I once heard the great Francis X. Clines of the New York Times tell a group of journalists never to apologize for writing about death. “We tell the morbid truth,” he said.
I was scheduled to deliver a workshop on “How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times” on St. Patrick’s Day at SXSW. But on Friday the Thirteenth my mother, Shirley Clark, died at the age of 95. I cancelled my trip to Austin and turned my writing skills to crafting her eulogy.
Here are some of the things I would have said at SXSW if I had been able to make the trip. It riffs off my handout for the session, which you can access here. When I picked the selections of short writing for study, I didn’t realize how many of them were about death: dying, almost dying, fear of dying, recovering from a death, remembering a death, the legacy of death. The death of my mom just brought this into focus. Frank Clines was right. We tell, if we have the courage, the morbid truth.
I. Power of Story
When we think of stories, we think of long forms: novels, movies, magazine features, and serial narratives. But stories come in all shapes and sizes. This one was sent to me via Twitter, a post on the Facebook page “Humans of New York,”which features a photo of a New Yorker with an accompanying text. (I do not have the author’s name.)
When I was 22, I fell off a fishing boat in the middle of the night. We were about 200 miles from shore, fishing for swordfish. I was trying to bend a pipe into place when it gave way and dumped me in the ocean. They didn’t notice I was gone for about 20 minutes. The waves were about twelve feet high, and between the waves I could see the boat going further and further and further until it completely disappeared. You know how they say that when you’re dying, you’re supposed to go toward the light? Well, when I thought I was dying, the light was moving further and further away. (112 words)
What surprises me here is how efficiently this story works. It begins with an inciting incident, the fall off the boat, and raises the stakes as the boat drifts “further and further and further” away, that repetition rolling like sea waves. It should remind us that narrative is a form of transportation. Wherever you happen to be sitting, the author lifts you up through scenic action and carries you to another place. In my own life, I have never been lost at sea until I read this and then I am. The metaphor of the dying light is brilliant to me, a great ending, something you can “see” in both its literal and figurative meanings.
When I read a story like that, something that moves me, it inspires me to write. I often look for a “moment in time,” not a full movie, but a moving snapshot, a bit of story that has a beginning, middle, and end. By coincidence this one concerned my mom.
Shirley had fallen again, nothing serious at the age of 95, just a couple of days in the hospital – and then rehab. When she woke in a hospital bed, having already forgotten the fall, she wondered why she was there. Loopy on medication, she told her youngest son that she had just had a baby. “Have you seen the baby?” It was 1943, she thought, 70 years ago, the year of her first pregnancy and her miscarriage. My older brother – who was never born. (84 words)
Story, as we know from both fiction and nonfiction, is an expression of memory. By the time of this incident, my mother had lost her short-term memory, not even able to remember a recent fall. And yet she could recall in vivid detail, so that it seemed real to her, an even from 1943. My brother told me this story just after it happened, and it revealed something profound about my mother’s life. In spite of having given birth to three sons, she clung to the memory of her miscarried child, as if it were unfinished business. Unlike the first example, I use a piece of dialogue here, which always energizes a narrative, no matter how short.
More and more, I find myself drawing wisdom from some very old forms of short writing, things like proverbs, fables, and parables. I can’t think of a more efficient short story than the one Jesus narrates about the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 30-35)
A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell in with robbers, who after both stripping him and beating him went their way, leaving him half-dead. But, as it happened, a certain priest was going down the same way, and when he saw him, he passed by. And likewise a Levite also, when he was near the place and saw him, passed by. But a certain Samaritan as he journeyed came upon him, and seeing him, was moved with compassion. And he went up to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. And setting him on his own beast, he brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the inn-keeper and said, “Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, I, on my way back, wi l repay you.” (152 words)
Given its cultural importance – we even have Good Samaritan laws – it surprised me that this parable was so short. Its efficiency still startles me. First, we don’t know anyone’s name or anything about their appearance. More important is what Tom Wolfe might call their “status.” The priest and the Levite, given their elevated role in the Jewish religion, should feel a special responsibility to help the victim. Instead, Jesus gives the role of “neighbor” to the Samaritan, a despised outsider. It would be like a Sunni Muslim coming to the aid of a Shiite, or a Catholic in Belfast coming to the aid of a Protestant victim. The Torah may ask you to love God and your neighbor as yourself, but can you take it to a higher level and love the stranger?
