Our second Roundtable of September examines “The Good Short Life,” by Dudley Clendinen. Diagnosed with ALS, Clendinen reflects on the past suffering of those closest to him and decides that he would prefer to approach death on his own terms, ending his life at a moment of his choosing. His essay ran July 9 in the New York Times.
Senior editor for books and special projects, Star Tribune
Using juxtaposition to manage tone:
Dudley Clendinen’s essay is about his impending death. Yet the piece is neither depressing nor horrific to read. It is a delight. One of Clendinen’s secrets is the graceful way in which he delivers his message. He is gentle in tone, and he is a master at juxtaposition – pairing something dire with something surprising to temper the grimness and break the tension. Sometimes, even in the midst of such grimness, he makes us laugh.
The lede is a good example.
“We need to go buy you a pistol, don’t we?” he asked quietly. He meant to shoot myself with.
“Yes, Sweet Thing,” I said, with a smile. “We do.”
I loved him for that.
The smile, the “sweet thing,” the love – all are unexpected. They tell us that he’s going to have a very different take on all of this than we expect. And it offers us a little breath of relief.
Or look at this paragraph, in which he does it twice:
At the moment, for 66, I look pretty good. I’ve lost 20 pounds. My face is thinner. I even get some “Hey, there, Big Boy,” looks, which I like. I think of it as my cosmetic phase. But it’s hard to smile, and chew. I’m short of breath. I choke a lot. I sound like a wheezy, lisping drunk. For a recovering alcoholic, it’s really annoying.
He shows you the ravages of his disease – he’s wasting away, losing weight, can barely eat, can barely breathe. And yet two short sentences – “I think of it as my cosmetic phase” and “For a recovering alcoholic, it’s really annoying” – are funny and filled with character. They make it impossible for you to feel sorry for him, though you do feel great empathy.
In the body of the piece, he stays serious. He recounts the early days of his illness – how he coped, or how he watched relatives linger far beyond their time. It’s tough reading, but he has already charmed us, and so we keep going. And then he gives us another little gift, two surprising sentences placed right up against terribly bleak ones. After listing the many ways he could commit suicide (which makes it clear that he has thought this through), he writes of helium that it “would give me a really funny voice at the end.”
And, in the next graf, he assures us: He no longer has to be careful about what he eats or having enough money. And as we realize the enormity of what he is saying, he reassures us: “I am having a wonderful time.”
Narrative writing instructor, Nieman Foundation
On short sentences:
I first suggested to Andrea that I write about Clendinen’s simple sentences, but as I looked again and again at the material I realized what I meant was short sentences. The power of this piece rests upon the poetry of Clendinen’s sentence-level brevity.
The result easily could have felt choppy or self-indulgent. Some writers prune their sentences in an effort to mimic Hemingway (“For sale: baby shoes, never used.”), with the sole result of showing all the puppet strings. The stripped-down approach often grates – we see the underdeveloped writer, focused more on Self than Story, sweating all over the page in an attempt to impress and manipulate. Which is why it’s so remarkable that every one of Clendinen’s sentences is full of the personal yet devoid of writerly ego. The collective rhythm and unpretentious sentence structures suggest he sees no point in adornment, no time for fat. The subject matter and line-by-line delivery remind me of Beckett (“The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.”).
In his book on sentence craft, “How to Write A Sentence,” Stanley Fish asks writers (and readers) to first consider form. “The form is more important than the content, and if you master the form and understand what it’s doing and what can be done with it, then you can produce content endlessly,” he recently said on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation.”
Clendinen’s piece beautifully represents that idea. If you data-crunch this story in terms of sentence structure you find, by my rough count, that 116 of the 124 sentences contain fewer than 20 words. The four-word sentence appears most frequently (18 times), followed by the seven-word sentence (13), the five- or 12-word sentence (nine each), and the eight-word sentence (eight). The longest sentence contains 51 words; the shortest, one (“Why?”).
All 28 of his paragraphs obey the Writing 101 rule to vary one’s sentence lengths whenever possible. In paragraph one: 4 words in the first sentence followed by 9, 8, 10, 4, 12, 21, 7. In paragraph 17: 12, 6, 36. Paragraph 12: 9, 28 (“I began to slur and mumble in May 2010. When the neurologist gave me the diagnosis that November, he shook my hand with a cracked smile and released me to the chill, empty gray parking lot below.”).
Overall, the predominance of short sentences serves the story because:
The good short sentence is a coiled rattlesnake. It does not mess around.
The pacing reflects the subject matter. Together the sentences behave almost like a fusillade, imparting urgency.
The reader doesn’t get lost. Committing to a long sentence can be like entering a maze – we run the risk of forgetting where we are. Unless you’re the next Dickens or Faulkner, step away, por favor, from the steroidal word count.
