God and Newspapers

Almost missed Brick’s Longing For A Cuss-Free Zone:
And all that art, if you want to call it that, reflects life, if you want to call it that. In the schoolyards kids bomb the pencils, the books and the teachers’ dirty looks. Outside office buildings smokers bomb their bosses, and nonsmokers bomb the smokers. On the streets T-shirts bomb milk in favor of marijuana, bomb the space between the words New York and City and even bomb you just because “we’re from Texas.”
Even the culture’s hallowed spaces are no longer bomb-free zones. Baseball players can be seen on television mouthing inaudible bombs in the dugout. The vice president of the United States bombed a colleague on the Senate floor.
For cultural Chicken Littles, these are heady days. It is easy to make a case that the particular word-bomb on all these lips – that undefeated heavyweight champ of profanity, that King of the Cuss Words – is so commonly heard now that it’s moving toward ho-hum status. Once the word gets in, the argument goes, there could be no line of defense against all the other words known by their first letters. “You know what I blame this on the breakdown of?” as Moe Syzlak of “The Simpsons” once asked. “Society.”

Don’t miss this strong profile by John Doherty and Oliver Mackson:
JERICA WAS FOUND in the first-floor boy’s room of Sacred Heart of Jesus School in Highland Falls on Jan. 27. She had been stabbed to death there some time after arriving at school with her father. She died while her classmates gathered for morning assembly just down the hall.
Linwood Rhodes had made cleaning up after his troubled sons something of a life’s work. From a distance the play of his life can look simple, tragic: a quiet, squared-away man following his sons from one drama to the next, blind to any pattern.
He readied Jerica for burial and hired Chris a lawyer. As if this, too, might somehow be repaired.
“Who’s Chris to her? Somebody that takes her to school?” Linwood, 55, said months later. “I raised her. She lived with me. I was the one she called her ‘papoo.’”
This night, though, there’s little time for reflection.

Keith Goldberg is reading Bill Plaschke:
Sixteen million dollars.
Jiggle that number around in your deepest pocket, see how it feels.
It’s lottery money, lifetime money, 1,056 games worth of Monopoly money, a stack-of-one-dollar-bills-reaching-more-than-6,000-feet-high money.
Now, carry that thought to the Forest Lawn Cemetery in Covina, to a patch of grass in front of the Mausoleum of Christian Heritage.
The young football player whose death produced $16 million is buried here. But to find him, you need a weed whacker and a magnifying glass.
Amid rows of ornately decorated and elegantly worded bronze plaques, Rashidi Wheeler lies somewhere underneath a tiny cement disk.
Push back the grass that has grown over the disk, there is a faint number carved into the concrete. It’s not his football number. It’s his gravesite number. It’s 625. That’s him.
There is no headstone, no marker, no name, no dates, he’s here, somewhere, you think.

The Times …

Read Barry: Irish shipwrights built St. Brigid’s in 1848 as spiritual shelter for those brothers and sisters who survived steerage on famine ships. Its twin steeples rose over Tompkins Square in proud declaration to nativist New York: we Irish – we Catholics – are here to stay.

And Brick: It was no place to leave a baby in the middle of the night. The fence runs under the dirt and clang of the elevated train, around a lot of weeds in a neighborhood where the bodegas have bulletproof glass for a reason.
Popeye’s fried chicken boxes, plastic foam cups and potato chip cans are all over the sidewalk. One sign says the yard is baited with rat poison, and another has a number to call for plastic slipcovers.

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More New New

Ben’s last post inspired me to go back and do some re-reading.

Lawrence Weschler:

“I’m obsessed with a narrow range of huge issues: Passion. Grace. Exile. Blockage.

“In the case of passion, the overarching theme is something I describe as ‘Inhaling the Spore.’ In Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, the first image is of ants foraging for food on the rainforest floor, who every once in a while accidentally inhale the spore of a fungus. The spore lodges in their brain and they start to behave oddly. They leave the forest floor for the first time in their lives, climb up the tendrils of surrounding vines, and eventually impale their mandibles on the stalk of the vine and wait to die. They die because the fungus has actually been eating away their entire nervous system, and two weeks after their death, a horn, laden with spores, erupts from out of their heads. The spores then rain down onto the forest floor and the whole process starts again.

