August 20, 2007

Anecdotal Writing, Good Writing

One thing I'm quickly discovering is that anecdotes matter in writing. Symbols matter. In writing and in politics. There is a reason why centuries later we still read Beowulf, which if you think about it is just a fantasy cartoon. But the metaphors keep it alive, the images. You've gotta feed the reader's imagination. The more I think about it, writing is a lot like politickin'. Respect the reader, respect the voter.

My high school English teacher always said, "no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader." I think that's true, too.

The opener to The Rise of the Southern Republicans, by Earl and Merle Black, transforms the abstract into something real and memorable about Southern politics. The fact is that most of the time, you learn more about the South by going to a county fair--funnel cake and all--than by a year of classes and book work. But sometimes you get a flavor from just the writing. Notice the difference between the first and second paragraph. The second makes it real. I think it could be even more concrete if they got more details on what Thurmond looked like and how people reacted to him, but still the contrast is clear:

In 1964 Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, a tenacious champion of unreconstructed southern conservatism, abandoned the Democratic party to become the first Republican senator from the Deep South in the twentieth century. Three decades later, Thurmond was bound and determined to make history again, this time by serving longer than any other U.S. senator. To satisfy his remarkable personal ambition he needed to win an unprecedented eighth term. Ignoring some pleas and many hints that he should retire gracefully, in 1996 the aged Thurmond asked friendly crowds to support him "just one mo' time."

Late on election night, when his victory was at last assured, a dazed and plainly exhausted Thurmond was carefully shuffled to a podium for for the customary televised victory speech. Looking not a day older than ninety-three, Thurmond mumbled a few words to the people of South Carolina. The senator made no reference to issues, ideology, or political principles, nor did he venture any coherent interpretation of his achievement. He said absolutely nothing of substance. Instead he slowly read, page by page, prepared thank-you messages directed to the men who had masterminded his final campaign. It was a thoroughly perfunctory and lifeless performance. That necessary duty completed, Thurmond was then ushered away a few steps, whereupon a young television reporter stuck a microphone in his face, described the campaign as extremely 'hard-fought,' and inquired whether the senator might harbor any 'hard feelings' toward his Democratic opponent. Instantly Thurmond perked up. "No haard feelins' on mah paart," he shouted, "Ah won!"

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