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April 17 2012


“Why’s this so good?” No. 38: Walt Harrington deconstructs Rita Dove

Writing about the writing process isn’t easy, for good reason. Turning words into sentences and sentences into scenes is at heart a craft, yet there’s still a certain amount of magic involved. Synapses fire. Muses play.

That magic, which manifests itself in unique ways for each of us, is what makes Walt Harrington’s Washington Post Magazine profile of Rita Dove, “The Shape of Her Dreaming,” one of those stories I reach for whenever I need inspiration. Harrington captures one poet’s creative process in such detail that it’s often hard to tell whose voice you’re hearing − his or hers.

Harrington initially set out to write something less ambitious. In 1995, the Post magazine was in the midst of a series of short front-of-the-book pieces about how to do various odd tasks. Harrington wanted to explain how to write a poem. Dove, then the U.S. poet laureate, promised to contact him the next time she had a finished work to share.

Three months later, Harrington reported to Dove’s backyard writing cabin in Charlottesville, Va. He discovered that, in addition to writing the poem “Sic Itur ad Astra,” she had taken meticulous notes for him − pages and pages detailing the changes she made with each version. Dove recently had begun using a computer, so each version carried a time stamp. She also handed over her journal of the six-week creative period, then spent six hours answering questions about every decision she’d made in her writing.

“She basically gave me a master class,” Harrington, now a journalism professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said recently when I called to talk about the story. “I don’t like to say a story writes itself, but she gave me a huge head start.”

Dove’s notes gave Harrington his structure: a chronological narrative starting at 5:35 p.m. on Feb. 5, when she printed out the first draft, and ending on March 26 at 1:43 a.m., when she finished the final version. That overarching simplicity − beginning, middle and end with a few quick digressions for background − allowed Harrington to get complicated elsewhere. That basic structure let him take his time talking about the meaning of poetry, the reason certain words and lines didn’t work and why something as seemingly concrete as written language can prove so tricky and abstract when put to creative use.

The lines make Rita shiver in the way she once shivered when she wrote, “He used to sleep like a glass of water/held up in the hand of a very young girl.” That feeling. So much of writing a poem is less like saying a prayer than it is putting together the weekly shopping list. Then comes a sacred moment … For Rita, these lines are a fish to keep − a rare poet’s epiphany in the muck of craft: “I don’t know where it came from. It just came.”

Harrington’s paragraphs are dense − skim, and you’ll miss something important. His prose is light on florid touches but does mimic a poet in the use of cadence. His tone is exactly right for the subject matter − conversational and slightly awed − yet he’s also ready to acknowledge that there’s something slightly wacky about the whole endeavor. He worked hard on that voice. He’d recently read Alan Lightman’s novel “Einstein’s Dreams,” an account of Einstein’s struggles to complete the theory of relativity. Harrington appreciated the novel’s light but reverent touch, and sought something similar:

It is 6:20 now, sundown out the cabin window. Rita takes up a new pen and writes: “Now we’ll see how this pen works. Sungown. Dundown. The light quenched. Oh, fennel bloom. Another ladybug − perennially cute, ladybug, body and name. Too many make a plague of luck. Ah shame on you, duckie: You’ve lost your quack. For an ounce of your prattle I’d hang up my traveling shoes.”

What does it mean? Who knows.

Gone fishing.

Narrative requires dialogue. But what happens when your major scenes consist of a woman sitting alone in a cabin, staring out the window or humming along to the classical music she plays as she works? Once again, Harrington turned elsewhere for inspiration. He’d recently read Madeleine Blais’ book “In These Girls, Hope Is a Muscle,” an account of a high school basketball team that includes almost no “‘Blah, blah, blah,’ said so-and-so.” Newspaper-style attribution establishes an institutional voice and pulls readers away from the subject. Harrington wanted his audience as close to Dove as possible. So he stole Blais’ use of colons to mark off quotes, those that Dove gave directly and those he took from her journals. The result is internal dialogue that places the reader inside Dove’s cabin, and often all the way inside her head as she argues with and edits herself. This passage is like a miniature writing workshop:

“I’m a child again.” Too explanatory. The poem should have the feeling of childhood without needing to announce it.

