I often ask journalists to share with me the work of writers they
admire. In recent years, no name has come up more often than
Anthony Shadid, war correspondent for The Washington Post.
Consider this lead of July 30, out of Qana, Lebanon:
The bulldozer slowly clawed at the rubble Sunday, in motions gentle for
a machine. In its path were what was left of life: a bag of
onions and a can of beans, a dirt-crusted sandal, a baby bottle, a
plaid bag with a diaper still tucked inside and a punctured picture of
a young boy, posing awkwardly, his arms stiff at his side. As the
sun arced overhead, Israeli shelling thundering in the distance, the
shouts went out: “Stop! Stop!” Rescuers surged, then one
emerged, his back slightly stopped.
Cradled in his arms was the 27th victim pulled from a partially buried
room that had sheltered 63 people in the southern Lebanese village of
Qana. The victim’s name was Abbas Hashem, and he was 1 year
old. His blue pacifier still dangled from his green tank top.
Behind the pair was a book, tossed by the blast into a splintered olive tree.
“The Keys to Heaven,” its title read.
I could conduct a Writing Tools seminar using this passage alone. Until then, let me offer a brief X-ray reading, designed to elucidate
Shadid’s writing strategies:
- The story begins with a scene, transporting us to the ruins of a Lebanese village.
- It includes no quotes, but a powerful burst of dialogue: “Stop! Stop!”
- It moves from the general “what was left of life” to that catalogue of specific items visible in the debris.
- It shines with interesting words and powerful verbs: clawed, arced, surged, emerged.
- Shadid juxtaposes odd elements: a gentle bulldozer.
- He offers eyewitness specificity: the number of victims, the name of the child, the color of his pacifier and tank top.
He takes advantage of coincidence to suggest important themes of
religion and war, from the reference to the olive tree (symbol of
peace) to the ironic title of the book: “The Keys to Heaven.”
In short, Shadid has his full mojo working here. But here’s a
key: the brilliance of this passage might seem to come from the
writer’s inventive use of language. I would argue, though, that
it comes just as much from access and reporting. Being
there. Seeing things. Writing them down in your notebook.
With respect for such excellent work, I offer for your consideration
two tiny revisions. I would consider deleting two adverbs: slowly and awkwardly. That would give us: “The bulldozer
clawed at the rubble Sunday, in motions gentle for a machine.” (In
other words gentle suggests slowly.) It would also give us “a
punctured picture of a young boy, posing, his arms stiff at
his side.” I could argue that the stiffness of his arms shows us his
awkwardness. But what do you think?