Monthly Archives: December 2019

how to write a feature (with a strong authorial voice and a point of view)

 

 

This post is about Ginia Bellafante’s feature article in The New York Times of December 20, 2019: “How a Banker Helped Save N.Y. (and Why It Will Never Happen Again)”

 

 

 

It is about Felix Rohatyn, who died about a week ago in Manhattan at the age of 91. Felix Rohatyn was an investment banker and diplomat. He played a central role in preventing the bankruptcy of New York City as chairman of the Municipal Assistance Corporation and chief negotiator between the city, its labor unions and its creditors. I recall those dire years well.

 
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The LEAD is very well constructed and leads seamlessly to the main point:

On Tuesday morning at Frank E. Campbell, the Madison Avenue funeral home, Michael R. Bloomberg (former mayor, current presidential candidate) delivered a eulogy in memory of Felix G. Rohatyn — banker, writer, urbanist, savior, mensch.

That Mr. Rohatyn had come to this country as a World War II refugee, that he had forged a singular life in public service in gratitude for what America had given him, that he listened passionately and brought discordant voices together to harmonize in the name of the city’s resurrection — this was the theme of Mr. Bloomberg’s warm appreciation.

Historians have pointed out that there is an obvious through-line, for better or worse, from Mr. Rohatyn’s New York to Bloomberg’s. As a financier who chaired the public-benefits corporation created to rescue the city from insolvency in the 1970s, Mr. Rohatyn’s dominance marked the beginnings of a power shift in New York’s governance in which the wealthiest and their political supplicants assumed more and more control.

And yet the line is hardly as straight as it seems. It bends and curves when it hits the volcano of arrogance that so often characterizes today’s moneyed class and the collective belief that if your portfolio is big enough you are entitled to manage the empire.

 

These is an OVERARCHING THEME which comes through strongly and clearly:

His vision of political life was the vision of commitment to a cause — in his case, the restoration of the city he loved to a place of economic vitality. He was appointed to the positions he held, elected to none of them.

He had hoped to become secretary of the Treasury at some point, a goal that had eluded him. His was not the agenda of someone who imagined his name would be known to every fourth grader in the year 2150. …

It is fashionable for a certain kind of New Yorker to lament the turn the city has taken over the past 20 years, to become nostalgic for the value system of a prior time. Felix Rohatyn certainly lived well. … But he rejected much of the excess of what came to distinguish New York, beginning in the 1980s — the self-serving habits and misplaced priorities.

 

The writer, Ms. Bellafante, has taken a possibly dry topic and made it compelling. The writer and her article do not get lost in a reporter’s facts: minutiae of a public finance. The writer and her AUTHORIAL VOICE are as important as the subject. Neither gets lost.

Which is at it should be.

A good writer has the ability to keep his or her eye on the ball so to speak. So that, conversely, a strong and distinctive authorial voice does not – in contradistinction to what I have said above — muddy the waters or detract from the subject. An original and thought provoking point of view is always desirable, so that the reader is enlightened as well as informed. It is a matter of covering all the bases (to use another cliché derived from baseball) while at the same time keeping the piece very focused and adhering to what my high school English teacher used to call the principle of UNITY.

The piece, as is observable in the writing of writers who have mastered the craft, say a lot in a minimum of space. The point is made DIRECTLY AND CONCISELY, very effectively without the point being “buried,” and made obliquely, or without one feeling that one is reading a précis.

I understand that this was not an obituary and was a feature article. An obituary would, of necessity, be more fact-based. The Times has outstanding obituary writers who have made this newspaper item an art form.

Ms. Bellafante excels at feature writing.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

    December 2019

pithy writing

 

 

“The universal regard, which is paid by mankind to such accounts of publick transactions as have been written by those who were engaged in them, may be, with great probability ascribed to that ardent love of truth, which nature has kindled in the breast of man, and which remains even where every other laudable passion is extinguished. We cannot but read such narratives with uncommon curiosity, because we consider the writer as indubitably possessed of the ability to give us just representations, and do not always reflect, that, very often, proportionate to the opportunities of knowing the truth, are the temptations to disguise it.

“Authors of this kind, have at least an incontestable superiority over those whose passions are the same, and whose knowledge is less. It is evident that those who write in their own defence, discover often more impartiality, and less contempt of evidence, than the advocates which faction or interest have raised in their favour.”

