Going long: An expression of writing craft we must not lose

I wrote a book on how to write short. That is like saying that I ran a marathon to learn how to sprint. Or that I stayed up all night to learn how to nap. Short writing is more memorable than the long, which is why history has left us the Hippocratic Oath, the 23rd Psalm, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Preamble to the Constitution, any Shakespeare sonnet, the Gettysburg Address, all short enough to commit to memory. So I champion the short.

But I am no enemy of the long. Since 2006 I have written five books for my publisher Little, Brown, a total of 1,442 pages, the latest the longest at 328. That said, I like to keep my chapters short, to deliver a banquet, if you will, in delectable bite-sized pieces.

In the age of Twitter, the advantages of brevity must be obvious:

1. Saves time.

2. Saves space.

3. Requires focus.

4.  Forces writers to cut the clutter.

5.  If written clearly, easier to remember and pass along to others.

Here is what short writing is bad at:

It can’t take us on a journey.

It can’t unroll a carefully nuanced argument.

It shrinks at complexity or contradiction.

It leaves important language and ideas in the gutter.

Not long ago, a fine American author, John Capouya, was teaching a college class on narrative writing and presented the class an example of the work of Gary Smith, a veteran and much-honored writer, whose work has often appeared in Sports Illustrated. To my friend’s surprise, students rebelled against having to read pieces they considered too long. What the teacher considered subtle and in-depth, the class rejected as repetitious and tedious.

If you have never read Gary Smith, let me give you a taste from a collection of his work entitled "Beyond the Game," 15 pieces that had appeared in SI from 1986 to 2000.  Here is the opening passage — the lead, if you will — of a piece titled “Shadow of a Nation” about a team of Native Americans playing for a state high school basketball championship:

Singing. Did you hear it? There was singing in the land once more that day.  How could you not call the Crows a still-mighty tribe if you saw them on the move that afternoon?  How could your heart not leave the ground if you were one of those Indian boys leading them across the Valley of the Big Horn?

It was March 24, 1983, a day of thin clouds and pale sun in southern Montana.  A bus slowed as it reached the crest of a hill, and from there, for the first time, the boys inside it could see everything.  Fender to fender stretched the caravan of cars behind them, seven miles, eight — they had made the asphalt go away! Through the sage and the buffalo grass they swept, over buttes and boulder-filled gullies, as in the long-ago days when their scouts had spotted buffalo and their village had packed up its lodge poles and tepee skins, lashed them to the dogs and migrated in pursuit of the herd.  

But what they pursued now was a high school basketball team, 12 teenagers on their way to Billings to play in a state tournament.  The boys stared through their windows at the caravan. There was bone quiet in the bus. It was as if, all at once, the boys had sensed the size of this moment … and what awaited each of them once this moment was done.

Interested?

If so, how much time and mental effort would you be willing to commit to following the journey of these young athletes with names like Everette Walks, Jo Jo Pretty Paint, Darren Big Medicine and Takes Enemy?  What if I told you that the story was 22 book pages long? About 8,000 words, maybe more? Maybe that seems too long for you. Why doesn’t Gary Smith just get to the point? It’s not my problem as an impatient reader, you may be thinking.  It’s a problem of craft, a stubborn ego-centric search for a status that is signified by word-length. My story is bigger than your story.

As I listened sympathetically to the teacher’s complaint, I imagined the causes for the student rebellion against Gary Smith: perhaps a shorter attention span that is a product of habitual consumption of digital information, from text messages to emails to blog posts to messages on social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter.  I myself have become a multi-tasker, with my attention split among television programs (especially of sports events), social networks, podcasts, YouTube videos, newspaper stories, along with pieces of magazines and books.  In no way do I feel as if I have mastered the collation of all these forms of information. It feels more like a trick of information juggling. I will admit that I am reading fewer novels than in past decades, but willing — and eager — to spend 13 hours watching the next hot Netflix series.

This reflection on length was inspired by the reprint of a story that appeared in April 23, 2018 edition of Sports Illustrated. The magazine marked the passing of sports writer Bill Nack, who died of cancer at the age of 77. Nack had a 23-year career at SI, but was best known for his work on horse racing.  “The palette upon which Bill painted his most vivid portraits was horse racing,” wrote Tim Layden in tribute. “His story titled ‘Pure Heart’ published in the June 4, 1990, issue of SI, was an emotional remembrance of Secretariat and the centerpiece of Bill’s career.  At the end of the piece Bill recounts the moment he heard the official news of Secretariat’s passing, and it is revealed: The story was really about a love affair between a racehorse and a man growing old.”

SI reprints Nack’s story in full. It begins on page 102 and extends, with very little art, to page 111.  It takes up more than 16 columns of type. I estimate the piece runs from 7,500 to 8,000 words.  As a faithful fan of Secretariat myself — with a grandfather who went to the track and played the horses almost every weekend — I turned eagerly to p. 102 to read Nack’s story.  But as I thumbed through and caught the length, I had an emotional response: “This is too long!” With a discipline I practice less and less these days, I put distractions aside, dove in to the lead paragraphs, and wound up greatly rewarded.

It is fair to say that the story opens slowly, with nothing to grab you by the lapels and pull you into the narrative, just a tap on the reader’s shoulder, not a push in the back:

In the late afternoon of Monday, Oct. 2, 1989, as I headed my car from the driveway of Arthur Hancock’s Stone Farm onto Winchester Road outside of Paris, Ky., I was seized by an impulse as beckoning as the wind that strums through the trees there, mingling the scents of new grass and old history.

