Imagine Charlie Brown, all grown up, now an overweight gambling addict who could write like an angel.
That zigzagging image describes Ken Fuson, who died this week at the age of 63, leaving behind a complex legacy of uplifting narratives and a crippling addiction.
I loved Ken as a brother of the word, a writing pal, a comic sidekick and a captain in the army of those fighting to fill newspapers with great writing. At his best, his stories were as sharp as a Bob Gibson curveball. (Gibson was his idol.)
Obituaries and other tributes do not gloss over Ken’s demons, a darkness impossible to imagine in the face of his benign rotund jocularity. By his own public testimony before the congregation of the Lutheran Church of Hope in Des Moines, Iowa, Ken became a gambling addict in the third grade, hustling coins to play games at church carnivals.
(Here is a link to the recent church service in which the pastor of Hope tells Ken’s stories, with videos of his own testimony)
Whatever highs Ken gained from decades of playing the ponies, he descended to a point where he lost his marriage and his home. He found himself without a job or health insurance. He gambled away his pension. He said through tears that there was no one in his circle — including his high school journalism teacher, including his own children — from whom he did not seek money for gambling. He sold his car to pay his rent.
His problem was no secret to me. My professional friendship with Ken goes back almost 30 years when he stood as one of American newspapers’ best storytellers, first at the Des Moines Register and then at the Baltimore Sun, then back in Iowa.
In Baltimore Ken won an ASNE Distinguished Writing Award for a serial narrative about students preparing for that rite of passage — the high school musical, in this case “West Side Story.” He noted at the time that in his own high school he had auditioned and won the part of Charlie Brown.
I invited Ken now and then to teach at Poynter at week-long writing seminars. As a teacher he was self-deprecating — constantly making fun of his portly girth — engaging and practical, devoted to the mission of good storytelling in the public interest. He was an encouraging coach to younger writers. I paid him the standard $1,000 for his efforts. On the way to the airport, he told me later, he pissed it away at the dog track.
That his writing during this long ordeal could be so hopeful, so empathetic, was a miracle in the making long before he fell to his knees in despair. For in spite of his too-early death from liver disease, the full arc of Ken’s narrative completes itself not in darkness, but in light.
His personal salvation came in a way he might have once thought of as a cliché — in a church. He had accepted a freelance assignment to write about the Lutheran Church of Hope, an ambitious, upscale, evangelical, scripture-based church with a large congregation around Des Moines and a telegenic pastor, just the kind of place that might be a target for a journalist’s skepticism.
But the kindness of the people at Hope moved Ken. They showered him with their grace — as he saw it — and drove him in the loneliness of his apartment to his knees. On a dark night of the soul, he prayed for help, a climax that his friends could never have imagined. Ken claimed that from that moment through the last decade of his life he never felt the urge to gamble again. He spent that decade in service to others at soup kitchens, in ministries for other addicts, and in classrooms filled with aspiring young writers.
A nagging question for writers
Ken’s life, and his passing, leaves me with a nagging question that all creative people — not just writers — must answer for themselves. Was Ken a good writer in spite of his demons, or because of them? Are we all cursed by our own vices and weaknesses, or are they blessings in disguise?
In a new book called “Murder Your Darlings,” I devote a chapter to a conversation between authors Kurt Vonnegut and Lee Stringer. Stringer testified that he used the eraser of his pencil for years as a drug utensil until he finally used it to write his life story of redemption from drug abuse and homelessness.
Vonnegut reminded his audience that the novel “Slaughterhouse-Five” was created in the aftermath of his World War II experience as a prisoner of war during the firebombing of Dresden. As a famous author, Vonnegut ran into another, Joseph Heller, who wrote “Catch-22”: “(Heller) said to me that if it hadn’t been for the war, he would have been in the dry-cleaning business. I said to him that if It hadn’t been for the war, I would have been garden editor of The Indianapolis Star.”
