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Shaking the Grapefruit Tree

Here are my comments on the most recent Nieman Storyboard Editors’ Roundtable discussion on the very entertaining piece by Jessica Pressler in New York Magazine:

 

On lively writing:

Jessica Pressler produces a fun read here, and I’d like to focus on how a lot of what is “fun” is a combination of lively, original language and acute observation. Throughout, she manages to surprise the reader with tart but entirely apt images – funny because they are both irreverent and true.

Consider the first description of the subject, Diane Passage:

 

When she laughs, her grapefruit-tree physique bounces merrily.

It’s more original and less vulgar than “tits on a stick,” and it goes somewhere, too – between the laughter and the merry bouncing you start to be predisposed to like a not-entirely-sympathetic character.

Passage giggles again, and the ensuing undulations manage to pull Barry’s attention back from the blonde who’d just passed by.

“Ensuing undulations” works so beautifully because it is a comically high description of such a low phenomenon, very Damon Runyon-esque – but also so true: We’ve all seen enough Barrys to know that head-swivel by heart.

Passage is one of those people that it feels like New York invented, though they thrive wherever male egos and dumb money coexist.

 

Another great observation – a fun clash of stylish language (“though they thrive”) and straight talk (“male egos and dumb money”) that is also poetry. A repeated one-syllable, two-syllable pattern pairing male with dumb and egos with money. A small slice of language perfection.

This next passage is a great use of what is always a smart writing strategy, which is to just give the readers the sensory info they need to draw their OWN conclusions:

His friend, let’s call him Paul, a tall, paunchy private-equity manager was quiet much of the evening but has become considerably more animated after a trip to the bathroom.

Now here comes another smart idea: wringing the meaning out of things others might pass by without comment. In this case, it’s a pretentious name with a transparent marketing strategy. Here’s how Pressler handles that:

Passage moved with her son from a small walk-up to a $7 million condo on the Upper East Side in a building so sure of its fabulousness that it was called “Lux74.”

Extreme compression is yet another artifact of good writing. Here Pressler finds a way to avoid the yadda-yadda of excessive background and tell the whole story in a phrase. The compression of how the character ended up so compromised is so extreme, and so plain spoken, that it becomes delightful, and hilarious:

As a kid, she’d dreamed of becoming a pop star or a veterinarian, but she couldn’t carry a tune and was allergic to hairy animals. By the time she was 18, all she really knew was that she needed to get the hell out of Detroit.

There are lots more like this to choose from, but I’ll end on one that I love because it cuts so directly to the truth of her character, and does so in a way that makes readers look at something familiar in a new way:

“If I was you, I know what I’d do,” said a male colleague one day in 2004, when she confided her problems. He eyed her curvy figure. “I’d go straight to a strip club.”

Some women might have gone straight to human resources. But Passage is a person who considers all offers.

History Happens Here

Since I stopped commuting to downtown DC daily, something interesting has happened: I appreciate the city more. Every trip downtown I see something new and exciting happening — a cool new restaurant, a great neighborhood rising out of space that ten years ago was borderline depressing. Together, the sum of all Washington’s parts is a city vibrating with energy. It may be the Great Recession elsewhere, but for DC it’s boom times– which may say something unfortunate about mortgaging our futures in the name of ever bigger government, but it sure makes for an exciting and beautifully liveable city. I happened to have two dinners to go to this past weekend, both in DC, although in widely dispersed parts of the city. The first dinner took me by a park  I passed every day when I worked at the Post, McPherson Square. The usual Sunday scene of a few homeless men and their bundles spread out on the wood benches had transformed into what at first looked like a field sprouting with Gore-Tex mushrooms, but resolved into a village of domed pup-tents, crowded edge to edge three blocks from the White House. Occupy DC revolutionaries milled about, their fervor swirling around them like fog. There were signs all over, with slogans and whatnot, but my favorite was one that said: WE NEED TOOTHPASTE.  Throw in some deodorant while your at it.

The next night we were heading to Southeast, and that took us on Independence Avenue alongside the Tidal Basin. Suddenly we saw a huge field filled with the aftermath of what looked like another inauguration. There were police barricades and thousands of discarded cardboard boxes and stages and . . . what had just recently happened here?

And then we rolled past these four huge marble slabs, and as we passed by, the mountainous image of Martin Luther King Jr. emerged from one of the slabs, looking sternly down on us. Of course — it was the day of the dedication of the newest national memorial — a very big deal, rivaling in impact Lincoln’s little tribute just down the Mall. And the crowd was still streaming out of there . . . we’d missed the ceremony by an hour.

So two nights out in the nation’s capital, and two serendipitous brushes with history — the kind of things that will appear as iconic images for generations to come; a park populated with young people in need of toothpaste who believe that their beliefs alone have the power to change the world; a gathering to inaugurate a shrine to a man whose belief DID change the world, a shrine that had waited half a century for this one day of dedication.

