August 4, 2003

Here’s how Iowa celebrates a 70-degree day in the middle of March: By washing the car and scooping the loop and taking a walk; by daydreaming in school and playing hooky at work and shutting off the furnace at home; by skate-boarding and flying kites and digging through closets for baseball gloves; by riding that new bike you got for Christmas and drawing hopscotch boxes in chalk on the sidewalk and not caring if the kids lost their mittens again; by looking for robins and noticing swimsuits on department store mannequins and shooting hoops in the park; by sticking the ice scraper in the trunk and the antifreeze in the garage and leaving the car parked outside overnight; by cleaning the barbecue and stuffing the parka in storage and just standing outside and letting that friendly sun kiss your face; by wondering where you’re going to go on summer vacation and getting reacquainted with neighbors on the front porch and telling the boys that yes! yes! they can run outside and play without a jacket; by holding hands with a lover and jogging in shorts and picking up the extra branches in the yard; by eating an ice cream cone outside and (if you’re a farmer or gardener) feeling that first twinge that says it’s time to plant and (if you’re a high school senior) feeling that first twinge that says it’s time to leave; by wondering if in all of history there has ever been a day so glorious and concluding that there hasn’t and being afraid to even stop and take a breath (or begin a new paragraph) for fear that winter would return, leaving Wednesday in our memory as nothing more than a sweet and too-short dream.

On Reading Ken Fuson

Excerpted from America’s Best Newspaper Writing: A Collection of ASNE Prizewinners
Edited by Roy Peter Clark and Christopher Scanlan
Bedford/St. Martin’s

Ken Fuson is a feature writer for the Des Moines Register. He was a reporter for the Baltimore Sun when he won the ASNE award for non-deadline writing in 1998 for “A Stage in Their Lives.” He prefers writing long, but proves in this weather story that he can go short.

In the Fourteenth Century, Geoffrey Chaucer began The Canterbury Tales with a weather report. He reminded his audience what happens in England when the long cold winter ends with the first burst of spring. The April rains arrive along with sweet winds, helping flowers and crops to grow. Little birds sing and frolic day and night. People burst out of their houses, filled with new life and energy. Instead of Disney World, they pilgrimage to Canterbury to renew their spirit. The father of English poetry accomplishes this feat in 18 glorious lines. Not a bad lead.

Maybe Ken Fuson is the next Geoffrey Chaucer. He takes an assignment made of straw and mud and spins it into gold. OK, so maybe he’s Rumpelstiltskin. The assignment from his editor at the Des Moines Register was to cover the dramatic change of weather in Iowa as winter thawed into spring. Now Fuson, in spite of his many writing awards, is not famous for writing short — or on deadline. He is known for long narrative projects, such as his 1998 ASNE award winner — a Baltimore Sun series on a high school production of West Side Story.

Fuson himself played Charlie Brown in a high school musical, and still looks the part. He is self-effacing about his own abilities, but his modesty and good humor barely mask a deep artistic sensibility, one that inspires him to jitterbug when the common writer wants to waltz.

So he accepted his weather assignment and created something unusual, a single luxurious sentence winding from the simple introduction: “Here’s how Iowa celebrates a 70-degree day in the middle of March.” What follows is an inventory of the senses, a catalog of joyous rejuvenation, a garden of earthly delights. He finally wrote a truly short story, he told his editors. Now if he could only work on those long sentences.

Fuson writes his “weather sentence” within a great tradition of newspaper writing. The “bright” or “brite,” as it was commonly spelled, was a favorite genre for readers, the off-beat or whimsical story that offered up a tasty “slice of life.” The headline, the photo caption (or cutline), the news brief: all these forms of short writing, when mastered, can be little gifts for readers, reminders of the daily surprises that make an average newspaper good and a good newspaper great.

Finally, Fuson reminds us that the most common of stories — a weather report — can reflect a deeply human experience, the revival of the spirit, and requires a writer who is up to the task.

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