“All of which is an allegory for what interests me. I’m fascinated by moments when people ‘inhale spores.’ … In all my writing, I have been concerned with people and places that were just moseying down the street one day, minding their own business, when suddenly and almost spontaneously they caught fire, they became obsessed, they became intensely focused and intensely alive — ending up, by day’s end, somewhere altogether different from where they’d imagined they were setting out that morning … ”

Yikes.

Now, if that doesn’t make you want to go out and watch the hell out of some ants, I don’t know what will.

New New Dispatch

This stuff from Richard Ben Cramer is so good I don’t even want to share it:
How do you know when a story is right for you?
I’ll mention an idea to my wife, and she’ll say, “Ah, that’s horseshit.” And I’ll get all defensive and argue with her, “No it’s not, and the reason it’s not horseshit is …!” That’s when I know I’m hooked. It grown on me to the point where I start telling the story to people over and over again.

On interviewing techniques:
(Talking here about seeking advice from a friend on writing about presidential campaigning) … And he said … here is how you have to do it: you get in the plane, and when they come to you for your interview slot you say, ‘You know what? I don’t really need to interview the candidate. But, hey, would you mind if I just sat there while he does all the other interviews?’

You don’t ask any questions?
Not one. I’d sit there for the first day, and the second day, and the third day, and on and on. And sooner or later, the candidate is going to get so comfortable with my being there that he will lean over to me after one of the interviews and say, “Damn, I fucked up that agriculture question again!”
And at that moment I’ve moved from my side of the desk to his side of the desk. That’s the judo move I try to pull off: using his power to throw him where I want him to go. I’m always trying to be on his side of the desk. If I come in with my notebook and my list of questions, then I’m just another schmuck with a notebook and questions to be brushed off with the “message of the day,” … But if I don’t have any questions — except for the basic one of ‘What the hell is going on here?’ — and I’m willing to hang around forever trying to see the world from his side of the desk, then I become something else entirely.

On Nut Grafs

This is a story I wrote, yes, and it was done on deadline, and I’m not even sure I dig it, but I’ll throw it out there as a way to start a discussion I think is worth having here.

Here are some pieces of messages I got from colleagues after it ran:

hey, liked the Schafer story. holding the nut graf til near the end didn’t bother me one bit. headline, subhed and cutline all give the reader that up front anyway. you gave that guy a damn good sendoff.

i don’t know… i think it works. the headline takes care of the news, and you just gathered such great detail the reader couldn’t help but hang on to the end.

interesting approach to the dead soldier story, which i’m still reading. great detail. figured you took a page from kelley’s shiavo obit.

I do work where I work, of course — the “Kelley” referenced is Kelley Benham, by the way — and there’s probably a better shot at seeing a story like this in the St. Petersburg Times than in any other paper in the country. Even the copy desk didn’t have any complaints, for Goodness sake.

But …

Does it work?

Do you think the reader’s sitting over coffee, checking his watch, wondering what the hell is going on?

Should we write more stories this way?

I don’t know. Just throwin’ it out there.

Sense of Place

I’m 17 pages in, and I already need to post from Robert Boynton’s The New New Journalism, in an interview with Ted Conover: Do you have any reporting routines you follow when you arrive in a new town?
Conover: I pay a lot of attention to place in my writing, so when I arrive in a new town I try to do what Lawrence Durrell recommended in his essay “Spirit of Place,” which is to get still as a needle, as he puts it.
["It is a pit indeed to travel and not get this essential sense of landscape values. You do not need a sixth sense for it. It is there if you just close your eyes and breathe softly through your nose; you will hear the whispered message, for all landscapes ask the same question in the same whisper. 'I am watching you--are you watching yourself through me?' Most travelers hurry too much ... the great thing is to try and travel with the eyes of the spirit wide open, and not too much factual information. To tune in, without reverence, idly--but with real inward attention. It is to be had for the feeling ... you can extract the essence of a place once you know how. If you just get as still as a needle you'll be there."]
Think about what you hear, what you see, what you smell, what you feel. I try to remember that.