“Catching my death of cold.” It goes on too long. This poem must be a collage of fleeting images, as in a dream. But Rita likes the line and would like to find a way to keep it.

“Moonlight cool as peaches.” She likes that line, too, may use it someday in another poem, but to mention food while in flight is too corporeal, too earthly. Still, she’ll leave it for now.

“In a nightshirt I’ve never seen before.” The image is too surreal, gives the sensation that the poem is a real dream rather than the sensation that it is like a dream.

“I won’t look below.” Not believable. Her poem’s character wouldn’t need to remind herself not to look below at the world. She’s yearning to leave it behind − for a ride to the stars.

“Come here bed, I need you!” Wait, the poem is talking to Rita again: Its traveler is ambivalent about her journey. She craves the stars but, like a child, also the comfort of her bed.

“I don’t know my way back.” The word “back” is too narrow, too referential to the world. This traveler isn’t worried about the way “back,” but the way to the stars, the future, immorality.

“Garden of dreams, “purple petals,” “Happy landings.” “Yech!” “Awful!” “Disgusting!” But Rita doesn’t stop to change them. They are place holders for the poem’s cadence. New words will come.

Dove trusted that a combination of her own creativity and hard work − that line-by-line evisceration, performed again and again − would yield results, in this case 23 lines or 96 words of quiet beauty.

Harrington showed the same trust in his own process. He leaves Dove sitting in her cabin. She hears a dog bark, feels a breeze through the cabin window and enjoys another burst of inspiration, in this case the memory of a wisecrack her father once made to a gas station attendant.

Young Rita never forgot the baffled look on the attendant’s face.

Where are those few words she jotted? Ah, here they are:

Meek, this fallen leaf

reminds me of a word

my father used to say −

zephyr, tilting back to

gaze up under his brimmed fedora

as if to coax the air along

his brow: “What a lovely zephyr

today.” And the gas station

attendant scratched himself,

instantly ashamed

And once again, Rita steps out onto the lines …

You don’t have to love poetry to appreciate that.

February 25 2011


Jeanne Marie Laskas on voice, point of view and accountability to her subjects: “this is the human story of a guy suffering”

In our latest Notable Narrative, “The People V. Football,” GQ correspondent Jeanne Marie Laskas looks at a former football player who has already lost much of his life and is in the process of losing his mind. Laskas has won a slot in the “Best American Sportswriting” anthologies four times, written five books and been a contributing editor at Esquire, as well as a columnist for The Washington Post Magazine and Reader’s Digest. I spoke with her by phone this week about her story. In these excerpts from our talk, she discusses becoming a sportswriter by default, accountability to her subjects, and using voice to bring characters to the page.

People who know you as the Washington Post Magazine columnist or Reader’s Digest lady might not realize that you’ve done sportswriting for a long time.

It’s so funny – I don’t know why I do sportswriting. I’ve never called myself a sportswriter, and it’s not like I have an interest in it. I think it came out of being a contributing whatever-the-heck-I-am at GQ – and was at Esquire – writing for this male audience.

They would ask me to do these stories. Now I could say “no” to them, but they were often about athletes or things that were sports-related. Honest to God, though, the reason that my editor would ask me if I would be interested in a football story was because I knew so very little about football. I wasn’t bringing any bias to the picture; instead, I was just looking at it as a series of characters, and thinking about how to write about these characters who happen to play football. That’s the way I got into writing sports stories.

I did the same thing about a bullrider, and a whole bunch of guys that were athletes. But it wasn’t because I had a particular interest in sports. That’s probably not the answer you wanted to hear, but that’s the honest to God truth.

The way I think about it is that I write about characters. In any kind of long-form narrative writing, I don’t even care what the character does. As long as the character is obsessed with something, I’m interested in the character. If I specialize in anything taste-wise, that’s what I lean toward.

You’ve done a lot of different types of writing. When you think of long-form narrative, you mentioned character, but what else do you need and want for that kind of piece?

