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Lessons from Books

Posted on Wednesday, October 28, 2009 at 1:38 PM

Some useful tricks from what the experts say and how they've mastered their craft.

By Peter P. Jacobi

It's been awhile since I focused on books. Permit me to do some catching up.

The Best American Magazine Writing

Each year, the American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME) publishes a volume devoted to The Best American Magazine Writing. It contains the winners and finalists of the society's annual awards. I'd like to use the 2007 edition as an example. And as per usual, it contains sterling examples, which you (as did I) can enjoy in the reading and from which you (as again did I) can glean lessons. The book is published by Columbia University Press.

Cynthia Leive, editor-in-chief of Glamour and president of ASME, writes in introduction to the nearly 500 pages that follow: "For my money, we have the Oscars beat, and the book you are holding in your hands is the reason why. Magazines produce some of the most lovely and lasting writing of our time; though it's true there's nothing better than a quick dip into a magazine when you're stuck on the cross-town bus in rush hour traffic, the best magazine pieces also stand the test of time, working their particular brand of magic years after their time on the newsstand is gone."

Marlene Kahan, ASME's hard working executive director and administrator of the awards, says the pieces in the anthology reflect "moral passion, vivid characters and settings, zealous reporting, and artful narrative that transforms information into a compelling story."

We may not always have the time or opportunity or the appropriate platform to do all that Leive and Kahan speak of (nor perhaps also the level of talent exhibited), but within our limits, it's critical we do the utmost, striving for the best within our reach. Reading the likes of the included articles can inspire, as well as instruct.

There's the lighter material, such as Vanessa Gregoriadis' rollicking portrait of "Karl Lagerfeld, Boy Prince of Fashion," prepared for The New Yorker. "What can one talk about while waiting for Lagerfeld?" she writes. "Lagerfeld, of course. 'Karl has the energy of...what? Twenty-five thousand Turkish elephants!' says socialite Anne Slater, wearing her big blue glasses and grinning up a storm. 'He's magnetic and powerful. I think he's absolutely, devastatingly attractive.'"

There's the serious coverage of news behind the news, such as William Langewiesche's "Rules of Engagement" for Vanity Fair, a reconstruction of events leading up to the massacre by U.S. Marines of Iraqi civilians. It begins so calmly with description: "The Euphrates is a peaceful river. It meanders silently through the desert province of Anbar like a ribbon of life, flanked by the greenery that grows along its banks, sustaining palm groves and farms, and a string of well-watered cities and towns. Fallujah, Ramadi, Hit, Haditha. These are among the places made famous by battle -- conservative, once quiet communities where American power has been checked, and where, despite all the narrow measures of military success, the Sunni insurgency continues to grow. On that short list, Haditha is the smallest and farthest upstream."

The scene is set for the tempest and terror to come. Langewiesche will not only detail the tragedy but use it as symbol for the larger picture of what he sees about the status of events in Iraq.

Esquire first published "The School" by C.J. Chivers, a harrowing account of the three day siege staged by Chechen terrorists of a school in the Russian town of Beslan. Take this moment, in an article comprised of such: "Karen Mdinaradze slipped in and out of consciousness. Once he awoke to see a woman over him, fanning him, another time to find children cleaning his wound with a cloth soaked in urine. He awoke again. A teenaged girl thrust an empty plastic bottle to him and asked him to urinate in it.

"'Turn your eyes away,' he said, and he pressed the bottle against himself and slowly peed. He finished and handed the bottle back. The girl and her friends thanked him and quickly poured drops to wash their faces. Then each sipped from the bottle, passing it among themselves, and returned it to him. Karen's dehydration was advanced; his throat burned. He poured a gulp of the warm liquid into his mouth and across his tongue, letting it pool around his epiglottis. The moisture alleviated some of the pain. He swallowed.

"He looked at the bottle. A bit remained. A very old woman in a scarf was gesturing to him, asking for her turn. He passed the bottle on."

