April 6, 2021

All teachers have their favorite anecdotes, the ones that offer a lesson or unleash a laugh. One of mine is borrowed from a great scholar of the West, Patricia Limerick, who, in turn, got it from her friend and great storyteller of the West, Larry McMurtry.

This particular anecdote was so useful to Limerick that she shared it at least twice: first in a New York Times essay about what keeps academics from writing better; and then in a 2001 commencement address to the graduates of the University of Colorado, where she has had a long and distinguished career.

Limerick describes the anecdote as a parable about the inhibitive power of aversive conditioning. It deserves to be shared at length. Its appearance in this essay is also meant as a tribute to McMurtry, author of “Lonesome Dove” and other Western stories, who just died.

The anecdote originally appears in a collection of essays called “In a Narrow Grave.” In one essay, McMurtry describes the conversion of one of his novels, “Horseman, Pass By,” into the movie “Hud,” which starred Paul Newman.

I will do my best to paraphrase the lengthy anecdote from memory, using my own language, but borrowing heavily from both Limerick and McMurtry.

There is a famous scene in the movie when Newman, a Texas cattleman, comes upon the body of a dead cow. In a tree above the corpse is a dead branch full of eager buzzards. In his anger, Newman fires a rifle at the predators, which go soaring into the West Texas sky.

When McMurtry visited the set and asked about the scene, he could tell right away that things had not gone well.

Problems began with the deficiencies of local Texas buzzards. They were a scruffy lot, unlike more cinematic-looking creatures, which were shipped in for a more dramatic effect. So now they had Robert Redford-type buzzards to match Paul Newman’s good looks. But this caused a problem.

It was impossible to rehearse the scene without the fancy new birds flying away — and then what? Some genius decided they could wire the feet of the buzzards to the branch. And that’s what they did. And Newman fired his rifle. And the buzzards could not fly away. But they could pitch forward, leaving the director and crew with a branch full of buzzards hanging upside down.

But wait, there’s more. Turns out the buzzard body lacks a circulatory system that works upside down. They all passed out and had to be revived for another take. This happened several times.

Thoroughly rehearsed, the birds were ready for their big moment. Their feet were unwired from the branch. Newman fired the rifle. And then nothing. They just sat there. Why? Because they had learned — from experience — that if they tried to fly, they would pitch forward, and pass out.

Here is how Limerick described it to the graduates:

After six or seven episodes of pitching forward, passing out, being revived, being replaced on the branch, and pitching forward again, the buzzards gave up. Now, when you pulled the wire and released their feet, they sat there, saying in clear, nonverbal terms: “We tried that before. It did not work. And we have absolutely no interest in trying it again.” So now the filmmakers had to fly in a high-powered animal trainer to restore buzzard self-esteem. It was a big mess; Larry McMurtry got a wonderful story out of it; and we, in turn, get the best possible parable about the workings of habit and timidity.

In my sharing of this anecdote over the years, I have used it to describe a common experience in newsrooms. But it applies to all fields in which creativity and conventionality are in conflict. In the old days, it had to do with a supposed tension (a false one, I believe) between reporting and writing.

The traditionalists thought news should be delivered in a certain way with the most important information at the tippy-top, and the rest delivered in order of importance, creating a report known as the “inverted pyramid.”

There were always exceptions to this form of news delivery, of course, going back centuries, but there remained a tension between hard news and the desires of storytellers, eager to adopt narrative structures in a quest to gain and keep readers.

Whatever the culture of the workplace, a writer might try something new, even if it was something as simple as an anecdotal intro, or a bit of dialogue, or a telling detail. Then something bad might happen: the intro might be revised on the copy desk without consultation, a note might float down from higher-ups, colleagues might complain behind the writer’s back.

Maybe the writer would be bold enough to try again and again. But there would come a time when the rifle would be fired and the writer would just sit on the branch unwilling to fly toward the horizon. “No, I tried that. I am not going to try it again.”

While Limerick meant this anecdote for other purposes, it applies what is happening now in journalism and in all forms of public writing. Too often, we act as if forms of public writing have existed forever. This, of course, is not true. They were created in response to changes in markets and audiences, to the political climate of the day, and to the opportunities afforded by new technologies.

In an era of pandemic, disinformation, insurrection and social media, those forces are hard at work again. Many reliable forms will survive and thrive, but not all of them. There are leaks in the ships once named Objectivity, Neutrality, and Balance. To convey practical truths, it has been argued, public writers must be unafraid to engage readers with an honest distance from neutrality and with language more vivid than our inhibitions might dictate.

What, then, is the antidote to the poison of inhibition? How can writers and all creators achieve escape velocity from the gravitational force of timidity and conventionality?

It feels right to give Patricia Limerick the last word as delivered to those graduates in 2001:

So now you have heard the story that I would like you to remember. Here, with no subtlety, is the point of the parable: You have freedom. You have choice. Use it. Encourage others to get off the branch. Do put a little time and attention into looking where you’re going. But then glide. Catch updrafts. Soar.

Correction: The name of the novel is “Horseman, Pass By,” not “Horsemen Pass By.” We apologize for the extra equestrians. 

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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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