June 8, 2020

As you might imagine, lots of journalists send me good stories to read. The story often comes with a message, “You’ve got to read this” or “Moved me to tears” or “Best thing I’ve read in a while.”

That happened to me June 3, when dear friend and former student Kelley Benham French sent me a story written by one of her students, Mary Claire Molloy, a 19-year-old freshman at Indiana University.

The torrent of news of the day — pandemic, recession, civil unrest — has inspired her students at IU to step up their game. The story is considered so good that it was published first in the Bloomingtonian, then in The Indianapolis Star, and finally in USA Today.

Here’s what we suggest. Read Molloy’s story without any commentary by me. Make your own decisions about its value. If you appreciate the work — and I think you will — ask yourself, “Why?” That is, “What is it about this story that makes it worthy of appreciation?”

Go read it now. Then come back.

An analysis of “A Stubborn Stain”

I am looking for a word that characterizes the effect of this story on me. I could describe the “voice” of the story or the “tone” of the story or the “theme” of the story, but none of those words get there. I will choose a word I have never used before in this context. What moves me is the “spirit” of the story.

This story by young Mary Claire Molloy has a spirit. In using that word, I recognize its connection to the word “spiritual.” I am not suggesting that level of significance although there is something compelling and familiar of a man humbling himself — scrubbing bloodstains in an alley — for some higher communal purpose.

The spirit of this story is a spirit of consolation. This selfless action does not compensate for the death of a human being. But in the context of so much suffering, the action of Ben Jafari fills me with hope and courage.

I can think of a precedent for this story which journalists of a certain age may find overstated. Perhaps the most honored news column of the 20th century was written by Jimmy Breslin. In covering the burial of the assassinated president John Kennedy, Breslin famously interviewed the gravedigger. Breslin was a large figure in American journalism, not a college student. And he was covering one of the most significant stories of my lifetime.

What Breslin’s story shares with Molloy’s is its spirit.

Let’s begin with the first two words of Molloy’s story “He knelt.” Subject and active verb. Like an ancient heroic poem, this story begins “in media res,” in the middle of things. Stories are forms of transportation, and in a split second we are present next to the kneeling man in the “back alley.”

Recognize the distinction between the denotation — the literal meaning — and the connotation of a word. The connotations of a word carry the word’s associations, the things that come to mind. “Knelt” connotes prayer, liturgy, reverence, homage, but also subjugation to something or someone more powerful. “Back alley” has dark connotations, places of danger and violence. Think “back-alley abortions.” The tension between “knelt” and “back alley” generates a friction that carries through the story.

A report conveys information. It points the reader there. A story is different. It puts us there. One strategy that creates that effect is an appeal to the senses. “As he worked, the bristles of the plastic brush turned red.” We can see that, of course, a detail in a movie. But we can hear it as well. The words scrubbing, bristles and brush all make a sound, an echo of what we would hear if we were on the scene.

Good writers place key words in emphatic locations — often at the end of a sentence, or better yet, the end of a paragraph. Consider the word “red.” This is a story about the act of erasing the red, the color of blood, the symbol of life, transformed into a red stain of death.

We learn that the “Blood washed down Vermont Street, mingling with a puddle by the yellow curb. The stain left in the alley was stubborn.” That detail recalls a lesson from my high school English teacher, Fr. Bernard Horst: “Remember that a wall in a story is not always just a wall. But a symbol need not be a cymbal.”

That stain is literal, from the blood of a single man. But it is also the blood of the current struggle for racial justice. And it feels like a symbol of a stain that is 400 years old, America’s original sin — slavery.

Let’s take a step back to take in the full experience of this story. A good-hearted man, a virtuous citizen, takes upon himself a grisly task, to clean up the bloodstains of a dead man in an alley. He does not know it yet, but the blood is from a man he knows.

This narrative carries with it a sense of ceremony, of public ritual. In a recent essay, I wrote about one theory of journalism that transcends the notion that our job is merely to transmit information. What we experience vicariously here is a kind of ritual, not a janitorial function, but a selfless act of communal grief and hope, like the ancient ritual of carefully preparing the body for the tomb.

