The story I strive to write …

teevin13

As promised, here is my somewhat crude link to the best feature article I’ve ever read.

In the winter/spring of 1993, I was a University of Delaware junior looking for a summer internship. I sent my stuff to, oh, 150 places, and received very few personal replies. Mostly, it was either nothingness, or form letters.

Then, on March 16, 1993, a package came from Boston Magazine. Inside were a couple of issues, along with a three-page letter from Steve Buckley. He critiqued my clips, offered some suggestions (“I am 36 years old, have worked for six newspapers and one magazine, have written a book and a play, have won a batch o’ writing awards, am a college graduate, have all my teeth and am not now nor ever have been a Communist. My resume is one page.”). Best of all, Steve included a story he was particularly proud of—a lengthy enterprise piece on the name behind a nondescript traffic circle.

The article immediately blew me away—and still does. Perfectly written, perfectly constructed, the weaving of the present and past; the search and the tragedy. I can see people reading it, shrugging and saying, “What’s the big deal?” but—in my opinion—that’s almost the point. The whole thing flows so effortlessly … it remains my all-time favorite piece of journalism.

Anyhow, I hope you enjoy it. Or at least read it. I’d love to hear thoughts …

8 thoughts on “The story I strive to write …”

  1. I gotta disagree with you, Jeff. It took 14 grafs to really get to the supposed subject of the article, which left me wondering (a question I still couldn’t answer after reading the entire thing) whether this story was supposed to be about Teeven or about the writer or about monuments in general (as the headline suggests), which are put up and promptly forgotten in small towns all over this country. That last one is a GREAT story subject, but I don’t think if that was the writer’s intention, he truly pulled it off.

    I think he obviously did thorough research for the story, and he weaved the details in a way that made for an easy read. But I think sometimes journalists become so invested in a story, in the reporting end of it, that they can’t help themselves….they make themselves part of the tale. They feel the need to say “This is how this story came about …. this is why it’s important ….” Essentially his first three pages said, “Hey everyone, check this out! Look what I found!” which is needless, in my opinion.

    The first image the writer paints for the reader in this story is not the monument, or the young soldier, or the scene of his death. Instead, the reader’s first image is of the journalist, sitting at his desk looking at a photo, trying to write a story. I just find that self-indulgent and, well, a little on the weak side, writing-wise.

    Why not start that story by describing the monument itself, its silence and solitude juxtaposed with the noise and air pollution swirling around it? (No, really, I’m asking. Please tell me why you love this one as-is…)

  2. Wow, I disagree very strongly. I thought the way the writer began the story was inventive and captivating. Editors always say, “Don’t include yourself, because … blah, blah, blah.” But when it works, it works really well. There have been 8 million stories that begin with, “The statue sits there, alone in the sun …” or, “The people walk by, but they fail to notice …” or “He was a small man, Stanley Teevin, with brown wavy hair and …” Steve took a shot on trying something completely different, and I love it.

  3. Funny how subjective writing is. Isn’t that awesome?

    I think there is a time and a place when a writer can insert himself brilliantly into a story and it really works. I just don’t think this was that story. I don’t see how him noticing that statue once as a boy added anything of value, or at least enough to merit its inclusion. And the fact that he mentions his own life — home ownership, the death of his father, etc., ugh — for absolutely no reason really bugged me, too.

    To me, the lede reminded me of the hundreds of times when, sick of staring at a blank file with a looming deadline, I’ve typed something silly like “How am I going to write this?!” or “Damn I need a lede.” But I never once was actually lazy enough to make that my lede. Which is kinda what he did.

    (PS – Hope your skin isn’t thin enough to warrant me being banned from the blog or anything. I just started reading it and I really enjoy it.)

  4. He didn’t start with the monument itself because it isn’t going to hook the reader. He’s a journalist, not a novelist, so obviously he’s going to appeal to the audience’s sensibilities. What’s going to draw the reader in more?
    1. a description of a monument at a nondescript roundabout in town
    2. the musings of the author concerning a mysterious man who he has never met, yet shares an intimate connection with

    Again, the man is a journalist…writing an article. It’s only natural that the human-interest angle is what he’ll lead with. It’s the way he goes about it that truly remarkable.

  5. I gained more from the actual nuts-and-bolts composition of this story than the actual story itself.

    Not that the story of Stanley Teeven isn’t good or interesting. It is. But, as a writer, I find myself so mesmerized by good writing that the subject matter sometimes takes a back seat to how it’s being told. Such was the case here.

    For instance, I love how Steve constructs quotes — especially when he switches from one person to another.

    Lusk moved toward the bomb-bay doors. “Feldman yelled out, ‘No, don’t go. Not yet,'” said Mulvihill. Feldman: “Yeah, I tried to hold him back, but he went. Everything was happening so fast.”

    (Emphasis on the use of “Feldman: …”)

    I understand Robyn’s point. There are plenty of self-serving articles that miss the point. This, however, is not one of them. He does such a good job composing the story that his first-person perspective is hardly obnoxious.

  6. Robyn — it’s sort of amusing that you write a blog that appears to be entirely about yourself, yet you criticize a writer for inserting themself into the story?!

    The only thing that distinguishes this statue from the million other similar statues in this country is that this writer took an interest in it since he was a child, so I think it serves as a proxy for any statue anywhere that any one of us may have admired.

  7. I write a few graphs every day, but I’m not a journalist. Thus, I have no idea of whether or not the piece qualifies as great journalism.

    That said, I thought this was a story where the author needed to first explain to readers why we should be interested in the story behind the statue. He succeeded with me. Perhaps my familiarity with Cambridge had something to do with my curiosity, but I doubt it.

    Thanks for sharing the piece, Jeff.

  8. I always get a kick out of writers who say things like “it took 14 grafs to get to the actual point of the piece.” Yes, economy of words is crucial, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater (my apologies for the cliche). As Jeff said, and as all our journalism teachers should have noted, “if it works, it works.”

    The piece broke many basic rules, but was inventive as all hell. I suppose it’s all in the way you take it. For me it was all of the things that have been talked about here … that we are so damn busy living our lives, making our money, that we don’t take the time to notice these things around us and really care about the reason they exist and, oh by the way, some of those tales are pretty touching, too, even when they aren’t anything more than a standard tale of some poor sap who died way too young.

    But back to the “if it works, it works” angle and the purpose of the piece: It was around Memorial Day, yes? If the intent was to bring the observance home and encourage people to stop and perhaps spend an extra second to consider the meaning of the day, it was a success.

    I won’t call it brilliant, but it’s better than I’d write on most days. 🙂

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