture my attention: reporting and storytelling; developing characters; being on the scene; getting the voices of people in stories, beginnings, endings, and other structural elements; writing for multiple audiences; attracting non-specialists to a text and so much more.

It reminds me that I owe a debt to reporters and editors at the then St. Petersburg Times, who not only tolerated my presence in their newsroom as one of the first writing coaches, but who were willing to talk with me endlessly about the craft and about their sense of mission and purpose as journalists. Klinkenberg will have to stand in for all of them as I say, “Thanks, brother. Keep writing, man. And let’s keep talking.” Read more

J.D. Salinger

For Banned Books Week: An X-ray reading from Catcher in the Rye

File photo of J.D. Salinger appears next to copies of his classic novel "The Catcher in the Rye" as well as his volume of short stories called "Nine Stories."  (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta, File)

File photo of J.D. Salinger appears next to copies of his classic novel “The Catcher in the Rye” as well as his volume of short stories called “Nine Stories.” (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta, File)

Earlier this year the editors of American Scholar published a dozen examples of “best sentences,” passages from classic literature worth saving and savoring. I was inspired by these and offered my own interpretation of what made them memorable. Now I’ve caught the bug and there appears to be no cure. With the blessing of Robert Wilson, editor of AS, I have chosen a number of sinewy or shapely sentences for X-ray reading, trying to understand what a writer can learn from each. (We’ll be publishing these exemplars occasion, highlighting the writing strategies that created them.)

Since this is also Banned Books Week, I begin with the first sentence of one of the most celebrated banned books of all time: The Catcher in the Rye, published by Little, Brown, which also, I’m proud to add, happens to be my publisher. (Also thinking of moving to Vermont to become a recluse.)

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. (63 words)
– J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

Following in the footsteps of Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn, J.D. Salinger sacrifices his own language and mature insights (sort of) to turn narration of his novel over to a prep school student, Holden Caulfield, who came to represent the alienation of the post-World War II generation.

This is a carefully constructed text, of course, but it doesn’t sound that way. That’s the magic of it. It sounds like someone talking. How do you do that? You use the second person (“you”), contractions (“you’ll,” “don’t”), slang (“lousy”), intensifiers (“really”), verbal punctuation (“and all”), and mild profanity (“crap”). The cumulative effect is informal and conversational.

Of all his literary gifts, Salinger had a great ear for the spoken word and captures the idioms of his time in phrases like “how my parents were occupied” and “if you want to know the truth.” A double-edged razor hides in both phrases. The first one could mean (“what my parents did for a living,”) but “occupied” carries with it some negative connotations, as in the word “pre-occupied,” that is, distracted.

The second phrase “if you want to know the truth” is used mostly as filler in conversation, and yet the key word “truth” comes at the end, inviting the question of whether Holden is a reliable narrator about his own life story.

My favorite phrase here is “and all that David Copperfield kind of crap.” This feels like a mature literary allusion rather than the ramblings of an alienated teenager. Note the alliteration, the repetition of hard “c” sounds: Copperfield, kind, crap. Perhaps Holden sees himself as a Dickensian character like David Copperfield who experiences an endless series of traumatic events in his young life. Or, perhaps, the reclusive author is sending a secret signal: Just as David Copperfield is considered Dickens’s most autobiographical novel, Catcher contains, we now know, many parallels to the young life of J.D. Salinger.

I must note that Catcher remains on many lists of banned books. However mild the word “crap” appears to us, it signals to the reader the rougher words to come, including some f-bombs that excited students, but traumatized some parents and School Board members.

By the end of the novel, Holden reveals that he is in therapy and repeats a key phrase from the beginning: “If you want to know the truth, I don’t know what I think about it, ” that is everything that he has told us. There is a kind of group therapy feel to the language from the beginning, as if he’s answered a question from a shrink about his childhood and parents: “If you really want to hear about it….”

