Writers are readers — and thieves.
A truism about writing is, if you want to write like someone, then do it! Don’t just sit there complaining and daydreaming: “Oooh, I wish I could write just one sentence as tightly as Hemingway…If only I could write a poem as honest as Maya Angelou…Man, if I could write only one story as magical as Gabriel Garcia Marquez.”
Rather, write like your heroes write. Copy their style. Their tricks. Their voice. So that in the process, you can figure out who YOU are as a writer.
So that someday, another writer, casting about for his or her own style, might say, “I wish I could write like____!”
I recently finished two books by Junot Diaz as part of my ongoing “Year of the Latino Writer.” One of them was his magnificent first novel, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.”
In this book Diaz completely omitted all quotation marks from the dialogue. This little trick really forces the reader to pay very close attention to the story, or risk getting tangled in a literary thicket.
I was so intrigued with this approach that I decided to try it myself in a new short story:
MY FAVORITE SUMMER VACATION
A clanging chorus of telephones suddenly filled the Jordan Observer newsroom.
The acoustic eruption shattered the normal post-deadline, mid-afternoon peace and quiet. This time of day, the newsroom usually sat virtually empty. Reporters hit their beats, took lunch or stole home for a quick break before the night’s meetings, and bosses gathered to review the morning’s issue and plan for the next day.
Still, the noisy outbreak yielded a comforting note of reassurance for Metro Editor Marie Wallace, recalling the not-too-distant days when newspapers were the world’s first, last and best information outlets. Touching bases with regular contacts, snitches calling in tips, even readers complaining about the slant of this story or that. It was all music to the veteran newswoman’s ears. Not like this newfangled Internet nonsense with its instant gratification, thin-as-tissue-paper credibility — and digital silence. In a solid, professional, working newsroom like the one she’d occupied for 27 years, you knew when stuff was happening.
Well, she reassured herself for the thousandth time since the Observer had connected to the World Wide Web a year ago, readers will always want more than what the Internet can give. I doubt it’ll survive the decade…
Wallace’s reverie snapped when the main line on her own phone lit up. Hello?
Hey Marie…I mean, Ms. Wallace.
Willie, I keep telling you, Marie is fine. How are you doing out there today?
Ok, I guess, Willie said, sincerely trying to hide his frustration. I mean, not to sound ungrateful, you know, I am extremely grateful for the chance to work for the Observer and all, but you know, I was kinda hoping to do something a little more, I don’t know…meaningful?
This kid is one big ball of ambition. I can’t blame him. He just wants to break his first big story, Marie thought, remembering her own days as a young reporter, when Drudgery often dulled the Dream. The routine footwork of a life in print could darken even the shiniest movie house vision of journalism. Cultivating sources. Scouring dozens of poorly-written press releases. Explaining to crackpots why the paper wouldn’t just print their latest UFO sighting. But most of all, just listening. Watching. Talking, Looking for dots to connect. Then connecting them before anyone else. The visceral thrill of a byline on a major story easily surpassed most sensations short of sex. (Sometimes, it was even better than sex, truth-be-told. Sex is fleeting, the recent divorcee thought, ruefully. Bylines live forever, if only in a file drawer.) Still, getting to the front page often required a lot of work. Hard, repetitive, mind-numbing, ambition-draining, spirit-crushing work.
I understand. I really do, Marie said, effecting her most maternal tone. Empathetic, supportive, but firm. Just what she always wanted from her own bosses. But you also understood what the job would be when we brought you on for this summer internship. I know you want to do great things, and who knows? Maybe after you graduate, we’ll hire you permanently and you’ll have lots of chances to really make a name for yourself. You’re a good reporter and writer, Willie. You have a bright future. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have chosen you for the position. You know we haven’t had an intern for many years. We couldn’t afford it, and the full-timers didn’t want to lose any work to anyone, much less some kid. I know that you are not just another college student. For now, though I need you to do what I need you to do. Which is?
Willie grumbled, not for the first time since he started the internship in late May at the end of his junior year. Yet here it was, the middle of August, and all he’d done was…Anything and everything that you ask me to do…and most especially anything and everything that the regular reporters don’t want to do.