Grim coverage of victims in despair: the details make the story hard to forget.

Before I leave the ASME collection, and I realize this column, as a whole, will turn out to be out of balance, with far more space allotted to the above than to the books that follow, but in that always-with-us question concerning the power of words versus that of pictures, here are thoughts from a commentary by Christopher Hitchens titled "The Vietnam Syndrome," written for Vanity Fair.

"To be writing these words," he says, "is, for me, to undergo the severest test of my core belief -- that sentences can be more powerful than pictures. A writer can hope to do what a photographer cannot: convey how things smelled and sounded as well as how things looked. I seriously doubt my ability to perform this task on this occasion. Unless you see the landscape of ecocide, or meet the eyes of its victims, you will quite simply have no idea. I am content, just for once...to be occupying the space between pictures."

The New Kings of Nonfiction

Ira Glass, the producer and host of the radio/television program "This American Life," has edited a volume called The New Kings of Nonfiction (Riverhead Books). It is a collection of writing he's saved across the years, pieces he couldn't bear "to throw away." Glass insists ours is an era of "great nonfiction writing." He speaks of the pleasure in reading some of this "great" writing, the "pleasure of discovery, the pleasure of trying to make sense of the world."

It is for each of us, of course, in our own way, to cause our readers to discover, to help them make sense of the world. The authors chosen by Glass surely make the effort. They include some bigwigs in the writing industry: Michael Lewis, Malcolm Gladwell, Susan Orlean, David Foster Wallace, Lee Sandlin, James McManus, among others.

There's Mark Bowden, too, whose contribution, "Tales of the Tyrant," first ran in The Atlantic in 2002. The piece is about Saddam Hussein and begins with this trenchant and sharply crafted paragraph: "The tyrant must steal sleep. He must vary the locations and times. He never sleeps in his palaces. He moves from secret bed to secret bed. Sleep and a fixed routine are among the few luxuries denied him. It is too dangerous to be predictable, and whenever he shuts his eyes, the nation drifts. His iron grip slackens. Plots congeal in the shadows. For those hours, he must trust someone, and nothing is more dangerous to the tyrant than trust."

The profile that follows is remarkable. But then, so are other selections in The New Kings of Nonfiction.

I mention James Wood's How Fiction Works (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) despite the fact that the author's focus is on fiction, which is not our game. But the author happens to be one of this era's most influential literary critics. Consequently, his book has received an inordinate amount of attention. It deserves yours.

Granted, there is discourse that seems a distance removed from what you and I must deal with. But this gentleman has a keenly analytical mind, and he's got a verbal manner that can startle a response out of you.

At one point, as he turns to the subject of metaphor, he states: "Metaphor is analogous to fiction because it floats a rival reality. It is the entire imagination process in one move. If I compare the slates on a roof to an armadillo's back, or -- as I did earlier -- the bald patch on the top of my head to a crop circle (or on very bad days, to the kind of flattened ring of grass that a helicopter's blades make when it lands in a field), I am asking you to do what Conrad said fiction should make you do -- see. I am asking you to imagine another dimension, to picture a likeness. Every metaphor or simile is a little explosion of fiction within the larger fiction of the novel or story." Metaphors, of course, are an imaginative touch just as usable in nonfiction as in fiction.

The Art of Column Writing

Finally, if you do the column writing thing, there's Suzette Martinez Standring's new book, The Art of Column Writing: Insider Secrets from Art Buchwald, Dave Barry, Arianna Huffington, Pete Hamill and Other Great Columnists (Marion Street Press). Sandring writes columns herself for The Boston Globe and The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, Massachusetts.

She's produced a solid "how to" guide, built on her own experience but heavily also on the advice of those in the book's title. I'm less interested in the who-these-people-are parts of the book than the how-things-are-done elements, but you can learn some useful tricks from what the experts say and, through samples, how they've mastered the craft.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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