This year’s Pulitzer for fiction went to “The Overstory” a sweeping and surprising epic by Richard Powers; it is, at heart, an elegy to trees and a lament about our human struggle to live with nature. “There There,” the debut novel by Tommy Orange was named a finalist. The collection and collision of characters — all Native Americans with some link to Oakland, California — is as disturbing as it is compelling. It, too, makes us question the failures of human harmony.
Both books are undeniably fiction, the result of dazzling and creative imagination. But both are built on the bones of real events and deep, research. In other words, of journalism.
Long before award season, Storyboard had drawn a sentence from each of the books that inspired a mini-essay for “One Great Sentence.” The reflections are not reviews of the books, but explorations of what the two chosen sentences can teach us about narrative nonfiction. We offer them again here.
“There’s a story he’s waiting for, long before he comes across it.”
~ from “The Overstory,” by Richard Powers
In the original context of “The Overstory,” this sentence applies to a young man — a teenager, actually — who tumbles into the little-known language of coding and programming in the nascent days of computing. The boy is the awkward son of Indian immigrants who are desperate to find their place in America. He doesn’t seem to fit anywhere (a generation later, according to the story, he would have been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder or autism) until his father brings home the basic components of a primitive computer. From there, the boy’s entire world is one of discovery and creation as he wanders in a wonderland his contemporaries can’t imagine. (As you can imagine, not everything works out for the best.)
The specific sentence is in a rich paragraph about the boy’s continued love for “old-school reading.” When he finally comes across that “story he’s waiting for … it stays with him forever, although he’ll never be able to find it again, in any database.” That seems the ultimate testament to the reach and power of stories that, no matter when they are told and what they are about in the moment, are timeless and universal.But the sentence had another meaning for me — one that speaks as much to storytellers as to the stories they tell. Many young journalists I know grow impatient with their jobs a few years into their careers. They find themselves chasing pay with corporate freelance work or chasing quick posts in their newsrooms. They long for the big stories — those vague, elusive pieces that they are sure they are destined to write if only they had time, support, resources.
I was no different. But I was lucky enough to be surrounded by people who believed in me and kept me going even when I didn’t much want to. I also had bills to pay, which I’ve always found a strong motivator. So I hung in, filing all those dailies — non-news from the planning commission, frothy features from the weekend festival, obits and weather stories and labor strikes. And eventually I was doing the stories I had been waiting for, long before I even knew what they were. Or maybe they had been waiting for me…
The lesson, if there is one? Every story we do is practice for the next story and the next. Until we do those stories, we won’t be ready for our story when it finally comes along. Framed in keeping with the theme of “The Overstory,” the path ahead can be curved and dark and unknowable, but if you don’t keep walking, you’ll never get anywhere.
“From the dancing came the dancing.”
~ from “There There,” by Tommy Orange
Sentences can seem simple. Even the most tangled and complex are just a few words arranged between punctuation and white space. Ideally they make sense standing alone.
But sentences never really stand alone. They live in context, with meaning shaped by the writer’s or speaker’s intent, by the endless sentences that come before and those that will come after. Even a parent’s simple admonition to a toddler – “No.” – is fraught with fears and values and lessons. So, too, any utterance of “I love you.”The best literary sentences, of course, shine on their own, with added facets of brightness when read in the greater context. “From the dancing came the dancing” is one of those sentences.
On a rhythmic level, it echoes the Book of Genesis with all those begats. I find the Bible tough going unless I read it aloud, unless I set aside all the value projections I drag with me and just read it as writing. Then a sort of music sets in, as does the growing import of each sentence layered on all the sentences that came before. The same thing happens in the long, building passages from Tim O’Brien’s title chapter in “The Things They Carried.” As he lists and lists and lists the many things that grunts carried through the jungles of Vietnam, the layers and weight and exhaustion of their burdens get picked up by the reader.
Tommy Orange’s entire novel, “There There,” is a build, too, but not one that travels straight forward or up. Rather than one primary character, there are 12, each with entwined but singular stories. Their stories are revealed in a maze of different geographies, and past and present scenes. All are Native American, in full or part, and all live or have lived in the urban wilds of Oakland, California. All have their own reasons for heading to a big powwow in Oakland. The specific sentence about dancing belongs to a chapter about Orvil Red Feather, a lost young man who finds tribal regalia in the back of his grandmother’s closet, puts it on and dances in secret, learning the moves by watching “You Tube.” When he finally gets to the powwow, he feels a fraud, both in the competition and among his people – until he absorbs the rhythm of the big drum and understands how he got there: “From the dancing came the dancing.”
When I reached that sentence in “There There,” I had one of those wonderful yes! moments as a reader. It is lovely all on its own, as an arrangement of a few words between punctuation and white space. It is musical, especially when read aloud. It brought all the pages I had read before into a brighter, deeper relief. You won’t find a reference to it in most of the reviews, and Orange’s title is its own worthy exploration in the hidden meaning of “known” phrases. But for me it contained the book as a whole.
Then it went another immediate step: It held up a mirror to other facets of my life – ones Tommy Orange couldn’t have had in mind because the specifics of his book are nothing like the specifics of my life. And yet they are true reflections. That sentence speaks to me of the truth of where things come from. It speaks to all those begats, whether they are about physical strength or the strength of relationships or the strength of our story craft.How so story craft?
I urge reporters and editors to get a little wild when they brainstorm story ideas. Ideas beget more ideas. Bad ideas can lead to good ideas, crazy ones to creative ones. The key is to let the ideas run and grow and then birth new and better ideas.
Same when you’re hunting for the right word or analogy or metaphor. A reporter and I once spent three days pinging phrases back and forth until we hit on the right description for a little girl’s sweet but misshapen face.
I do a less effective version of begetting for my own writing. I thumb the dictionary, spin a carousel of possibilities in my head, type, delete, type, delete until I hit that yes! moment or run out of time. (The latter usually comes first, but that’s the biz.)
Readers intuit intent when they read the sentence we write. If they read carefully (never a guarantee) they know what came before, but not what is yet to come. At the same time, they bring themselves to our stories, whether consciously or not, just as people bring themselves to a piece of art. So when I read Orange’s simple sentence, I think of all the other aspects of life – good writing, mastery of skills, healthy habits, loving relationships, creative sparks – that are begat from versions of those same things that came before. From the running comes the strength. From the loving comes the love. From the dancing comes the dancing.
From the writing comes the writing.