We live in the age of the “spoiler alert.” When we experience a mystery, we don’t want the murderer to be revealed until the end. That impulse is at odds with a news value that requires us to get the key details up high in the report. The headline, sub-head, and story detail all eliminate the element of surprise. But consider this: In the first lines of “Romeo and Juliet,” the audience learns that “a pair of star-crossed lovers take their lives.” In the first song of the musical “Hamilton,” Aaron Burr confesses “I’m the damn fool who shot him.”

We can learn early “what happened” and still experience the power of “how it happened.”

I could teach a semester course on this story. But here are some of the highlights, with specific writing strategies named:

1. See it up close. See it again from a wider camera angle.

It was the stain of two nights of rioting and police confrontation that overshadowed daytime peaceful protests. It was the stain of one of two killings Saturday night near the protests in Indianapolis, both by bullets. There were flames in Minneapolis, Atlanta, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, New York City. People died in St. Louis, Chicago and here on this patch of concrete Downtown.

Think of this move as narrative cartography, a flyover of the nation, with a dramatic return at the end of the paragraph to the sacred place. It fulfills its function as a “nut paragraph,” revealing the broad news value of the story without losing control of the here and now.

2. Save the most powerful thought for the shortest sentence.

Jafari, who lived a few blocks away, didn’t know who was supposed to clean up the mess. On a Sunday morning in a week where it felt like the world was erupting and it was hard to say or do anything to make it better, he figured he could do this much.

“Somebody had to,” he said.

This is the first quote in the story, and, because of its brevity, it has the ring of gospel truth. Short sentences as separate paragraphs, swimming in white space, have a special power.

3. Play the endgame.

Jafari, 36, is a real estate developer and the managing partner of the nearby Colonial Apartments. He does not consider himself a political person, but he had marched in the peaceful protest Downtown Saturday afternoon. He’d never cleaned up after a death before.

We think of writing in journalism as a front-loaded craft. We tell the news early. But there is also a place in news writing for an ancient rhetorical device: placing an emphatic word or phrase at the end. In “The Elements of Style” Will Strunk Jr. argues that the most important places in a written work are the last word in a sentence, the last sentence in a paragraph, the last paragraph in a story.

MORE WRITING ADVICE: What I’ve learned about writing from reading Toni Morrison

4. Dialogue as action.

“So, he got shot over there,” Jafari said, pointing to Talbott and Vermont streets. He traced the blood, which spread across the alley for at least 40 feet, and gave his best hypothesis.

“Then he ran here, wounded, and must’ve circled back,” he said, eyes following the red splotches as they increased in size. The metallic smell was overpowering, and the flies were buzzing.

“He must’ve died here,” Jafari said, pointing to the biggest stain at his feet.

“I really don’t know what to say.”

Let’s note the distinction between quotes and dialogue. Quotes tend to halt narrative action. Quotes are about the action. But dialogue is the action. Something is happening, and someone is speaking in the midst of the action. What we see here is “half-dialogue,” one person speaking, but with the presence of another on the scene — the reporter.

5. Slow the pace for emotional effect.

The Circle City was waking up. The morning sunshine tinted the destruction golden. The shards of shattered windows winked in the light.

Jafari scrubbed.

This begins a passage in which the sentence “Jafari scrubbed” occurs three times, the third with the variation “Jafari was still scrubbing.” That kind of intentional repetition — as opposed to unintended redundancy — sounds like a drumbeat, linking elements together.

This passage moves more slowly than earlier paragraphs. That effect is created by a series of short sentences. The word length of those sentences: 6, 7, 9, 2. Why do I say that the pace is slower? Because each period serves as a stop sign, what the Brits call a “full stop.” But why would you want to slow the reader down? I can think of three reasons: clarity, suspense and, as in this case, emotional impact.