The other stuff I’ve do, the essays and the columns, that’s like the other side of my brain. For me, to write long-form – it’s always starting with character. Both of these concussion stories are clearly character-driven. I was not even interested in the concussion story when my editor first proposed it to me. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the other story.

I’ve seen two but didn’t know if there were more.

Just two. And that story only became interesting to me when I discovered Bennet Omalu, this young pathologist from Nigeria who had an obsession with the brain of Mike Webster and needed to get to the bottom of what happened to this guy, why he died. That’s what grabbed me as a researcher, reporter – whatever we’re calling ourselves these days – to write his story: to put me as close as I could get, into that kind of “in his eyeballs” mode.

It was the same thing with Fred. With that first story, I didn’t approach it as an issue story, but it became one, because there was an issue. I wanted to come back and update it a couple years later. I just didn’t want to do it with the same research and information as before. The issue was not as interesting to me as “Wait a second , we don’t even know these people who are living with this condition. Have we ever met any of these guys?” I wondered if I could find someone who would let me into his life now, as he’s suffering from this condition. I wondered if I could find a character.

How did you find Fred McNeill?

HBO is doing a movie based on the first story. The screenwriter is Peter Landesman, and he is researching this topic like crazy. He ran into Dr. [Daniel] Amen, who is in the second story but who I didn’t write about the first time. He has all of these patients who are suffering from what they think is CTE. I met Fred through him – both Fred and Tia.

Were they resistant or open to the idea of talking to you?

This was especially tricky, because I don’t think Fred really understood. You can really manipulate that if you want to, but obviously that is not the approach to go with. So I worked through Tia and her sons to talk about whether or not it would be a good idea to write a story for a large audience that looked at Fred’s condition deteriorating. It was up to Tia whether or not to open up. I think she struggled a little bit but decided it was worth showing what it’s like. To her it was a matter of getting the message out. The way that story reads is literally true; she had no idea what was wrong with him until last summer.

Were there any challenges in writing the piece?

The biggest challenge for me was interviewing Fred. It’s a reporter’s challenge, just because it’s hard to interview someone who isn’t quite with you at all times. He could never remember my name.

You wonder “What’s your responsibility here?” So it was mostly an ethical challenge. “When am I running toward the edges of exploiting this person who’s suffering?” You hope you’re doing the right thing.

Was there anything you didn’t use based on that concern?

Oh yeah, a lot. I also blurred a lot – the details of the girlfriend, for instance. It was more the fact of her existing that I thought was enough – to give that information without turning her into a character. What’s the point of portraying someone just for the fact that you know it’s juicy and silly and gossipy and weird? Do you do it just because of that? It’s a question of “what purpose does she serve in this larger story? And what purpose does including his shenanigans with her serve?” As a writer, it’s got to have a purpose anyway, to drive a scene and not just to be like, “Oh, wow, that’s weird.”

I didn’t actually do a line count, but it looked like the majority of the piece is dialogue. Do you use dialogue that extensively all the time?

Here’s what I like to do: I love playing with voice in a story in general. I’m very rarely in the stories at all. I don’t think there’s any first person in this one. Often what I’ll do is – it’s almost like ventriloquism. I’ll try to get the voice of the person in my head so intensely that I kind of write in that voice – just as a tool, almost to evoke the character.

This is a bit of a tangent, but I’m working on this book right now called “Hidden America,” which has a lot of individual chapters that go into little tiny worlds that you as a reader have probably never had access to yet are dependent on. That’s the theme of it.

Like coal miners. I hung out with coal miners for a long time and wrote about that culture. There’s a lot of dialogue there. The voice of the people is going to come through either in dialogue, through just reporting it, or through throwing my voice to evoke it. One way or the other, I’m going to use a lot of people’s voices.

At the beginning of the GQ piece, it’s almost like you’re writing from inside Tia’s head. It’s clear you’re not taking the step to pretend you have complete omniscience, but you’re picking up that voice even when there aren’t quotations.

It’s so helpful to me to know you picked that up. That’s exactly what I did in that little moment in the story. Now, I switch out of it in that story, but I have some stories where I just stay in the head like that.

