One of the first things I do every day is to read the obituaries in the newspaper, not out of morbid curiosity, but because as a reporter I have to know who is still here and who is gone.
A recent obit in the New York Times told the story of Nelson Bryant, who for many years wrote the Outdoors column for the Times. The obit noted his reputation for insights and musings that could enchant people who did not care a whit about hunting or fishing.
A writer’s challenge is to engage, delight and hold onto readers. That’s where style comes in. Bryant’s style was lyrical.
Here’s a passage from the first column he wrote for the Times, in 1967, about a fisherman’s choice — rainbow trout or pickerel: “The thought of fly casting for a fish that bears a superficial resemblance to a snake may be more than some purists can stomach. Trout are beautiful and wise, pickerel are neither. However, a man cannot always chase rainbows.”
Bryant was subtly referring to the song “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows.”
Jazz musicians use a similar device to amuse listeners: departing from the tune they are playing to insert a fleeting musical quotation from a different tune.
To appreciate the moment, you have to know what the writer, or the musician, is referring to. In other words, how are they framing the experience for you? Did “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” resonate with you? For most people reading Bryant’s 1967 column, it probably did.
Yet obscure references — say, citations from movies that today’s younger generation has never heard of — leave readers in the dark, and discouraged from reading further.
Reading about Bryant’s career made me think about John McPhee, widely recognized as one of the finest writers of nonfiction. Still writing at 88, and teaching at Princeton University, McPhee has written 33 books, on subjects as varied as the Alaskan wilderness, coal trains, a basketball player’s passion for the game, nuclear power, farmers markets, geology, oranges and the merchant marine.
None of those subjects may interest you, but McPhee’s curiosity and lyrical style can keep you spellbound.
In 2017, he published a book on the writing process called “Draft No. 4,” dealing with such matters as frame of reference, structure, editing and the writing of successive drafts.
He explained that he organizes the writing of his articles and books by making notes of material he expects to use in his final manuscript, then writing shorthand versions of those notes on index cards and spreading them out on his office floor. That allows him to look them over, move them around, find connections and make selections for a final draft.
I was delighted to read that explanation, because it’s the same technique I learned from a talented documentary producer named Deanna Kamiel, one of my colleagues at TPT. And I’ve used it ever since.
Gary Gilson, a Twin Cities writing coach and five-time Emmy Award winner in public television, has taught writing-intensive journalism courses at Colorado College for 22 years. Contact him at www.writebetterwithgary.com.