They laughed together. Their shared commiseration and easy camaraderie would in time form the foundation of a friendship that would last beyond even the murder of their newspaper careers at the hands of the Internet. Right, Marie said. So, get to it, and get back here. Everyone is gone and I could use your help with these phones. Willie could hear the insistent ringing behind Marie’s voice – unusual for this time of day, Willie knew. And Willie, I can hear you rolling your eyes rolling over the phone…
But I hate these “Man on The Street” interviews. Asking people stupid questions and taking their pictures…
Hey, hold on just a minute there… I know it’s not the best assignment – which is why the full-timers are only too happy to give it to the summer intern, she thought – but it can’t be that bad. What’s today’s question?
“What was your favorite summer vacation, and why?”
Marie had to agree with her protegee about that one. But it was summer and news was slow. The idea was to generate easy copy. Ask people something that was likely to get a good quote – not too long, not too short. Snap a quick head shot for the next day’s paper, throw five on the Editorial page, and voila! A surefire, effective and cheap way to draw readers. Truism Number One About Journalism, Marie knew: Vanity always wins the day and the dollar (or, in the Observer’s case, the 35 cents.)
Alright, I see your point. How many more do you need?
Well, I talked to about twenty people so far…
Any good ones in there? Even in the two short months that she’d been his editor, she learned that getting information from Willie could be like extracting a sliver – a lot of painful digging. If he didn’t show so much promise…
I don’t know, I guess so, Willie finally offered. About what you’d expect. A lot of The summer I Spent with Grandma Before She Died, The Summer We Saw the Grand Canyon, The Summer I Learned How to Swim, The Summer I Puked Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream On My Sister, the Summer I Made Love For The First Time, blah, blah, blah. Actually, that last one was a pretty good story, but I suppose we can’t use it.
Um, no, probably not, Marie chuckled. Ok, so it sounds like you probably have enough, but try to get one more really good one just to be sure and then come back to the office and write it up.
Just one! And stop whining. It’s unattractive, she cajoled. I have to go now and pick up some of these calls.
Any idea what’s going on?
None. Although if I had to guess, I’d bet you lunch tomorrow that it has something to do with this morning’s story about the murder at the service station on the East Side. Did you see the paper yet?
Yes, I have it tucked under my arm. Willie had grown up with the Observer and was a devoted reader even before they started paying him for his work. The police gave a decent description of the guy from the security video before he killed the clerk and ran away. Sounds like a scary dude.
You can say that again! Alright, well, I’ll see you soon. Marie hung up and pushed the first of several flashing buttons on her phone. Jordan Observer, Marie Wallace speaking…
Willie cradled the pay phone headset back in the receiver and heard his change drop into the phone’s belly. Another 25 cents wasted… He spun back toward the mall. The corridors seemed unusually full for a summer weekday afternoon. Was there a hot movie out that he had missed? Or just the lure of indoor air-conditioning on an especially-warm late summer day? A predictable assortment of teens skulked through the common areas and food court. Their backs curved as if their spines couldn’t support the extra weight of their heads, most sporting hooded sweatshirts despite the sweltering August heat. Idiots! This is why the world is going to hell in a handbasket Willie sniffed, forgetting – or ignoring – that he was only a year or two older than most of them. Gaggles of senior citizens did the orthopedic shuffle from store to store, killing time before the retirement home excursion bus picked them up. Many beelined to the chain buffet restaurant to use their elderly resident discount, get home and go to bed before 4 p.m. Willie had eaten there, too. The food wasn’t bad, and he agreed, the price was right. Still, the Depression-Era crowd irritated him. Squeezing every penny until it bled. Arguing over the “way things used to be”. Criticizing anything resembling change. He hadn’t been a professional reporter for very long, but Willie knew enough to know that he wasn’t going to get much insight or flair from either the skateboard crowd or the geriatrics. He kept scanning the mall mob for a potential fifth “Man on The Street.” Or a woman. Or a kid. Could be anyone, really. Just one, and then I can go…Minutes passed. Felt like hours. Then…there! Not too old, not too young. White male, mid-forties. Probably capable of stringing together a decent sentence or two, he considered. Always practicing his reporter skills, Willie further catalogued the man’s features as he ambled easily past the giant (fake) Sequoia that anchored the mall’s common area and headed toward him. Dark, short hair, stocky build, average height, and jeans and white tank top shirt. Finally, the man was close enough to talk to. Sir, I’m a reporter with the Jordan Observer and just wanted to ask you a quick question for tomorrow’s “Man on The Street” feature. Do you read the paper?
The man scanned Willie from shoes to face, like one of those hospital machines looking for tumors, then locked onto Willie’s eyes. Sure, I guess so, he replied casually, when there’s something in it worth reading. His lips crooked, more than a smirk but not quite a smile.