 

—  Samuel Johnson, review of An Account of the Conduct of the Dowager Duchess of Marlborough, Gentleman’s Magazine (March 1742), IN Johnson on Demand: Reviews, Prefaces, and Ghost-Writings, edited by O M Brack, Jr., and Robert DeMaria, Jr. (The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, Volume XX; Yale University Press, 2019), pp. 66-67

 
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Take this or practically any other expository piece by Samuel Johnson, and you will find pithy writing. His writing is dense — he packs so much into, says so much in, a passage or paragraph.

Johnson’s style has been criticized for being labored and “pedantic.” What he achieves in his essays and other writings, which merit study as writing (as well for their content), is not easy. Try it. Many writers — such as we see in countless op-eds and opinion pieces — while trying to make general points such as Johnson does here, never come close to what he achieves with respect to penetrating depth of insight and substance (content) and a style that avoids relying on commonplaces as well as superficiality.

 
— Roger W. Smith

   December 2019

the first (perhaps) and greatest realist

 

 

See my post on Daniel Defoe at

 

 

the first (perhaps) and greatest realist

 

the product of prolonged, intense labor

 

 

Even if Wordsworth had published The Prelude on its completion in 1805, it would not have appeared exactly as it is found in the A text; for no poet ever revised his work for press more meticu­lously than he. Writing in 1816 of some minor pieces which he had just composed he calls them ‘effusions rather than compositions, though in justice to myself I must say that upon the correction of the style I have bestowed, as I always do, great labour’. ‘The composition of verse’ , he wrote later, ‘is infinitely more an art than men are prepared to believe, and absolute success in it depends on innumerable minutiae . … Milton speaks of pouring “easy his unpremeditated verse”. It would be harsh, untrue, and odious to say there is anything like cant in this, but it is not true to the letter, and tends to mislead.’ He might have added that his own description of poetry as ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’ was liable to the same misconstruction. For experience had taught him that this ‘spontaneous overflow’ was no more than the raw material of art. It was easy enough to give those feelings a loose impressionistic language adequate to record them for himself. But such language was not poetry: it had not really expressed them, and could not transmit them to others. The poet, Wordsworth knew well, was a craftsman, who must toil with unremitting patience at every detail of his work, till it has gained a clearer outline, a fuller substance: not otherwise could it acquire that organic power which is the sure touchstone of art:

The vital spirit of a perfect form.

The labour that Wordsworth bestowed on revision was at least equal to that of first composition, and was pursued when less scrupulous artists would have been well content to leave their work untouched. To Coleridge in 1798 “The Ruined Cottage” [The Excursion, Book I] was ‘superior to anything in our language which in any way resembles it’, yet three years later Wordsworth is found wearing himself out in trying to make it better. The slightness of the difference be­tween many passages found in the rough notebooks, where they were jotted down in the hurry of immediate inspiration, and the form they have assumed in the A text, affords ample proof that Wordsworth was postponing correction rather than that he was satisfied with his work as it stood. It is reasonable, therefore, to suppose that had he prepared it for press in 1805 he would have introduced into the text many of those changes which made their first appearance at a much later date.

Cf. the following fragment of verse, found in an (unpunctuated) autograph manuscript belonging to 1798-1800, which shows how fully Wordsworth understood a principle underlying all great art:

 

nor had my voice
Been silent oftentimes, had I burst forth
In verse which, with a strong and random light Touching an object in its prominent parts, Created a memorial which to me
Was all sufficient, and, to my own mind Recalling the whole picture, seemed to speak An universal language. Scattering thus
In passion many a desultory sound,
I deemed that I had adequately cloathed
Meanings at which I hardly hinted, thought
And forms of which I scarcely had produced
A monument and arbitrary sign.

 

[Then is a lacuna in the MS. here; the argument clearly requires some such words as When I reviewed this random and desultory verse I saw its worthlessness, and came to realize that an artist reveals his true power only]

 

In that considerate and laborious work
That patience which, admitting no neglect,
By slow creation doth impart to speech
Outline and substance even, till it has given
A function kindred to organic power,
The vital spirit of a perfect form.

So, in a letter to Beaumont (July 24, 1804; Letters, i. 167), he praises Reynolds for his ‘deep conviction of the necessity of unwearied labour and diligence, and the reverence for the great men of his art’. Wordsworth’s own reverence for the great masters, and his strenuous efforts to gain perfection of form, are seldom “sufficiently realized.

 

— William Wordsworth, The Prelude Or Growth of a Poet’s Mind (Text of 1805), , edited by Ernest de Selincourt (Oxford University Press, 1933), pp. xviii-xix

 

 

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We see that true creative writing, attributed ordinarily to inspiration, is the product of prolonged, intense labor. I believe this is true of composers of classical music as well.

 

— Roger W. Smith

   December 2019