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Dose of Dan

Today’s Dan Barry:

POLICE officers stopped a sightseeing bus in Times Square on Sunday morning, and not because they suddenly desired to see the South Street Seaport. Urgent word had come to them of suspicious men on board, acting suspiciously in these suspicious times.

Within seconds, the tourists on the double-decker bus had their hands raised high, in pantomime of thrill-seekers riding the Cyclone. And within minutes, five of those tourists, all dark-skinned men, had their hands in cuffs and their knees on city pavement, in pantomime of new immigrants worshiping the ground of this freedom-loving country.

It quickly became clear that those five suspicious-looking, dark-skinned men, who suspiciously had bought their tickets in advance, were just British citizens on holiday, with vacation snapshots that now will include newspaper photos of their public humiliation. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg issued a public apology – on behalf of the city, not the police – and the city lurched toward its next uneasy moment.

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Write Like Yourself

Ben Yagoda tells Poynter’s Chip Scanlan why style is important:

“Think of Michael Jordan and Jerry West each making a twenty-foot jump shot, of Charlie Parker and Ben Webster each playing a chorus of “All the Things You Are,” of Julia Child and Paul Prudhomme each fixing a duck a l’orange, of Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson each designing a 20-story office tower on the same corner of the same city, or of Pieter Breughel and Vincent van Gogh each painting the same farmhouse. Everybody understands that the content is constant, frequently ordinary, and sometimes banal; that the (wide) variation, the arena for expression and excellence, the fun, the art — it’s all in the individual style.
“The same is, or should be, true about writing.”

CHIP: Writers often complain their editors edit out their attempts at style. How can they dodge the delete key? Should they?

BEN: The best tack, I think, would be to work on the quiet style I was just referring to: style not as rampaging alliteration (for example) but as expression in subtle deviations from the norm that somehow suit the way you see the world and feel comfortable expressing yourself. What editor would object if you have slightly more parentheses than normal, or your paragraphs are slightly longer than average, or you indulged in a little irony now and then? All those things can be elements of a style.

CHIP: I’m a firm believer in the power of copying out great writing and was heartened to see that you subscribe to that method as well. What would you say to those who consider it a misguided practice?

BEN: Try it, you’ll like it! Seriously, the single best means of becoming a strong, original writer and mindful writer is to read, as widely as possible. When you involve your fingers in the reading, you somehow absorb the words on a deeper level.

Night Reading

I love retyping this piece by Bob Considine, via The International News Service, 1938.

Listen to this, buddy, for it comes from a guy whose palms are still wet, whose throat is still dry, and whose jaw is still agape from the utter shock of watching Joe Louis knock out Max Schmeling.

It was a shocking thing, that knockout – short, sharp, merciless, complete. Louis was like this:

He was a big lean copper spring, tightened and retightened through weeks of training until he was one pregnant package of coiled venom.

Schmeling hit that spring. He hit it with a whistling right-hand punch in the first minute of the fight – and the spring, tormented with tension, suddenly burst with one brazen spang of activity. Hard brown arms, propelling two unerring fists, blurred beneath the hot white candelabra of ring lights. And Schmeling was in the path of them, a man caught and mangled in the whirring claws of a mad and feverish machine.

The mob, biggest and most prosperous ever to see a fight in a ball yard, knew that there was the end before the thing had really started. It knew, so it stood up and howled one long shriek. People who had paid as much as $100 for their chairs didn’t use them – except perhaps to stand on, the better to let the sight burn forever in their memories…

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Seven

Got in the mail in a package from Amazon.com a big fat book called The Seven Basic Plots.

In it a dorky British guy named Christopher Booker says that’s how many stories there are.

1. Rebirth.

2. Tragedy.

3. Comedy.

4. The Quest.

5. Voyage and Return.

6. Rags to Riches.

7. Overcoming the Monster.

That’s it.

Discuss.