Monthly Archives: November 2015

The Devil in the Details

One thing that teachers consistently tell student writers to do is to add details into their writing — details that paint a unique picture and effectively, sometimes even jarringly, communicate an author’s voice and perspective.

Students rise to meet this challenge in varying degrees. But detail is, in the end, the fuel that propels words from ideal to impact and, sometimes, action.

Take the work of Ta-Nahesi Coates, who earlier this fall was named a MacArthur genius and just last week the winner of the National Book Award for Between the World and Me, a memoir-manifesto in the guise of a letter to his son. I bought the book a few months ago but didn’t delve into it until after I heard him speak at Davidson College last week to a packed gymnasium of nearly 4,000 people.

At Davidson, Coates spoke about many things, including the “presumption of black criminality deeply written into the bones of this country.” Hearing him speak about the loss of his friend, Prince Jones, who was killed by a police officer for no reason other than the fact that he was a black male, and the man that police officer was looking for was also a black male, moved me to pick the book up and let Coates’ words wash over me again.

I don’t know that I’ve ever read anything so tragic as this, or as thoughtfully constructed through detail:

“Prince Jones was the superlative of all my fears. And if he, good Christian, scion of a striving class, patron saint of the twice as good, could be forever bound, who then could not? And the plunder was not just of Prince alone. Think of all the love poured into him. Think of the tuitions for Montessori and music lessons. Think of the gasoline expended, the treads worn carting him to football games, basketball tournaments, and Little League. Think of the time spent regulating sleepovers… Think of soccer balls, science kits, chemistry sets, racetracks and model trains. Think of all the embraces, all the private jokes, customs, greetings, names, dreams, all the shared knowledge and capacity of a black family injected into that vessel of flesh and bone. And think of how that vessel was taken, shattered on the concrete, and all its holy contents, all that had gone into him, sent flowing back to the earth.” (Between the World and Me, p. 82) 

In writing like this there is no shortage of lessons to be learned. First, the need to not only name but also fully describe injustice. Second, the importance of paying tribute to the dead by memorializing the uniqueness of their lives. And third, the lesson of creating impact through detail. Prince Jones, a young man with an infant who will never know him, was a fully realized person who loved science, played piano, and was the recipient of countless other people’s sacrifices.

It’s easy to understand why Coates felt he had to write this book — ostensibly to his son, and certainly in memory of his friend — but also for all of us.

Sufjan, Salman & Me

I’m not the first and won’t be the last to say this: it’s different, and usually better, seeing an artist on stage than watching that same person on screen. This week, I was up close and personal with two virtuoso performers, Sufjan Stevens and Salman Rushdie, on back-to-back nights.

Stevens took the stage shrouded in fog and bathed in orange light. Wearing all black, he and his band were nondescript, standing in front of a screen with projected images from his childhood. Pictures and old film of handsome people, babies, the beach, and birthday parties flickered behind the musicians as they played. His most recent album, Carrie & Lowell, is an homage to his mother and step-father, and his new songs provide intensely melancholy anecdotes and meanderings about childhood, family, grief, and loneliness. Moved by the haunting lyrics and unique sound, I sat motionless, watching and listening. When he sang how he “should have known better,” that “nothing can be changed,” and that he “should have wrote a letter,” I had to close my eyes.

The next night, Sir Salman Rushdie took to a very different, brightly-lit university stage wearing a blue blazer and khaki pants. He sat across from Mike Collins, host of a local NPR radio show, and cheerfully answered questions about his life as a writer and his view of the world today. Although he said that our world today is “demented,” he undercut his stated pessimism by referencing the brilliant, humane work of Shakespeare, Dickens, and even Jimmy Fallon. He said that “we are the storytelling animal” and that by telling stories, we create and define ourselves and the world. I loved his message as much as I have loved many of his books.

It was a special thrill to hear Rushdie’s accented voice and to see him — well, so alive. After years of hiding from assassins, he sat calmly with an amused expression on his face and spoke directly to a transfixed audience just as Stevens had sung his heart out to the crowd the night before. Being near these two artists reminded me of the power of moments of intersection with greatness, in person, without anything mediating or filtering that experience.