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Jotham Burrello’s “Speed of Life” triggered a similar playground recollection: a race between Kurt West, the reigning champ who lived at the end of our street, and the new kid. Two teachers waited in right field, fifty yards down the first base line. Kick started from home plate with a shouted “Go,” they finished close enough to call it a draw. I called it an upset. Although I didn’t recognize it then, by sixth grade King Kurt’s best days were behind him. Burrello’s narrative is simpler: Run 40 yards and count the seconds. Yet even straightforward stories require some craft.

Ira Glass talked about his approach to radio stories at this summer’s Mayborn Writer’s Conference in Dallas, Texas. Glass, of NPR’s “All Things Considered” said, “A story is really about motion. This thing leads to this thing which leads to this thing. And when you start any sequence of actions into motion, simply by the accretion of these facts you can tell it has a destination.” But a good tale needs more than motion; it also needs an idea, a wider connection.

Glass then extended the sequence: this happened, this happened, this happened, and then you need a thought. The story teller stops periodically, steps out and comments on the action. Space and time expand. He told us he discovered this through trial and error while editing tapes. Only later did he realize that rabbis use the same template. In the end, like the finish to a race, the plot and thoughts should lead to an idea that surprises us. Finding the right combination is game of chance.

Glass told us that he spends about half his time looking for new material. For a weekly show, they might start out with fifteen concepts, produce seven and air only three. “Sometimes you get lucky,” he said, and by asking enough questions, the interviewee might cough up the idea. But just as often, you’re left with only an interesting anecdote. Anyone writing nonfiction knows to keep trying until either the unexpected happens or you toss the essay aside.

If Burrello tried many things, he also left much in. In this essay about time, Burrello pulls in maximum heart rates, the Slow Food Movement and Thorton Wilder’s Our Town. He may only cover about forty yards in front of his house, but imaginatively he ranges widely. I liked that.

Another essayist who explored the world of ideas broadly was Susan Sontag. A recently released book, Notes On Sontag, by Phillip Lopate reviewed her literary accomplishments. In Sontag’s title essay from “Under the Sign of Saturn”, Lopate marveled at her technique for: “piling idea upon idea, so that each insight builds on the all the previous ones.” During an interview, I asked Lopate, a well-regarded personal essayist, about their different approaches to writing. “I would characterize the difference in our writing styles and personalities as: she was an enthusiast, I am skeptic,” he said. “My skepticism involves thinking against myself, doubting myself and arguing with myself, whereas she tended to back a position hard, never looking back.”

I can identify with both styles. Although the “on the other hand” approach appeals to my reading ear, my writing can sometimes be too one-sided. I find ideas easy to generate, but hard to evaluate. They trouble me late into the night. Once, in an essay on springs, I included the Trevi Fountain, honoring the discovery of earth’s water cycle, to hint at the theme of renewal. “Too thin,” said most readers. I had used solo voices where I needed a chorus. With ideas, perhaps like music, there is a rightness that resists a formula.

The right mix of ideas is always difficult to judge. It seems to me that Burrello falls somewhere in between Sontag and Lopate. His positions are mostly fact based while his thoughts are suggestive rather than pronouncements. Somehow it works.

In the end, I suppose, good ideas should create their own kind of motion. Their destination, however, seems much more elusive.

by Jeff DeLargy, Nonfiction Genre Reader

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Published Sep 10, 2009 - Comments Off

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