And consider the use of details. What do we know about the Samaritan? He had a beast with him, a donkey. He carried oil and wine. He had money, denarii. Each of these things was intended for his comfort on his journey. But he turns each of them over the care of the fallen man. Nice work, Mr. Samaritan. Good story, Jesus.
I often highlight the work of Joanna Smith, who covered the earthquake in Haiti five years ago for the Toronto Star. Because of power failures, she resorted to covering the disaster as an eyewitness using tweets as the elements of a live blog. The resulting work turned into a kind of serial narrative, with each chapter 140 characters:
- Fugitive from prison caught looting, taken from police, beaten, dragged thru street, died slowly and set on fire in pile of garbage.
- Woman shrieking, piercing screams, “Maman! Papa! Jesus!” as dressing on her wounded heel is changed outside clinic. No painkillers.
- Little boys playing with neat little cars constructed from juice bottles, caps. Fill with rocks and pull with string. Fun!
Remarkably, those tweets have characters, scenes, settings, chronologies, motives, the building blocks of story.
II. Emphatic Word Order
Great short writing, in any generation, shows signs of focus, wit, and polish. By “focus,” we mean that the text captures one thing. By “wit,” we mean it exhibits a governing intelligence. And by “polish,” we mean that it has been delivered in its best form: the best words in the best order.
One strategy of revision adds that polish. It’s called emphatic word order and is best exemplified by a line from Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “The Queen, my lord, is dead.”
Friends know that this is my favorite teaching example, sometimes called a mentor text. After all, Shakespeare could have written:
The Queen is dead, my lord.
Or: My lord, the Queen is dead.
If Yoda had a shot, it might have come out: Dead the Queen is, my lord.
These last three take the Bard’s six words but arrange them in a different order. Shakespeare’s is the best. Why? Because he places an important word at the beginning (Queen), a less important word in the middle (lord), and the most important word at the end (dead). Any word that appears before the period, what Brits call the “full stop,” gets special attention.
You can take that emphasis and heat it up by placing the most important word or number at the end of a paragraph, as Thomas French does in this passage from Zoo Story on the violent death of a chimp named Herman:
Altogether he lived at Lowery Park Zoo for 35 years. He lasted there longer than any other creature and longer than any of the humans. Each of the 1,800 animals at the zoo is assigned a number. His was 00001.
Tom could have written: “His number was 00001, first among the 1,800 animals at the zoo,” but that would have drained the juice. That primal primate’s number was the key, so Tom places it at the end of a sentence, a paragraph, a section. It also comes at the end of the shortest sentence in the text, which gives it the ring of gospel truth.
III. Juke Joint Juxtapositions
In addition to focus, wit, and polish, a great piece of short writing benefits from a little rub, some friction, tension, ambiguity that creates some heat and light. Take my sub-headline “Juke Joint Juxtapositions.” I could have written, “Do the Juke Joint Boogie Woogie,” colorful, but redundant. Juke Joint does not belong next to Juxtaposition, which is why I put it there.
I see this most often in titles: The Great Gatsby, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Paradise Lost, The Catcher in the Rye, Duck Dynasty, even my book The Glamour of Grammar.
I guess we’re back to death again. Look at the stories attached to each of those titles:
Gatsby: He is murdered.
Buffy: Kills the undead.
Prufrock: Depressed by the ravages of old age.
Lost: Loss of paradise leads to death.
Catcher: Dream of protecting children from fall off a cliff.
Dynasty: Killing ducks.
The Glamour of Grammar: Hey, mom, here’s one for me (and for you): living a life of language!
Anyway, that’s what I would have said at SXSW, and now I get to share it with all of you.