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Home > Publications > Quill > Showing off gets you nowhere with readers


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Thursday, September 27, 2007
Showing off gets you nowhere with readers

Tom Hallman Jr.

My problem began because of a story I happened to read in “Sports Illustrated.”

The author was Gary Smith, one of the best writers in the business, and he was at the top of his game in a piece called “Damned Yankee.” Not only was I captivated by the story, years later I can remember almost every detail.

I was in awe of Smith’s obvious talent and the innovative way he narrated and structured the story. He tried something different, an approach to a story that I wouldn’t have expected.

From the first paragraph, I knew I was in the hands of a master story teller. This is how he opened the story:

“Everything you will read on the next 11 pages revolves around one photograph. The rest of the old man’s past, you must understand, is all but gone. The framed baseball pictures were smashed by his hammer. The scrapbook thick with newspaper clippings was fed to the furnace in the basement of the Sears, Roebuck in Paramus, New Jersey. The trophies, with their figurines of ballplayers and eagles and angel-like women, were placed on a portable table in the middle of a ball field and annihilated one a day, by the old man’s rifle arm. Have you ever heard the popping sound an angel makes when it’s struck by a fastball?”

Who wouldn’t want to keep reading?

At that moment, I wanted to tell what I started to call a “Gary Smith story.” And that was the problem. Instead of focusing on the story, I was captivated by the writing style.

It’s a problem many writers have. When we see a ham on the stage or screen, we call it over-acting. On the page, it’s called over-written, a piece of writing that tries to draw attention to itself solely because of the writing.

If a reader plunges into your piece and stumbles over your ego, there’s a good chance that the ego, and drive to impress, will get in the way of the story.

These are the pieces that read long. The clever phrasing and voice seem out of place. The piece meanders because the writer wasn’t looking where he was going.

How do I know this? I’ve made all those mistakes. And more. That’s what happened to me when I set out to write a story about a woman whose son was in a horrific traffic accident.

Instead of letting the story determine how I should tell it, I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to be Gary Smith. Out came every writing tool in the box.

Here’s a sample paragraph from the opening.

Pull back for a moment, way back until what’s framed is the image of a mother alone standing in her living room, a phone in her hand, after receiving The Call. If you look carefully, you’ll see her legs tremble. Suddenly, her lips are dry. That bead of sweat forms on her forehead.

Folks, that’s pretentious.

What I remembered was Smith’s story and his strong narrator’s voice. And I wanted to try to pull that off. It failed because — unlike Smith — my style and the story were not intertwined.

Ego is a necessary part of the story process. It fuels the writer as he searches for the story’s deeper meaning, and it guides the reporting and structuring. But it can get in the way of the actual writing.

I’ve discovered over the years that my best writing is when I strip away that ego. The writing is simple, direct and descriptive. That doesn’t mean the story lacks a strong narrator’s voice. The voice is there, but confident and sure of itself.

I was reminded of this when I re-read a book by Morley Callaghan in which he describes his early career as a writer. Callaghan writes that he’s disappointed in what he calls “show-off writers. Writers intent on proving to their readers that they could be clever and had some education.”

Callaghan believed that when writers used language indiscriminately, they actually created a distance between the reader and the character or object they were writing about.

“The words should be as transparent as glass,” Callaghan wrote. “And every time a writer used a brilliant phrase to prove himself witty or clever, he merely took the mind of the reader away from the object and directed it to himself; he became simply a performer.”

As writers, we need to “get it down so directly that it wouldn’t feel or look like literature,” as Callaghan instructs us.

The power comes from the simplicity.

“A ‘literary guy,’” Callaghan writes, “would spoil it.”

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