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.

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