I wondered whether Clendinen speaks the way he writes, so I listened to some of the wonderful interviews he mentioned, from the “Maryland Morning” program on Baltimore’s main NPR station. Listen to this: “The first thing I notice every morning is the voice,” Clendinen said on March 7, referring to his illness’ effect on his enunciation. “Some mornings it’s better. Some mornings it’s sloppier and slurpier, and I think this morning it’s a little sloppy.” [And that changes day to day?] “It does. Two hours from now it may be better. Tomorrow it may be better. Having a progressive total disease is a little bit like playing chess with a computer: You know the computer’s always thinking, it’s always advancing, it’s gonna make some move – it may be a little one, it may tease you and be good to you one day and then trick you the next, but it’s always moving.”
Clarity and power begin in the mind. Even when Clendinen speaks, one never feels him straining to write (and certainly not to pose) but rather to reveal. The man is dying of ALS and he wants us to know what that’s like. His shrine to this impulse is a simple one but, like a good pine coffin, strong.
Sunday and enterprise editor, The Dallas Morning News
On attention to universal theme:
In his essay, Dudley Clendinen goes beyond the traditional nut graf, hitting upon a universal theme.
Facing death can be a freeing experience.
I think it’s important to say that. We obsess in this country about how to eat and dress and drink, about finding a job and a mate. About having sex and children. About how to live. But we don’t talk about how to die. We act as if facing death weren’t one of life’s greatest, most absorbing thrills and challenges. Believe me, it is. This is not dull. But we have to be able to see doctors and machines, medical and insurance systems, family and friends and religions as informative – not governing – in order to be free.
And that’s the point. This is not about one particular disease or even about Death. It’s about Life, when you know there’s not much left. That is the weird blessing of Lou. There is no escape, and nothing much to do. It’s liberating.
While a traditional nut graf tells the reader what the news in the story is, the universal theme graf (or grafs) tells the reader the broader meaning of the story – or at least hints at it. The graf gives the reader what I call a glimpse of wisdom.
You’re not necessarily going to need a universal theme graf for a straightforward news story; the report’s main purpose is to convey information. But a universal theme graf can strengthen the setup of a narrative, essay or feature story – it signals that your piece is going to be about a larger idea, one that will hopefully resonate with readers.
Chip Scanlan, a longtime mentor of mine, provided a road map for crafting a theme graf in his classic 2003 Poynter column, “Selling the Power of Focus.”
Inspired by journalist David Von Drehle, Chip described a set of five questions that can help writers determine the focus – and theme – of their stories: Why does the story matter? What’s the point? Why is the story being told? What does the story say about life, the world and the times we live in? What’s the story really about – in one word?
Chip argued that readers, overwhelmed by information, are hungry for meaning.
He quoted Jack Fuller, the former Chicago Tribune editor and publisher who wrote in News Values: “People come to a newspaper craving a unifying human presence – the narrator in a piece of fiction, the guide who knows the way, or the colleague whose view one values. Readers don’t just want random snatches of information flying at them from out of the ether. They want information that hangs together, makes sense, has some degree of order to it. They want knowledge rather than facts, perhaps even a little wisdom.”
Managing editor, The Virginian-Pilot
On the power of the personal essay:
Many reporters would rather eat nails than write about themselves. It’s ironic, really, because we’re happy to intrude on other people’s lives and ask personal questions and hope for dramatic insight. But exposing yourself – figuratively – can be terrifying.
In this case, Dudley Clendinen is up against something even more frightening – ALS – so maybe it’s not so hard to open up. I’d argue that more writers should give it a try. Readers need to be reminded that we are, despite what they may think, human.
Of course, a gifted storyteller can relate any experience better than most. But consider the biggest advantage of the personal essay – you’ve already done a lot of the reporting. After all, it’s your life, your experiences, your take.
In this case, Clendinen got to choose from everything – his past, what he’s facing now, what he’s been thinking about, what people have done for him, what he’s done for others, conversations he’s had, how he looks, what he’s learned about the disease, what choices he’s made, what regrets he has, what he’s happy about. You’d be lucky to have that much material on any story.
Then you have to have the courage to share. Remember, we ask people to do this all the time. To lay bare their worst moments. We try to pull out of them what it’s like to learn that you’re going to die. How do you make peace with that? What are you scared of?
Do we get honest and/or complete answers? I suspect that it rarely happens, because most folks will only go so far with total strangers.
But Clendinen took us right up to the crossroad we’re all going to reach someday. He wrote with personality and humor, so it wasn’t a downer, despite the topic. And writing about himself allowed Clendinen to make a convincing argument for why we should think more about death than we do. Because it was his story, the message also carried more weight: “Lingering would be a colossal waste of love and money.”
For more on Dudley Clendinen, read the Storyboard Q-and-A with him. For full bios of the Roundtable editors, see our introductory post.
Is there a story you’d like the Roundtable to tackle? If so, you can send a link to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.