An odd twinge pinched Willie’s neck. Well, this won’t take but a minute. I’m going to ask you a short question, record your answer – Willie showed his tape recorder – and take your picture. If my editor likes your answer, we’ll run it in tomorrow’s paper. He remembered the tag line Marie told him to use with everyone he interviewed. Remember to buy the paper tomorrow so you can see yourself!
Oh, that shouldn’t be a problem, the man said.
Willie couldn’t stop staring. The man looked familiar, but how? Willie had lived in Jordan his whole life. Knew a lot of people. He didn’t know know this guy, but still…
What’s the question? I’m kind of short on time.
What? Oh. Right…The question is, what was your favorite summer vacation, and why? Wait, I’m sorry. Willie fumbled with his tape recorder before hitting the record button. First, what is your name?
My name? Bill. Bill Kelly.
Bill Kelly…Bill Kelly…common enough, easy to remember, but it doesn’t ring any bells. Thanks. Now, Mr. Kelly…
Willie stopped again. He couldn’t slip the eerie feeling that he somehow knew this stranger. I’m sorry, my brain is all over place today. Must be the heat!
Kelly offered a polite laugh, but pushed on. Like I said, I’m in a bit of a hurry.
Yes, sir. So, anyway, the question is, what was your favorite summer vacation and why?
Kelly paused only the scantest fraction of a second. As if the experience he recalled was so fresh that it barely qualified as a memory. Oh, that’s simple. It’s this summer. The summer of 1992. Yesterday, as a matter of fact.
Wow! Really? That’s amazing. And too easy, Willie thought, noticing that pinch again in his neck… Everyone else I’ve talked to has gone back to their childhood. Why is this summer so special?
Because I killed someone for the first time.
Years later, after his newspaper career had died – or, perhaps more accurately, after the newspaper business had died under him like a lover who’d had a heart attack – Willie would pin this moment as the start of his life as a real journalist. The second when his eyes that, thirty minutes ago, rolled at the prospect of even one more insipid interview, slammed open in recognition. Heretofore unseen, dots as bright as a galaxy of burning suns now appeared. Dots daring to be connected. White male. Mid-forties. Stocky. Brown hair. Jeans. White tank top…up close, he also made out pinkish spots. Is that…blood?! The police description of the murderer from this morning’s paper!
Suddenly fired with the adrenalized cocktail of terror, ego and opportunity, Willie cautiously retreated one step. What did you say?
Calmly, Kelly repeated himself as if he’d shared nothing more than the temperature. I killed someone for the first time. And I liked it! No feeling quite like taking another person’s life, absorbing all that energy.
But…why…what…Everything he learned in three years of college journalism classes, the last few weeks of on-the-job training, all the coaching and support under Marie’s wing all clogged his brain. Stuck behind a tongue thick with confusion, unable (probably for the first time ever!) to form words. Never taking his eyes off Kelly, Willie finally spewed the most obvious question burbling in his mind: Then why are you walking around the mall?
Why not? Kelly said. His tone so smooth that not even the world’s best detective would suspect they were discussing anything more important than the score of the Cubs game. I like the mall. Lots of interesting people to look at, stores to visit, the air conditioning – boy, it’s hot out there, you know? Plus, haven’t you heard the phrase, “Hiding in plain sight?” Now he laughed, eyes dancing with the thrill of outsmarting everyone. And no one can stop me. Not you or the cops. Now put that in your stupid newspaper!
Kelly turned and ran toward the food court, crashing through the wall of meandering mall patrons. He disappeared down a corridor by the washrooms before Willie found his voice.
Hey! Hey! Stop that man! Willie screamed. Call security! Call the police! No one seemed to hear him, or make any effort to stop Kelly. Willie took three stumbling steps in Kelly’s direction. Stopped. Turned back. Pivoted again, unsure what to do. Who to call first. The police? The newspaper? He returned to the payphone, picked up the headset and dropped a quarter into the slot.
Joliet Observer, Marie Wallace answered in her usual smooth, professional voice. How can I help you?
Marie, it’s me, Willie.
Hey, are you on your way back? People are calling with tips and sightings of the suspect from the murder yesterday. I really need your help here. Did you get one more “Man On The Street?”
Willie paused. Slowed his breathing to offset his pounding heart. Confidence and excitement burned in his chest as words obediently lined up and formed sentences, and the sentences gathered into a story – his story — on the front page of his brain. At last he spoke.
Yes, Marie. Yes, I did…