In summary, it takes skill to create prose that sounds like someone speaking directly to the reader. We have a name for that effect: voice. It’s hard enough to achieve when the narrator is the author. It’s even more challenging when the author turns over that task to a teenage boy who likes to wear a red hunting cap. Read more

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Will this go down (or up) as the year of the elevator story?

modern elevator

The year 2014 will go down as one marked by a series of troubling news events that just happened to occur on elevators, dark moments photographed on surveillance videos. Beyonce’s sister went after Jay Z in an elevator at a Met Gala party. There was a CEO of an arena concessions franchise, Desmond Hague, who lost his job when he was captured on video in an elevator repeatedly kicking a friend’s dog. And there was the most notorious and news-worthy event of all, when Ray Rice brutalized his fiancé in the elevator of a casino parking garage.

But this is not an essay about family rage, or animal abuse, or intimate partner abuse, all of which deserve public attention. No, this essay is about elevators – and the stories inside them.

I imagine that every family can tell a story about an elevator. My grandmother was robbed at knifepoint in an elevator in a New York City apartment complex known as Knickerbocker Village. Her son, Peter, was a police officer. He took days off to hunt down a local drug addict who victimized old ladies. The story goes that before my Uncle Pete arrested him, he “tuned him up,” that is, gave him a good beating. Even with that guy behind bars, I was afraid to ride in that elevator again.

And why wouldn’t I be. An elevator is a box of phobias:

— Claustrophobia – fear of being in closed places
– Acrophobia – fear of heights
– Agoraphobia – fear of crowds
– Triskaidekaphobia – fear of the number 13 (often skipped in the numbering of hotel floors).

Add to this list any extraordinary circumstances, like having the lights go out, or the power, or being trapped inside with a violent or obnoxious person, and the elevator becomes a kind of story container, a pressure-cooker of human courage and fallibility.

One of the most memorable stories from 9/11 was written by Jim Dwyer of the New York Times. At 8:47 a.m. that morning six men “boarded Car 69-A, express elevator that stopped on floors 67 through 74.” And then, “The car rose, but before it reached its first landing, ‘We felt a muted thud,’ Mr. Iyer said. ‘The building shook. The elevator swang from side to side, like a pendulum.’” There are lots of horror movies in which elevators do things like that, but this was not make-believe. This was one small consequence of a terrorist attack. Fortunately, one of the men on that elevator was a window-washer. The group used all the parts of his squeegee to break out of the elevator, through the walls of a restroom, and out to safety.

Dwyer’s story was about a group of strangers, one tool, and old-fashioned resourcefulness. That it took place in an elevator made the story, I believe, more memorable. I once rode in an elevator with my daughter Alison in that very building to a restaurant near the top. An elevator in one of the world’s tallest buildings is more than an elevator. It a kind of spinal cord, a line of energy, transportation, and potential danger.

I once had a friend named John who worked for Otis Elevators. Any time I saw him, I asked him the same question, and got the same vaudeville response:

“Hey, John, how’s business?” I’d say.

“Lookin’ up,” he’d say.

In the television drama, Game of Thrones, a hoisting device, a kind of primitive elevator, lifts watchmen to the top of a great wall of ice, a barrier that protects the world against terrible invaders from the north.

The elevator, I’ve learned from Wikipedia and other sources, preceded the invention of electricity and the Industrial Revolution that created cities filled with skyscrapers. By the late 19th century, the elevator had become an essential technology, especially in concrete urban landscapes. It actually reversed the social order. We now think that rich people want to live on the tops of buildings, penthouses that provide the most spectacular views. But before elevators, the rich wanted to live on the ground floors, absolved from the rigor of climbing all those steps. The poorest lived near the top.

In narrative terms, the elevator has joined a more ancient collection of enclosed spaces used to create conflict and suspense. In the beginning, there was the secret garden, the tower chamber, the cave, the labyrinth, the tunnel, the dungeon, the coffin, the ship at sea.

