Why the late Richard Ben Cramer was such a good writer

I began work at the Poynter Institute in 1979. My first assignment was to edit a collection of prizewinning newspaper stories. ASNE had just introduced their distinguished writing awards, honoring four ink-stained wretches. My job was to select the best of their best work, comment upon it, and then interview each writer.

The first writer I interviewed for the book — which would be called Best Newspaper Writing — was, to use a baseball term, a phenom, a young hotshot. His name was Richard Ben Cramer. He was 28-years-old. And he had just swept all the available prizes for his stories in the Philadelphia Inquirer about war in the Middle East.

Cramer died Monday night from lung cancer at the age 62. Damned cigarettes.

An illustration of Cramer, as it appeared in the book.

There are probably more extant manuscripts of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales than there are copies of that modest volume, “Best Newspaper Writing 1979.” But I’ve got four of them. Here, then, are my “notes and comments” exactly as they appeared in this ancient text:

The telephone company reaped a windfall profit as a result of our interviews with Richard Ben Cramer. We wanted him to talk about his powerfully written stories out of the Middle East. Three trans-Atlantic phone calls — one a very long one — did the trick. But it wasn’t easy. Cramer had been to Rhodesia, back-tracked to Ireland, stopped off in London, zipped down to Basque country, and was about to hustle off again to the Middle East.

In very rickety English, a hotel clerk in Bilbao, Spain, explained that we had just missed him. Finally, we found him in his London flat, struggling with his expense accounts. “My table is covered with receipts in 17 different currencies, and the accountants in Philadelphia are getting ticked off.”

Cramer described his London digs, the place from which he covers Europe, Africa and the Middle East for the Philadelphia Inquirer: “I’m sitting here in my own flat. It’s a large Victorian room. Unfortunately, it had to be rented furnished. It’s done in neo-Iranian with tassels hanging off the couches.”

During his brief but spectacular tenure as a foreign correspondent, young Cramer has been robbed in Cairo, censored in Tel Aviv, spied on in Damascus and encouraged not to return to Kuwait. While covering the Israeli invasion of south Lebanon, he walked across two miles of no-man’s land between the Israeli army and the Fatah commandos. They thought he was crazy.

Cramer’s prose is as inventive as his reporting, and he consistently astonishes his editors — even with his memos. He once cabled a request for “two Hohner harmonicas, Keys D and F, Blues Harp model (not Marine Band).” To satisfy his curious editors he explained: “Well, I guess the truth is mostly out. When I’m lonely, sad and blue, missing the hamburgers and drive-ins, missing the Miracle Miles and the girls in bluejeans, missing, I should add, all the warmth of The Inquirer city room with the soft cluck-cluck of the staff, nothing seems to satisfy like boarding a felucca for a leisurely sail down the Nile, blowing mournful tunes through my little harp and watching the Arabs’ Mercedes being smashed up on the coastal drive.”

Consider the following features in Cramer’s writing:

Strength of reporting: Cramer gets to where the action is, even at personal risk. The reporting vies him the detailed description, the personal sketches, the quotations and anecdotes that bring the stories to life.

Sensitivity toward people: Cramer’s characters are fully developed, complex in their humanity. The writer clearly has a feel for the rhythms of life in foreign places and an ear for the cadence of language.

Striking images: Within a single, well-balanced sentence, Cramer can create an image that tells us much about the devastating effects of war on a civilized people: “Pretty women in their thin, strappy sandals and monogrammed designer shirts fought each other yesterday to get at a flow from an unsanitary water spring that runs through the subbasement of an office building here.”

Varying sentence length for dramatic effect: “When the bombs hit, even though they are two-thirds of a mile away, the air in the shelter vibrates with a sound too low to hear. The glasses rattle. The talk stops.”

Placing the reader in the middle of the action: “The fighting between the Christians and the Syrians has used all the tools of a modern war on the streets of a crowded city, as if Pennsylvania’s National Guard had assembled all its heaviest pieces atop the Penn Center towers and systematically set out to destroy the Art Museum area.”

Using a natural setting to create a mood and a sense of place. “Here, the mere sound of a breeze through the leaves can make you spring for cover, scanning the sky for warplanes until you dive into the orange groves … only to emerge a moment later feeling goolish and shaky from the rush of adrenaline.”

Symbolic structure: The story out of Haifa begins with the funeral of a nine-year-old Jewish girl killed in a Palestinian commando raid. It ends with an old Jewish man giving a Biblical lesson on the suffering of the Jewish people. At the heart of the story is a Jewish mother who waits in a hospital for her child to die. She is consoled by a “good Arab” who waits for his child to be born.

In an interesting bit of history, Cramer’s editor back then was Jim Naughton, who would one day become president of the Poynter Institute. Naughton also died recently from cancer. Here is what he had to say about Cramer, as it appeared in Best Newspaper Writing:

He (Cramer) is one of the best writers I’ve ever encountered in journalism. He’s got an eye for detail, an ear for meter and lifestyles and the way people talk that is phenomenal. He is equally good at reporting and writing. … What he does is write about real flesh and blood human beings instead of nameless, faceless governments.

There is a trap, a very seductive trap, for national and foreign correspondents and particularly for people who work in places like Washington to write stories in which the lead says “the White House announced yesterday” or “France said yesterday.” It’s insane.

What Cramer did was to set out and consciously write about people, to find the people lurking behind the institutions, the people affected by governmental policies. Most of what he did was to cover events such as the movement toward peace in the Middle East from the perspective of people who would be the beneficiaries of the search for peace. I thing we don’t do enough of that, not just in foreign coverage but in all journalism.

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  • http://twitter.com/BemusedBill William Brown

    When Richard was reporting from the Middle East, I was managing editor of Knight-Ridder’s Columbus Enquirer. Monty Curtis, who was then a corporate guru, used to tweak me about running Richard’s stories at length in my often sparse news hole. But, Monty, I’d respond, they read short. He did not disagree.

  • http://twitter.com/DaveLieber Dave Lieber

    Roy, after your story came out on RBC, I copied the guidelines you list above on to a tiny card in my wallet, encased in protective plastic, and used those rules as my rules for writing for the next 30 years. I still have the little cards. I worked with RBC as a young pup on the Philly Inquirer. I’ll never forget his going away party. So this original story you write about helped set me on a path to do some damn good new journalism in the RBC tradition. Never too late to thank you.

  • Alfred Ingram

    Leave out ‘Strength of Reporting’ and you could be describing the work of Mark Twain. (I’m thinking of’Roughing It’) Great writing is great writing independent of genre.