But that “Tia” moment – there are a lot of ways you could write that. You could be the person in the backseat, reporting it and noticing this or noticing that. Or interviewing her and having her talk to you, so that all of a sudden you’re throwing yourself in the scene.

But who cares about you? Why I chose that scene as an opener is that so much of this story is through Tia’s point of view: her frustration, dealing with this man she loves. But she can’t stand this nonsense. So rather than having her say, “Gosh, it’s so frustrating to be the wife of this guy,” to me it would be more interesting to evoke that feeling. So I throw it into her point of view for a moment.

There’s this low-key use of humor – like when you acknowledge the girlfriend’s existence and explain that Tia doesn’t mind, because it gives her a break. And then of course the closing scene, which is funny but horrific. Were you thinking funny, or did it just come out from their characters?

Oh, I was laughing! Not at them. I was laughing with Tia. That’s really Tia that I’m almost channeling. That’s so much of what I loved about her as a character. This is so tragic, but it’s just hilarious. That flipping back and forth. I think she felt that it ended up being helpful for her to have me there for so long to witness some of this, so she could laugh with someone.

That exchange with him about being buried alive – she was laughing through that. He would laugh, too. That was not me creating humor; that was me reporting humor. If that had been just a tearjerker moment, I’m sure I would have tried to evoke it as a tearjerker moment.

But I didn’t make up that sentiment. It wasn’t me feeling that sentiment. That sentiment was there.

If it had been a tearjerker moment, would you have closed the piece with that scene?

Heck, yeah. Here’s the dishonest version of that ending, which I at one point had, and I kept rejecting it, even though my editor thought it was the ending: it cut off that last bit and ended with “but for Fred it’s more like being buried alive.” It ended on that buried alive moment.

To me, that was a “Pow!” but it really was not honest to the experience of Tia and Fred. That was a breathless melodramatic thought, and they didn’t think that way. They would have those moments, but then they would roll into something more mundane. Just the way people do. Nobody thinks like that all the time.

That was the ending for a while. My editor was saying, “That’s the ending.” But I was saying, “It just isn’t true.” It’s what happened, but it’s not the truth of who these two characters are. So I extended it, and it rang true to me. But it all happened. We could have chopped it anywhere we wanted.

How long were you there?

Not that long, compared to some of the other stuff I’ve done. I’m going to guess it was two trips – roughly a week, and then I went home to think, and then I went back for a week or so.

You talked about the first CTE piece becoming an issue piece although you didn’t intend it to be. But by the time you wrote the second piece, you probably had a pretty good idea it would turn into an issue piece. Did you write this one differently because of that?

You should see all the stuff I chopped off. I backed into it as just a profile. I wanted to hang an issue story on a profile, just to have this character be a vehicle, to update the science, to distinguish the drama between two scientific teams who are vying for attention.

I cut all of that out. I wrote it all, and it ended up being so fricking beside the point. It cheapened Fred and Tia’s lives to pack this research into it. It just cheapened it. No, this is the human story of a guy suffering. He stands for nothing. Ultimately, he’s the guy suffering from something, but to make him stand for something, it just didn’t work. I didn’t like it.

Anything else about the piece you want to say?

There are still another 15 issue stories that could be done around this subject. This is one of those stories that’s so in the news. It keeps popping up. You hear of somebody else dying, and we all get upset – like the Chicago Bears guy who committed suicide just last week.

I don’t know what to do with a story like this, because in general in the world, I don’t know when we’re ever going to get this one. How many times can you tell the same story about football and concussion? When are people going to get it? Nobody gets it. I don’t even get it – I go back and I watch the Steelers after I write this thing. We’re all complicit in this myth of football as happy American apple pie stuff, and these guys are killing each other. It’s so messed up.

If I were ever to write this again, the next version, I would want to get at that. The cultural significance – what this says about us as a culture – that we keep watching this. And I am as guilty as anyone. I’m not separating myself out. That’s why the story continues to be interesting to me. I haven’t figured it out.

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