I learned a new term from a high school teacher, who introduced me to “mentor texts.” A mentor text is a story that teaches the reader something important about storytelling.
The stories that we have selected so far for the Poynter Excellence Project — a newspaper profile of a poet and an audio story narrated by the parents of a dead soldier — were chosen, not just for their content, but because they reveal strategic aspects of the craft.
When I think of my mentor texts, the one that stands out was written 50 years ago for the New York Herald Tribune by the Brobdingnagian Jimmy Breslin. He was covering the burial at Arlington National Cemetery of assassinated president John Fitzgerald Kennedy. What made Breslin’s piece memorable was that he focused on the gravedigger, a man named Clifton Pollard, who made $3.01 an hour digging graves and considered his work on behalf of JFK “an honor.”
Famed editor Gene Roberts had a name to this approach to news writing. He called it zigging when everyone else was zagging.
This long introduction leads me to a page one story in Poynter’s Tampa Bay Times by one of my favorite writers Stephanie Hayes, known for her edgy versatility. It’s newspaper title was “Teen Bieber fever…and those who wait.” (The online title was “Outside Justin Bieber concert, parents find their own groove.”)
An editor approached Hayes two days before the Justin Bieber concert with news there would be a waiting room for parents. “Did I want to check it out?,” she writes in an email, “Duh, of course I did. If there’s a chance to find a black truffle in a bin of carrots, you must try.”
The story, which we’re honoring as part of Poynter’s Excellence Project, is quite short, but surprises and delights the reader with its unpredictable and whimsical turns.
It roars into action with this cinematic lead:
The fans charged like wildebeests with flat-ironed hair, and they screamed, literally, at nothing. They chewed chicken nuggets and swilled soda through gum-clung braces and crumpled paper towels in volcanic masses in bathrooms. When they could finally take their seats to see Justin Bieber perform, a cloud of glitter revealed their left-behinds.
This is high-energy writing to be sure, the camera moving in and out, from establishing shot to close-up, the sound and visual images competing for attention — from that first simile (“like wildebeests”), to the alliteration of “chewed chicken” and “swilled soda,” to that parade of ‘u’ assonance: nuggets, gum-clung, crumpled. It’s all about to spin out of control. A marching army leaves a cloud of dust behind it. An army of teenage girls leaves a cloud of glitter.
But there are two sides to this story, and there is the beautiful rub. To cover just the teens would be to zag. To zig, Hayes also covers ….
The guardians. The beleaguered moms and dads and aunts and uncles who did not have a concert ticket, nor want one. But they had to be there, caught in a rite that happens when your child worships a teen idol but is too young to do it alone.
Turns out there is a parent waiting area. “They slumped in chairs, slept on floors, inserted ear buds, read the paper, looked at calming nature photograph on the walls.”
So far, so good. An army of teens on fire, a reserve unit of guardians cooling their heels. It’s the kind of natural tension a talented feature writer can build a story upon.
But then something happens. A character appears who may have the best name in the history of human interest stories. He serves as a kind of deus ex machina, an out-of-nowhere wisdom figure who brings serenity and meaning to the whole.
Welcome an 81-year-old grandfather, wearing Velcro shoes, by the name of Rusty Peacock. In case you were not paying attention, let me repeat that name for you: Rusty Peacock.
We wind up cheering for Peacock because of his loyalty to his granddaughters, his historical vantage point and his own youthful aspirations. He has no interest in Justin Bieber, but understands the passion and enthusiasm expressed by young girls for their idols.
“Little girls are the same, ever since Sinatra or Frankie Avalon,” he says, but suddenly is addressing a “pretty lady” nearby. The quote becomes dialogue, “…who did you like?” he asks 45-year-old Kimberley Moritz. “Donny Osmond,” she said.
What follows is a litany of his own youthful idols, which gets weirder and weirder as it develops: Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Debbie Reynolds, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Charo. “Remember Charo? the hoochie coochie?” Peacock says. “Oh, she’s good.”
Suddenly, I realize that this has become a story of modulated sexual energy and aspiration, and that old Rusty Peacock may not be so rusty after all. We learn that he lost his wife 20 years ago, but likes concerts because he can meet new friends.
“I’m starving,” says the pretty lady nearby, about half his age.
“Are you?” he responds. “Do you want to go get a hamburger?”
Inside the concert hall pre-teen girls exude glitter like pheromones, testing out their sexuality and emotions on a handsome boy who may be twice their age. Inside the hall, a handsome grandfather tries his luck with a mom young enough to be his daughter.
In an email interview, Hayes explained her main character this way:
He was an extrovert who had lost a love, and his life now at 81 was about finding connection, making communion everywhere he went, with a dose of twinkling charm to back it up.
I went back and wrote chronologically, trying not to think too hard about it. I knew it would be gratuitous and a spoiler to put Rusty right at the top. I wanted to start in the action, carve away the clay of the teenagers to reveal the Venus de Milo of Rusty Peacock.
In the end, it was a story about connection — the false connection that happens when you scream for a teen idol versus the authentic connection that’s possible in a quieter space.
I remember an argument from a scholar on his experience reading old newspapers. He noticed how dated the more serious stories seemed: the budget battles, the tax proposals, the races for mayor. What stood out from those conventional stories were the brief human interest stories, the boy whose bike was stolen and whose dad made him a new one from spare parts, the girl who put a note in bottle which was answered — 10 years later.
The key to doing this well is looking for an opportunity to give your story a surprising turn. Who would guess that a story about a Justin Bieber concert would wind up starring a dashing 81-year old man — named Rusty Peacock, for goodness sake.
If you run into a work of journalism that deserves this kind of close inspection, please email us at ExcellenceProject@poynter.org. If we use your suggestions, we’ll give you discounts on courses and Webinars at Poynter News University.