New grass and old history. Lyrical, to be sure, but not magnetic enough to make me commit.  Nack, it turned out, was headed for a reunion with an ailing man named Lawrence Robinson. Nack had met him at an airport gathering when a large Kentucky contingent gathered to greet the horse that had so monumentally conquered the Triple Crown. Nack writes:

I flew with the horse that day, and as the plane banked over the field, a voice from the tower crackled over the airplane radio: “There’s more people out here to meet Secretariat then there was to greet the governor.”

“Well, he’s won more races than the governor,” pilot Dan Neff replied.

That bit of dialogue rewarded my patience, and it was not long before the author was in full stride, describing the horse he so clearly loved as “some mythical beast out of Greek lore.”

Oh, I knew all the stories, knew them well, had crushed and rolled them in my hand, until their quaint musk lay in the saddle of my palm.  Knew them as I knew the stories of my children. Knew them as I knew the stories of my own life. Told them at dinner parties, swapped them with horseplayers as if they were trading cards, argued over them with old men and blind fools who had seen the show but missed the message.  Dreamed them and turned them over like pillows in my rubbery sleep. Woke up with them, brushed my aging teeth with them, grinned at them in the mirror. Horses have a way of getting inside of you, and so it was that Secretariat because like a fifth child in our house, the older boy who was off at school and never around but who was as loved an true a part of the family as Muffin, our shaggy, epileptic dog.

(Thanks, Bill.  We knew the name of the great horse, but now,  just as important, we know the name of the shaggy, epileptic dog.)  That kind of passionate, poetic writing only comes when you truly love your subject, and to learn that love takes time, and to convey it honestly and fully takes the reader’s time, more than 8,000 words of it.

This is not a spoiler, just dramatic sports history. In 1973 Secretariat won the Kentucky Derby in record time.  He then won the Preakness. To capture the Triple Crown required him to win the Belmont.  As a 24-year-old man, I watched that race with millions of others on television and saw something so amazing that I thought there might be something wrong with the black and white transmission on my TV set.  

I stood in awe.  I had never seen a horse so fit.  The Derby and Preakness had wound him as tight as a watch, and he seemed about to burst out of his coat.  I had no idea what to expect that day in Belmont, with him going a mile and a half, but I sensed we would see more of him than we had ever seen before.

Secretariat ran flat into legend, started running right out of the gate and never stopped, ran poor Sham into defeat around the first turn and down the backstretch and sprinted clear, opening two lengths, four, then five. He dashed to the ¾ pole in 1:094/5, the fastest six-furlong clocking in Belmont history. I dropped my head and cursed Turcotte [the jockey]: What is he thinking about? Has he lost his mind? The colt raced into the far turn, opening seven lengths past the half-mile pole.  The timer flashed his astonishing mile mark: 1:341/5!

I was seeing it but not believing it.  Secretariat was still sprinting. The four horses behind him disappeared.  He opened 10 [lengths]. Then 12. Halfway around the turn, he was 14 in front … 15 … 16 … 17.  Belmont Park began to shake. The whole place was on its feet. Turning for home, Secretariat was 20 in front, having run the mile and a quarter in 1:59 flat, faster than his Derby time.

He came home alone.  He opened his lead to 25 … 26 … 27 … 28. As rhythmic as a rocking horse, he never missed a beat.  I remember seeing Turcotte look over to the time, and I looked over too. It was blinking 2:19, 2:20.  The record was 2:263/5. Turcotte scrubbed on the colt, opening 30 lengths, finally 31. The clock flashed crazily:  2:22 … 2.23. The place was one long, deafening roar. The colt seemed to dive for the finish, snipping it clean at 2:24.

I bolted up the press box stairs with exultant shouts and there yielded a part of myself to that horse forever.

That passage arrives at about the 7/8th pole of the story, if you will, near but not at the end.  The final movement of the piece concerns the physical decline of Secretariat from a disease of the hoof called laminitis, leading to his death, and to this final paragraph as Nack receives the news:

The last time I remember really crying was on St. Valentine’s Day of 1982, when my wife called to tell me that my father had died.  At the moment she called, I was sitting in a purple room in Caesars Palace, in Las Vegas, waiting for an interview with the heavyweight champion, Larry Holmes.  Now here I was, in a different hotel room in a different town, suddenly feeling like a very old and tired man of 48, leaning with my back against a wall and sobbing for a long time with my face in my hands.

Having shared this much of Nack’s story with you, I wonder about your interest in tracking it down and reading it whole. Why should you? After all, you know what happened. I just told you. The horse was great. The horse died. The writer cried.

Consider this:  After I read Nack’s story, I pulled out my iPad, went to YouTube, and watched the three Triple Crown races that turned Secretariat into a legend.  As I watched the Belmont miracle, and heard the excitement of the call, I was struck by the accuracy of Nack’s reporting, as well as his knack for re-creating in words the experience I was now watching in moving pictures.

I also realized, once again, that there are at least two kinds of narratives.  The first is the narrative of “what happens next,” a sequential journey of vicarious experience.  But there is also the narrative of “how it happened,” taking an outcome that may be widely known but showing it to us again from another angle, inviting us in to learn, see, and feel.

Spending time with Gary Smith and Bill Nack reminded me that the deepest power of story is felt only by spending time. Their stories are long — not War and Peace or Moby Dick long — but long by contemporary journalism and social standards.  Which leads me to this question, readers and writers: Have we abandoned the long story — to our peril? 

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Secretariat won the Triple Crown in 1973, and not 1972 as we originally wrote.

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    Roy Peter Clark

    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 member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.

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