Those confined spaces still exist, but take different narrative forms: the classroom, the refugee camp, the bus or taxi, the bathroom or shower stall, the interview room in the cop shop, the courtroom, the subway car, the submarine, the frat house, the trailer. How about the trailer turned into a meth lab in Breaking Bad? How about the overpopulated toilets and showers in Orange is the New Black? Think of how many times in the past half century that 007 has had to escape from tight quarters?

I watched a rich collection of YouTube videos that featured elevators as dramatic or suspenseful containers. Particularly helpful was a collection of 10 great movie scenes on elevators. Here are some of the strategies storytellers continue to use to good effect:

1) The interlude: People on an elevator may be moving from one stressful place to another. But for a brief interlude they are safe, calm, even distracted. The recent Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie may offer the ultimate example when those heroes escape from monsters onto an elevator and then improvise a cool percussion rap on the way down. (By the way, the word interlude is a great one. The Latin word ludus, means play, game, or song. So an interlude is something lighter than comes in between other darker or more serious elements.)

2) The tick-tock: The elevator is a kind of clock. The floors are numbered, so you can estimate how long it will take to get you from one floor to another. When the doors open, it takes so much time for them to close again, depending upon how many people are getting on and off. An elevator pitch is a proposal that has to be delivered quickly. When the doors open and you see someone you know, you have to blurt out a message for them.

The control of time creates suspense. When a couple tries to escape from a tall building, they often run to the elevator and hit the button. They wait for the car to arrive, hoping it will get there before the bad guy. They get on the elevator and hope that the doors will close before the hand of the murderer stops them. An analogous trope is when someone tries to escape in a car and the engine won’t start right away. Episodes of Law and Order often end with the closing of elevator doors, as if the curtains were closing at the end of a stage play.

3) Privacy and voyeurism: One time, years and year ago, my wife and I, a little tipsy perhaps, began to make out on an elevator. There is elevator romance, elevator sex, and elevator porn. On The Good Wife, after months of sexual tension, Will and Alicia, two of the top lawyers, finally get together, where else – on an elevator. Where the closing of the doors provides privacy, the imminent opening of the doors – or presence of surveillance cameras – offers both exhibitionism and voyeurism.

4) Danger and safety: In narrative terms, this tension may be the most important cinematic element to elevator-based narratives. Mostly, elevators go up and down, but for Harry Potter or Willie Wonka, they are more versatile vehicles. They can trap you, or help you escape. They give you altitude – even turn into a flying ship – or send you into subterranean underworlds. One character, safe inside a glass elevator, may have to watch a friend being murdered outside. The elevator can stop, turning into a cage. Or it can fall hundreds of feet at deadly speeds. You can be in an elevator, or on top of an elevator, or get crushed by an elevator, or hang on an elevator cable.

5) Microcosm: How strange we are on elevators. Chatty people suddenly clam up when others climb in. The rich and the poor find themselves haunch to paunch. People avoid eye contact, looking up at the numbers or down at their shoes. Who farted? Who smells like an ashtray? Is that an elevator music version of Stairway to Heaven? That woman has a nice butt – oh, wait, I think it’s a guy. You can put a motley crew of humans together on a pilgrimage, like Chaucer did. Or, it turns out, you can put them on an elevator.

Returning to the Ray Rice story, my Poynter colleague Lauren Klinger adds some real-life perspective:

You’re talking about stories having to take place someplace, right, and Ray Rice chose to have this happen in this place. Why? He is the actor here. He could have punched her in the hallway, but he chose the privacy of the elevator to reveal who he really was, what he really wanted to do in that moment. So he felt safe to do what he wanted to do in a place that was absolutely not safe for Janay. He chose to hit her, he chose to hit her there. Elevators and stairwells and hotel hallways and parking garages are spaces that can be terrifying to women (because the space isolates them) but they might be comforting to men (because the space isolates them.) Same feeling, but their power imbalance makes it different. Good men should be especially aware of how they might make women feel when they enter spaces like these.

Art imitates reality which takes its cues from art in a never-ending cycle of experience and creativity. It is as true for the journalist as it is for the screenwriter: stories have to happen in some place, spaces that often pressurize and define characters. Read more


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