6. Feel the rub.

Further down on Mass Ave., a couple held hands with their little boy and little girl, the daughter’s pink dress a splash of color against the plywood that covered the windows of a looted Walgreens.

There is a strategy that works in many different creative fields, from music, to the visual arts, to poetry: Put odd and interesting details next to each other. This friction creates heat, which, we hope, creates light. For the poet William Blake it was expressed in songs of innocence and experience. That’s what I see here, the little girl’s bright dress against the boarded-up background of fear and destruction.

7. The talk and the walk.

“George Floyd can’t happen again,” he said. “We’re all just trying to put things back together.”

When he gathered his things to go home, the stain was lighter, but still there. He looked down and saw that he’d carried the dead man’s blood home with him, on his shoes.

In stories, the words of characters often conflict with their actions. Here Ben Jafari’s words may not stand out from those of many other protesters or concerned citizens. His words gain strength from his actions, not eliminating the stain — literal and symbolic — but now carrying it with him. The common shoe stands as an archetype of striving and empathy. We say that we cannot understand another’s pain until we walk in their shoes. And we follow in the footsteps of people of virtue.

MORE WRITING ADVICE: What I learned about writing from reading Greta Thunberg’s speech to the U.N.

8. Death and rebirth

Whenever they saw each other, they’d greet with a shake up, asking about each other’s lives, family, work.

“Hey, what’s good, Brother?”

Jafari teared up. The stain he’d been cleaning was not the blood of a stranger, and he could not leave a drop of it in the street.

He set out Monday at 7 a.m.

He returned to the grocery store and bought a heavy duty brush with thicker bristles. He picked up a bouquet of daisies. He knelt again beside the stubborn stain.

He started to scrub.

It was Shakespeare who predicted that the love poetry of sonnets would make his lover immortal, long after both had passed from this Earth. And the Bard was right. Artists of all kinds have the power to bring the dead back to life. It happens here in the briefest exchange between Ben Jafari and Chris Beaty, the only moment when we hear Beaty’s voice. He is suddenly alive, not a ghost from the past.

As Mary Claire Molloy reaches for an ending, she returns to two crucial words: stain and scrub. There is the literal meaning that Jafari must work harder with stronger instruments to finish a job. In its symbolism, the passage invites an analogy from mathematics: There is a kind of line on a graph that you can get closer and closer to without ever reaching — to infinity.

Maybe it’s the same way with the stain that began with slavery: that it takes constant effort, and stronger strategies to get to that impossible place where the curve of peace meets the line of justice.

How did this story happen?

Mary Claire Molloy (Courtesy)

I have submitted to Mary Claire Molloy a list of questions via email, asking her to describe her thoughts and process in writing this story.

She is completing her freshman year at Indiana University. Her teacher is Kelley Benham French, who sent me her story. Kelley is a dear friend, along with her husband, Tom French. As writers, both Kelley and Tom are prize-winning journalists. As teachers at IU, they have turned out, year after year, championship writers who remain bright lights in the shadowy future of American journalism.

Kelley coached Mary Claire on aspects of the story, but declares that all of the most significant elements belong to her student. She gives credit to veteran photojournalist Jeremy Hogan.

“I got Mary Claire paired up with him a bit, and he took her around after the protests and it was his instinct to go very early in the morning to the scene of the shooting.”

Mary Claire’s mother drove her there.

An interview with Mary Claire Molloy on how she wrote the story, “A Stubborn Stain”

Roy Peter Clark: How did you find the story?

Mary Claire Molloy: I found this story through the incredible instincts of Jeremy Hogan, who runs The Bloomingtonian, a local online news outlet. I’ve been writing articles for him this summer. We wanted to cover the protests downtown, but we were nervous about violence and rioting late at night, especially with Jeremy having camera equipment on him.

Instead, we met up really early the next morning to survey the aftermath. We followed the news late into the night and wrote down street addresses for important events or damage. Jeremy had the incredible instinct to stop by the scene of one of the two shootings that happened the night before. We found Ben there, cleaning up the blood on his hands and knees. I knew right away that this was an extremely powerful image for a story.