Vonnegut offered this advice to other fiction writers: “Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”
We now know what Ken Fuson was made of. No matter how funny and gentle he appeared to the world, awful things happened to Ken, things that — whatever the nature of his disease — he could not resist. Yet, the light he could not see in himself, he could see in others. His stories about their hope and their redemption may very well have been rehearsals for his own.
I am trying to picture Ken at the track. I have never bet on a horse race, but my grandfather did and taught me to love the sport. I am tempted to list Secretariat as the best athlete of the 20th century. I can imagine few rushes in the world as intense as watching a horse you have bet money on win in a photo finish.
As a great student of storytelling, Ken could not have been blind to the narrative arc of the horse race itself, an adrenalized two-minute genre from start to finish, a metaphor that is so powerful that journalists apply it to election coverage. We even call it, sometimes as criticism, “horse-race coverage.” Biden is out in front, but Sanders is pulling ahead of Warren, with Buttigieg moving up on the outside.
I read an essay in an Oliver Sacks book about his treatment of a patient with Tourette’s syndrome, that neurological challenge that compels a person to twitch and shout. It can be a terrible physical and social burden. But folks with Tourette’s also have been known to be good athletes and musicians. (I knew one in college.)
Sacks describes how, prescribing medication, he successfully reduced the symptoms of Tourette’s for one of his patients. At first, the man was delighted. Months later, the patient returned with a different story. While the medication reduced the effects of the syndrome, it also reduced his musicianship, his passion for playing the drums. He wanted his disease back.
I am not saying that Ken Fuson was a better writer as a gambling addict than he was as a someone who was “cured” or “saved.” I don’t believe that at all. His addiction may have robbed Iowa and the rest of us of wonderful books he might have written, works that might have elbowed out “The Music Man.”
I am only asking all writers — me first — to pay a visit, in honor of Ken, to our darkest and coldest demons. Tempted by their thrall, imagine, as Ken Fuson did, an unexpectedly warm and sunny day. In the winter. In Iowa, of all places.
The Genius of Ken Fuson
Before I met Ken Fuson in person, I read one of his stories. I was a judge in a Best of Gannett competition. As often happens in such a setting, a few stories rise to the top. I don’t have a copy to quote from, but I remember Ken’s work as the story in which a hearing-impaired person is the beneficiary of a new medical procedure, a cochlear implant. You can go on YouTube right now and see videos of people, including very young children, hearing sound for the first time with their new devices. They are very moving.
But Ken was writing his story before the advent of the internet, and I can still remember the exquisite feeling of horripilation surfing up my arms as his protagonist hears sound for the first time. Ken puts me in that room with hope in my heart and then joy for the patient and the family. What more can a storyteller do?
To answer that question, Poynter is reprinting a package created in 1996 for Best Newspaper Writing, an annual collection of ASNE writing award winners. Ken won for perhaps his most famous — and surprisingly his shortest — story. It ran on March 16, 1995 — almost a quarter-century ago — and is headlined: “Ah, What a Day!”
What follows is my original introduction to Ken’s work. After that comes the short essay itself, with my analysis — I call it an X-ray reading — in the margins.
Ken Fuson is a feature writer for the Des Moines (Iowa) Register. He was a reporter for The Sun in Baltimore when he won the ASNE award for non-deadline writing in 1998. He prefers writing long, but proves in this weather story that he can go short.
In the 14th century, Geoffrey Chaucer began The Canterbury Tales with a weather report. He reminded his audience of 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 Walt Disney World, they make a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral to renew their spirit. The father of English poetry accomplished this feat in 18 glorious lines. Not a bad lead.
Maybe Ken Fuson is the next Geoffrey Chaucer. He takes an assignment 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 even on deadline. He is known for long narrative projects, such as his ASNE award winner — a 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.
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, he said, 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, is a favorite genre for readers, the offbeat or whimsical story that offers 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. We have chosen this gem of a story for “X-Ray Reading” because a close look reveals that just a small jewel can have many facets, so a single brilliant sentence can offer the reader untold surprises and insights.
Roy Peter Clark is senior faculty emeritus at Poynter. He can be reached at email@example.com.