Cicely Tyson

Cicely Tyson

I love that feeling when a passage promises you that a story is worth sticking with. I had this experience recently when reading Wesley Morris’ profile of the late Cicely Tyson, who died last month at the age of 96.

In the piece, Morris explains that Tyson was an actress who shattered stereotypes about what it means to be a Black woman in Hollywood. He doesn’t just tell us how Tyson did this; he shows us through the use of powerful metaphors, good writing, and sensory details that paint a picture of Tyson’s strength:

Tyson had a remarkable physical presence, someone sculpted as much as born. Her body was dancer lithe. She seemed delicate. But only ‘seemed.’ She was delicate the way a ribbon of steel holds up its part of a bridge. The deceptive nature of her fineness was right there in the name. Cicely Tyson. Poise and punch.

Morris unpacks what seemed to be true of Tyson’s character by showing us how it was not. He does this by pairing disparate elements that one wouldn’t expect: Delicacy and strength. Poise and punch. He repeats “poise and punch” later on when he describes Tyson’s role in the film “Sounder.” Morris’ use of purposeful juxtaposition and repetition help to strengthen the message he’s trying to convey.

The passage about Tyson’s delicacy and strength is what writing coach Roy Peter Clark would call a “gold coin”: a startling fact, a compelling quote or bit of dialogue, an especially well-written passage that propels the reader forward in a piece. It does double duty as what Clark calls a “rub:” the juxtaposition of two apt but unlikely words or ideas.

This particular gold coin appears in the early middle of Morris’s piece, enticing readers to keep going at the point in a story where it can be hardest to hold readers’ attention. Instead of saving all of the best parts of the story for the beginning and end, Morris peppers them throughout.

Read the full story about Tyson and you’ll find plenty of gold coins. They make Morris’ writing richer, and they result in a story that’s worth remembering.

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Mallary Tenore is a lecturer at The University of Texas at Austin’s School of Journalism and  associate director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at UT. 

 

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