February. No football, no baseball, my school’s basketball team is almost exactly average, my professional basketball team is led by a flat-earther with the heart of an amoeba, there’s not a must see movie on the horizon, the hockey season doesn’t really start until the Stanley Cup playoffs, and I’m heartily sick of running in shorts one glorious Thursday and cowering indoors the next when it’s zero in the sun.
So, February, when thoughts turn toward writing.
If you missed it – or never heard of it for that matter – I highly recommend HBO’s Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists. Even if you didn’t read Breslin’s Can’t Anyone Here Play This Game in junior high, or flip open Pete Hamill’s column on the train on the way to Con Law, it’ll hit home. If for nothing else than a history lesson on the origin of ‘fake news.’ (Hint: it wasn’t the guy planning a big July 4th). Anyway, it’s pretty much a primer on how to write – under pressure, while trying to find a hook because everyone else is writing about the exact same thing at the exact same time.
This is the place where you say, “Huh, not unlike every family law firm in my state writing about [your state’s statute number for custody goes here].
Jimmy Breslin was one of the hundreds and hundreds of reporters assigned to cover JFK’s funeral in 1963. How do you find something different to write about a funeral that everyone else is attending? Breslin left D.C. and trekked over to Arlington National Cemetery to interview the African-American man digging JFK’s grave. The result was, of course, one of the great pieces of American journalism.
About halfway through there’s also a great piece of writing advice. Tom Wolfe described how he joined the New York World Herald Tribune in the early and was given free rein to ‘write like Jimmy.’ A bit confused, and a lot intimidated, he went to his editor one day and asked, “Okay, so how long should my column be?”
The answer, “Well, of course, you write until it’s boring.”
It was finally said. I had been waiting and waiting and finally, eight and a half hours into The People v. OJ Simpson, someone said it. The thing I had been saying for the previous eight weeks, the – to me – one, clear, overriding, theme of the trial.
Something I had gleefully relayed to my clients, over and over again – um, this might be a good time to apologize, so, ah, sorry – was finally said aloud by Chris Darden (a great Sterling K. Brown): “People like stories. It helps them make sense of things.”
It was obvious to me from pretty early on that this trial – one I saw live, day in and day out while I was studying for the Bar exam, but didn’t see this then – was about story telling.
The prosecution had overwhelming evidence – and proceeded accordingly. The defense told stories. The prosecution talked blood trails, and gloves, and science, and more science, and matter-of-factually laid out a building block, evidentiary case. The defense presented a protagonist, several antagonists, colorful side characters, humor, pathos, theories, and fleshed it out with scenes complete with dialogue.
Marcia and Chris presented the jury with a law school casebook, a scientific journal, and a criminal procedure manual. Johnny, Barry, Bob, and the rest of the defense showed them LA Law.
It was never a contest, as Darden finally realized – at a time when the People’s best bet was a mistrial and a ‘do over.’
The storytellers won out – in the criminal trial. The civil trial, which began less than a year later, was handled by a torts attorney, a man used to telling stories. He told a better one that time around.
It really is all about the stories.
I was just asked how I “come up with stuff” for my clients. That’s a really hard question … because I just do. That answer is flip and foggy and dismissive but true. For the most part. It’s like when I was in college and would spend hours shagging fly balls in the outfield and could absolutely, positively, not begin to explain how the ball ended up in my glove. It just did.
Reams have been written about fielding fly balls, I was clueless until I read an article by the great Oriole center fielder Paul Blair. Okay, that and replacing coke-bottle glasses with contact lenses that corrected my horrific near-sightedness to 20-10. Suddenly I could catch everything. But, when asked how, about all I could do was regurgitate Paul Blair without offering any personal perspective.
I can and do patiently, as minutely as required, explain a lot of different things to a lot of different people. So, lots of experience, still can’t teach anyone to catch a fly ball. Or shoot a basketball. Or the creative process.
This can be a problem considering I am paid by more than a few people to create stuff. I can refer them to web pages, and blogs, and Facebook pages, and op-eds in newspapers, and books and say ‘hey, see, that’s what I do.’ This is like saying, “oh, you want to learn how the catch a long fly in the left-center alley? Great, watch what I do and do it.”
That’s worthless. I mean, anyone asking that can just go to any baseball game from high school on up and watch the outfielders.
But, I just had an experience that I can document, because it happened in something akin to slow motion. And I was keenly aware of my inability to articulate how the ‘process’ works.
Here goes. I write for my friend Sarah, the owner of the fastest growing all women foreclosure defense firm in the country. As with all clients, I scan through my newsfeed every few minutes all day looking for cool articles … or TV shows … or movies, podcasts, etc.
This day the latest Wells Fargo ‘sorry, we’ve been screwing clients for years and just decided to do something about it before the Feds really nail us’ article popped up pretty much everywhere. This Wells Fargo indiscretion was all about foreclosures. And the little matter of making loan modifications on homeowners in bankruptcy without notifying the client or the court.
It jumped out. I forwarded the Washington Post piece to Sarah, was about to hit send when I got an email from her with an article from The NY Times attached. Nice, synchronicity.
She asked for a bullet point description. Done. She did a quick two paragraph write-up with a few neat, caustic remarks. My job, flesh it out and get a hook into it. Fairly easy. Except, the rule of thumb is to never post anything on social media without a picture. Every newspaper and magazine in the country ran the story with stock photos of Wells Fargo branches. Hardly gripping.
I was stuck. The piece was good, I had a written hook for the blog maybe Facebook, but no image whatsoever. Also a major problem on a blog post … nobody’s reading a 420 page blog post without images. It looks too daunting, probably because it is.
I did what I always do when I’m stuck writing, I sat on the couch with laptop on lap,
scanned through news feeds and watched the Red Sox. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. So, on to the backup, stuck-on-ideas mode – channel surfing. This night it went like this …. Rambo (part one, please) hiding in the abandoned mine … A-Team for just long enough to hate the ’80s … South Park, Kenny’s in a coma and his will is missing the last page … Archer … The Music Man for ‘Trouble right here in River City’ … Seinfeld, George does reverse George stuff … The Prestige, Davis Bowie as Tesla, sigh … Neighbors … Old School and Blue … Apollo 13 the dying tape recorder free-floating …. dozens more.
Still nothing by 10 am next morning, but I was able to write other things for other clients. Totally stuck in a way that doesn’t happen all that often. Maybe it was just the pure audacity of the Wells Fargo scheme that blinded me.
I went for a run.. I usually run on trails, either around reservoirs or along the Farmington River. Trails, trees, wildlife, music or an audio book. In deep woods, thinking over the post, images of the last 14 hours or so, I almost tripped over a large root and … it hit me …. Apollo 13 … directed by Ron Howard … Richie … Opie … the little boy in The Music Man …. who sang ‘Gary Indiana’ … and ‘The Wells Fargo Wagon.’
The rest – the hook – was easy, it’s in the song, “thinking Wells Fargo coming to town isn’t something to sing about anymore.