And oh yeah, both dinners — one at a New Orleans place, one at a Greek place — were superb.

I’d love to live in Paris some day, but living in DC ain’t half bad.

 

A Slave to Language

Politicized language can be annoying. “Politically correct” is not exactly a term of admiration. That  irritation is justified to the degree that a change in language is meant to alter, rather than reflect reality. A perfect example of the bad kind of politically correct: “Deferred success” in place of “failure.” Very 1984 “War is Peace” type of thinking there. On the other hand, “Native Americans”  for “Indians,” is inarguably an example of the good kind of linguistic shift — mistaking the Americas for India was the biggest geographical gaffe in history, and its stubborn perpetuation is a metaphor for European arrogance and ignorance.

But recently I encountered an even more potent word change –all the more powerful because the word in question did not stick out as absurdly as “Indian.” It was a short, common word that I had never thought to question: “slave.” My wife and I were walking around a preserved colonial plantation when I noticed an interpretive sign that repeatedly used a novel (to me) phrase that almost knocked me over. Although this had been a Southern plantation, the word “slave” never appeared. It had been replaced, in all instances, by some form of  “enslaved man.”

My bias is always in favor of plain speaking. And slave, as ugly as the concept is, was at first glance a very honest word. But the more I thought about it, the more of a lie it became — a pernicious one at that.

Being a slave is something you are, an intrinsic state of being. Being enslaved is something that has been done to you, and has no bearing on your essential being. Calling someone a slave is instantly rendering that person as something other. The constant repetition of the alternative on the historical plaques — enslaved man, enslaved woman, enslaved people — had a surprisingly compelling effect. It made the condensed history of that plantation anything but the boilerplate that would have issued forth without that subtle edit — exponentially more awful, more real. 

And that’s exactly what words should do.

Just Communicate

Leo Tolstoy: He had something to say.

A client sent me a first chapter to a book. I don’t want to say it was awful, but it just wasn’t working on any level. After receiving my critique, the client sent me a long message of explanation. The message was clear, funny, insightful and fun to read. It had me hanging on every word. How do you explain that? Actually, I think embedded in the explanation is the secret principle for all good writing. The root problem with the chapter was that the writer had never figured out what the story was. In the absence of a clear idea, she just tried to WWrite around it. That’s trying to be a writer with two cap Ws, big fancy words, flashy sentence structure, metaphors out the wazoo, with the net result something that is overly cute, trying too hard, and still, since the root problem was not knowing what the story was, meaningless. But when she was trying to explain her difficulty to me, she knew exactly what she was experiencing, which allowed her to do nothing with her writing except attempt to communicate that to me in the best possible way. Since she was talented, the result was everything I describe above. So that’s something to remember: the key to good writing is, first and foremost, actually having something significant and interesting to communicate. Once you have that, forget about everything else but communicating that thing in the most effective way possible. Easy peasy.

On being Single

The Hunt for Bin Laden single has been the #1 Kindle Single pretty much from it’s launch. It’s also hovered around the #50 range in the entire e-book store on Amazon. What does that translate to in terms of hard numbers of sales? A friend of mine had a #1 Kindle Single that proceeded to stay in the top 20 Singles  for a couple of months. He said he was told that the sales were headed for a total of about 10,000. At $2, $3 a pop, nobody is going to get rich on that. But it might just be a form that is only in the early stages of catching on. With the low overhead, including the reduced amount of resources and time that go into a 15,000 word piece (as opposed to a 90,000 word full-length book), it won’t take much more in the way of popularity to make this a very positive development for writers.

Is the Kindle Single the Salvation of Story-Telling?

The Post asked me to take 15 years of reporting on the Hunt for Bin Laden and edit it into a single narrative, which they then gave to Amazon to distribute electronically as “Kindle Single.” It’s 18,000 words and costs $1.99 to instantly download into your e-reader. There is suddenly an apparently thriving market in these not-quite-book-but-more-than-article type pieces. Production costs, practically zero. Distribution costs, practically zero. Price barrier? Negligible. Could this be the salvation of non-fiction story-telling?

Tiger Fatigue — Hear Me Rory

Here’s the way a great columnist can capture the zeitgeist in a phrase: Sally Jenkins on Tiger fatigue after Rory McIlroy’s historic win at Congressional . . .

“I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for a new champion who doesn’t treat the world as his spittoon.”

An Old Master

Henry Allen’s best piece in years here.


Post Hunt IV

Chatting with Gene and Dave today at 11 at washingtonpost.com/posthunt

Hunt Sunday

If you are able to come out to the Post Hunt that starts noon Sunday in downtown DC, when things die down from the zany and (for us) terrifying kickoff, around 1 pm, stop me and say hi. I’ll be wandering with an expression of dazed anxiety. Dave Barry, Gene Weingarten and I chatted about it on the Post site today for an hour, without giving out a single bit of useful info.