The opening of Pierce’s July 20 Esquire column touches — briefly and barely — on Neil Armstrong’s historic footsteps. He relegates it to a prepositional phrase in the second half of the first sentence of his column, letting it trail a blunt-force reminder of the Vietnam War. He then returns to a long list of less-than-heroic events that were rocking the U.S. that year: slain soldiers overseas, race riots at home, the death of Mary Jo Kopechne. Spiro Agnew makes an appearance, as does Charles Manson.
It’s a smelling salt of a lede. It contrasts the soaring history of Apollo 11 with the chaos a quarter-million miles back home — and launches a column that’s both poignant and unsparing.
I was intrigued by the boldness, so reached out to Pierce. In an email exchange, he told me the moon-landing column was written quickly, in no more than 25 minutes. That’s not an unusual pace for the prolific columnist, who often publishes several posts a day.
“Blogging is a merciless muse,” he said.
But that muse let Pierce know exactly what he wanted to convey in his take on a subject that was going to be tackled by hundreds, if not thousands, of other journalists.
“The only point I wanted to make strongly was that not much was changed in the human experience by the moon landing,” he told me. “The war went on. Riots went on in the cities. The country really fell apart for a while between 1968 and 1975.
“But there was this great … thing. It existed outside of the history of its time, and I think it still does. It certainly doesn’t redeem the terrible things that were happening here. But it’s something to turn to, a kind of historical transcendence.”
Any writer who’s sat through a beige council meeting knows that not every assignment is a moon landing. But it pays to remember how valuable it can be to place stories in the history that surrounds them.
Here’s part of how Pierce did that in the column:
The point is that history went on, blind, blundering, bloody, and stumbling, the way it always does. Apollo 11 did not stop history. In fact, looking back now over 50 years, it almost seems like an event outside of history. All of the moonflights do now.
Later, Pierce tells an anecdote of a young boy — himself — seeking a Neil Armstrong autograph to pair with an already-acquired autograph from Sir Edmund Hillary, who, in 1953, was the first man to summit Mount Everest. That passage in Pierce’s column ends with this:
I do not collect autographs and, as far as I know, Hillary’s was the only one I ever had, and it certainly was the only one I kept, and I kept it for one reason and one reason only — I wanted to get Neil Armstrong’s autograph on the card next to Hillary’s. Then I would frame it and hang it on my wall forever. I never did it. Armstrong was a hard find and he died in 2012. I don’t know where the index card is any more.
Some first-person passages are simply indulgent. This one works because it’s suited to the ideas driving the column. There is melancholy in Pierce’s observation that the moonflights stand apart from the rest of our petty, violent human history; the qualities they represented seem to have disappeared like his index card.
“I’ve waited for years to find the right setting for that anecdote,” Pierce said. “It’s a better anecdote with the card missing. But dammit, I wish I’d gotten Armstrong.”
Elsewhere in the piece, there are more lessons for writers:
Embrace humor and wordplay. Pierce’s column covers a serious subject, but finds room to play. In an aside, he invites readers to win a free beer with the knowledge of the third and fourth astronauts to walk on the moon. (Charles Conrad and Alan Bean, if you’re especially thirsty.) He also has fun with language, sprinkling alliteration in early with three ‘b’s’ back-to-back-to-back. And in one section, he employs similar-sounding phrases (“they’re there” and “there there”) within a few sentences.
That last one, Pierce said, was a “happy accident.”
“I didn’t even notice it until I read the piece on line,” he said. “I love those moments. They’re magical. They’re proof of what I believe — that stories are out there in the ether, waiting for someone to tell them. Then they live their own life through the writer. That’s as mystical as I’m likely to get.”
Repeat key phrases. “OK, I’m gonna step off the LEM now.”
It’s not the most famous of phrases Armstrong uttered during the moon landing — you may have heard one about a small step — but it’s the quote that has stuck with Pierce over the years. The columnist makes sure it’ll likely stick with readers, too; he repeats it no fewer than four times toward the end of the column, marveling at the presence of such unadorned words in such an awe-inspiring context.
It’s not the only repetition in the column. Pierce also repeats “Yeah, we should go there” to convey the urge to reach the moon.
He said: “I write with echoes — refrains, actually — a lot. Maybe it’s how the musical muse came down to me from my mom, who used to play piano in saloons. I try not to overdo it. It’s one of those things I keep an eye on. Sometimes, it really doesn’t work.”
Answer questions. In his book “Writing Tools,” author Roy Peter Clark reminds writers to build their work along a key question. (It’s Tool No. 31). He encourages them to be mindful of questions that may spur readers to scroll down the page or follow the jump. He writes, “Good questions make good stories.”
The headline of Pierce’s column is a statement that actually plants a question in the reader’s mind:
Neil Armstrong’s Words—No, Not Those Words—Have Stuck With Me All These Years.
Which words? The column is coy, making readers wait until about the halfway point to find out.
Vary sentence length and use strong verbs. The opening of Pierce’s column seems daunting. There’s a slideshow of historical events; a first paragraph bristling with proper nouns; and, as if that wasn’t enough, a reference to Austerlitz. (The last one sent me on an embarrassed Google search.)
So why is it so entertaining to read?
Rhythm and active verbs.
The first sentence has 37 words; Pierce follows the long windup with a string of shorter, more emphatic sentences. And check out the verbs: slaughtered, died, exploded, blew up.
Sure, they’re governed by the topic. But strong verbs electrify sentences… and prod readers on.