Clark: How much did you see with your own eyes?

Molloy: I saw the entire scene with my eyes. There Ben was, all by himself, cleaning up this blood that trailed down the alley for at least 40 feet. This was my first time at a murder scene.

I followed Jeremy and his eye for detail, paying attention to what he deemed important enough to photograph. Instead of trying to write everything down in my notebook, I got Ben’s permission to film a video interview. It captured all that he was saying as he scrubbed on his knees, which really helped me to create the scene later with dialogue.

Clark: When did you decide on your approach?

Molloy: After talking to Ben and learning that this man had the compassion and decency to clean up the blood of a stranger, I couldn’t get the image out of my head. I kept taking video and photos, and surveyed where the blood was, how it had washed down on the street, how much of it was on Ben’s shoes. I knew this scene was really powerful, along with him saying, “I wipe it down, but it never goes away.”

My approach expanded as Jeremy and I left the scene and continued down Massachusetts Avenue. The juxtaposition was stunning: Here, people were out having their Sunday brunches like nothing happened the night before, while a block away a man cleans up the blood of a stranger. I thought this juxtaposition perfectly captured America: Every day, black people worry for their safety and their lives, and watch over and over as their brothers and sisters die in the streets and at the hands of the police. White America looks away and orders Sunday brunch.

Ben, a first-generation American with family from Iran, belongs to neither group, but here he is, cleaning up the blood in an act of compassion and American decency.

MORE WRITING ADVICE: How to make hard facts easy to read

Clark: Your language is very descriptive. Where did you learn that?

Molloy: My vivid language and descriptions come from working with Tom and Kelley French, among other professors at the media school. I was in Tom’s court reporting class last semester, and he always, always emphasized the power of tiny details and giving meaning to them in your writing. In fact, the example he gave was from his book, “Unanswered Cries”: The friends of a woman who was murdered clean her blood off the walls because they don’t want her boyfriend to come home to it. I thought of that while I was at the scene.

Working with Kelley, she taught me about the ladder of abstraction and how we can weave bigger themes inside one image. That helped me to see the stubborn stain as not just blood, but as a representation of this moment in America: police brutality, racism, the rioting, the endless cycle of violence.

Clark: How did you decide when to let the reader know that Ben was a friend of Chris Beaty?

Molloy: Kelley helped me to decide when we wanted to reveal that Ben actually knew the person whose blood he cleaned up. He learned that it was his friend Chris Beaty after the fact. We only learned Chris’s identity from the coroner the very morning this story was published and had to decide where we wanted to place it in the narrative. We revealed it earlier to create tension for the scene when readers watch Ben discover who it is and that it was his friend.

They already know at this point in the story, but Ben is in the dark, and they watch him find out and then go back and scrub the blood off harder. That makes it even more powerful.

Clark: You are a freshman at IU. How much of what you bring to your story did you learn in high school? What are the key writing lessons you learned in college?

Molloy: In high school, I worked on a project called Since Parkland. We wrote 1,200 obituaries, one for each of the children and teenagers who died from gun violence in the year that followed the Parkland school shooting. I wrote 48 of these obituaries, trying to piece together a 100-word profile about who the person was, not just how they died. This project was my first ever byline and I had never taken a journalism class in my life.

Springboarding off of this work, I learned so much during my freshman year at IU from my professors, especially from Tom and Kelley: how to find stories, story structure, AP Style, creating tension and story arcs, and how to take the rich, human details in your notebook and make them mean something more.

Clark: What have been the most common reactions to your story?

Molloy: The most common reaction to the story has been tears. I’ve had people tell me they cried for a half hour or more after reading it. I’ve heard from them how much Ben Jafari’s act of selflessness touched them and gave them hope for our country.

Roy Peter Clark teaches writing at Poynter. He can be reached via email at roypc@poynter.org or on Twitter at @RoyPeterClark.

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
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