Editor’s note: We’re resurfacing this article to pay homage to Jim Dwyer following his death on Oct. 8. It was originally published on July 18, 2006.
When I see the bylines of certain reporters, I will read whatever they write. Jim Dwyer of The New York Times is one of those. Jim has become, in my mind, the prose-poet of 9/11, the journalist who has, with a special decency and power, managed to chronicle the lingering effects of a horrible day.
Jim won an ASNE Distinguished Writing Award for his short stories about specific objects that became relics of the Twin Towers disaster: a squeegee used to escape an elevator, a family photo found in the rubble, a paper cup used to give water to a thirsty survivor.
Five years later, pain continues to find the families of the lost. In a recent story, Dwyer describes the plight of three families who learned that 911 tapes from Sept. 11 contained the voices of their loved ones.
No, Joe and Marie Hanley decided at first, they would not listen to the 911 tape of their son, Chris, calling for help from Windows on the World.
And no, Jack Gentul and his sons agreed, they had no intention of playing the tape of Alayne Gentul, wife and mother, calling 911 from the north tower of the World Trade Center.
Will Sept. 11 ever be over, Debbie Andreacchio wondered, after the mayor’s office called her on Monday, on her brother Jack’s birthday, to say he had telephoned 911 on that morning four and a half years ago.
The choice of three examples is no accident. Dwyer knows that, in writing, three represents the whole. He will use the promise of that number to develop the body of the story, organized around the experiences of the Hanley, Gentul and Andreacchio families, in that order.
Notice another strategy in that lead: Dwyer establishes a pattern in the first two paragraphs by repeating the word “no,” but for the third example, he gives it a twist. That’s a good tool: Set up a pattern, then vary it. Hither, thither and yon.
In a Dwyer story, I anticipate special and unusual words, especially phrases I’m not used to seeing in a news story: “Disruptive as they are, the tapes hold unique power as aural relics and as portals into a lost and unseen moment for these three families.” And check this out: “For many of those closest to the day, the release of the tapes is yet another Sisyphean moment in the march away from Sept. 11, in which every step forward in time seems to be matched by one that sends them lurching back toward the day again.”
Given the cataclysmic nature of the event, the language of religion and myth seems fitting and respectful. If you know the myth of Sysyphus, you can experience the story at a deeper level. If not, you can get the meaning from the context.
Lots of tools here: Use three to represent the whole; establish a pattern, then give it a twist; use interesting words that readers can understand from context; don’t sidestep the mythic or poetic if it lends meaning to the work.
What I most admire about Dwyer is his embodiment of both literary and journalistic sensibilities. His work can has a poetic or narrative feel, but he also believes in a use of evidence and sourcing that, while not scientific, creates what he calls “reproducible results” — stuff that can be checked out.
Roy Peter Clark teaches writing at Poynter. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @RoyPeterClark.