‘Voice’ Part II: Profiles in courage

A series of writers demonstrate a key component: the willingness to take a risk

Last week we examined five different styles of voice by one writer, Kim Murphy. Let’s keep the conversation going this week by focusing on one of the hidden qualities behind a writer’s voice: a dollop of courage.

We established by reviewing Kim’s work that she, like a small number of admired writers, brings a range of voices–not a singular style–to her work. These writers calibrate the tolerance of each story, then push it to that limit.

'Voice' Part II: Profiles in courage

'Voice' Part II: Profiles in courage

That’s half the struggle to write with “voice,” and it’s the second half. The first half of the struggle is the courage part–taking action when you realize that the simple facts and quotes of your story don’t present a deeper truth. It’s at this moment that you have to take a deep breath and find the additional language to tell the reader what the story’s really about.

Much of the time this involves the possibility of making a fool of yourself, at least on your first draft. Sometimes you choose a subtle path, other times a more jolting one, but the intent is always the same: to add just a bit more meaning to the story. Write the equation on the blackboard: Voice = Style + Courage.

Here are some examples of everyday journalism that required only a few extra moments of concentration to make a difference in tone:

1. The running news story gets a pinch of parallelism to underscore the story’s outrage factor:

SAN FRANCISCO–A San Jose judge on Friday threw the book at the man who threw Leo the bichon frise into traffic, sentencing him to the maximum three years in state prison for a road rage incident that left the dog dead and animal lovers outraged.

The writer, Maria La Ganga, made a calculated judgment that this story–the focus of public attention for a year–was familiar enough to the public to tolerate her synthesis in the lead. From thereon out, she played it perfectly straight:

In sentencing Andrew Burnett, 27, Superior Court Judge Kevin J. Murphy ignored a probation report that recommended a lighter sentence and brushed off Burnett’s apology and plea for leniency.

2. Audacious characters can sometimes be best defined by an approach that mirrors the character’s central quality.

This is another La Ganga effort. (The italics in the third graf are the story’s, as Maria breaks into an imitation of the character Dee.)

SAN FRANCISCO–Dee Gray would probably want this story to start with the word “I.” Dee thinks the best stories are told in the first person. Her daughter, Tiny, doesn’t always agree.

This is what it might look like, if Dee had her way:

I first heard from Lisa Gray-Garcia, also known as Tiny, in a long, long message on my voicemail machine about living poor in America’s most expensive city. ” A lot of us are affected by gentrification and poverty and how that translates to having to leave this area,” she said, in a voice somewhere between nasal and squeaky. “Oftentimes, poor families are the ones who are leaving.”

Other mothers and daughters may wrangle over literary license, current events and how the media shape the news, but their ruminations don’t often make it into print. Dee’s and Tiny’s usually do. You can read them online at http://www.poornewsnetwork.org, a weekly news service with the motto: “All the news that doesn’t fit.”

Or in the pages of Poor magazine, where they write under headings like “Editors’ Statement by Dee and Tiny.” You can catch them on the last Monday of every month on the Bay Area’s KPFA radio, if you wake up really early.

Or, if you are on welfare in the San Francisco area and fortunate in your misfortune, you can listen to them in person as part of their New Journalism/Media Studies Program. Many media and public-policy experts believe the program, which receives some funding from San Francisco County, is the only journalism welfare-to-work effort operating today.

Tiny and Dee–30 and “I’d rather not say,” who describe themselves as “formerly homeless, currently at risk”–have a few goals. They want to change how the mainstream media portray poor and homeless people. They want to…

3. Sometimes a story will rest upon images so ingrained in the popular culture that a writer can reduce them to shorthand and foreshadow the entire tale in a few words–24 of them, in this case, again by Maria:

SAN FRANCISCO–The recent saga of Arion Press began in cliche and ended in comeuppance. 1999: Dot-com frenzy threatens historic publisher. 2001: Dot-coms dive; letterpress lives.

The gamble was that you would swallow the contrast whole, allowing Maria to start the story immediately, in 1999. Within five grafs, she encircled the entire chronology:

With roots stretching back to the early years of fine printing in San Francisco, Arion Press was deep into its most ambitious project–a limited-edition pulpit Bible–when the eviction notice arrived in August 1999, endangering the undertaking.

The South of Market neighborhood where Arion shared a building with Driveway.com, an Internet provider of data storage, had gone crazy. Start-ups flush with venture capital were pouring into formerly cheap buildings where artists and light industry had earlier flourished. Rents soared.

Andrew Hoyem, Arion’s founder, scrambled to find a new home for tons of historic equipment, monotype machines and letterpresses, a type foundry, a book bindery and one of the most extensive collections of type fonts surviving today–which alone weighs 40 tons. For a while, it looked as if one of the last integrated foundries and letterpress operations might close.

But 18 months and $1 million in moving costs and lost business later, Arion settled into a new home in the Presidio, a storied former Army base turned national park and some of this city’s most coveted real estate.

There, Arion employees continue to hand-bind the 1,350-page Bibles at a rate of three to four a week. They are about to begin work on Arion’s 62nd book, “Arcadia” by British playwright Tom Stoppard. Arion’s former home at 460 Bryant St. stands vacant. Driveway.com’s old offices are closed. Dot-coms here continue to drop like flies.

4. Kill mediocre quotes in the service of telling the real story yourself, eliminating competition between your narration and secondary characters.

This is the top of a Jill Leovy story that crunched the lead anecdote into 106 words and then presented a double-graf nut graf of 95 words. Characters would enter the story as examples, but none of them would be allowed to open their mouths until the 11th graf (and not again until the 17th graf) because Jill had a better sense of the essence of the story than they did, and she was determined to express it. Sound arrogant? you bet. That’s the voice of a storyteller, not a recording secretary:

SAN YSIDRO, Calif. — This time, it was the driver’s hands that gave him away.

They shook so badly that when he handed his passport to Customs Inspector Mark Laven, the booklet fluttered like a bird’s wing. Laven all but rolled his eyes: Nothing subtle about this one.

Within minutes, the driver, a Mexican citizen, had been hustled into a holding cell and inspectors were ripping his blue pickup apart with an electric saw. They found what they expected–74 pounds of marijuana packed in cellophane, coated in motor oil to throw off drug-sniffing dogs and fitted neatly into a compartment in the roof.

Laven shrugged. Just another small-fry courier.

Think about how often you would see–or would, yourself–insert a meaningless, average quote here to justify Customs Inspector Laven’s presence in the anecdotal lead. Jill knows her own voice is stronger:

This is the most common kind of drug bust at the nation’s busiest port of entry. Although the giant container loads grab headlines, a huge quantity of illegal drugs moves across the border in a more mundane way–namely, in a stream of small loads hidden in cars and driven under inspectors’ noses by people reckless enough to play the odds.

Day in and day out, a good deal of the U.S. drug interdiction effort on the southern border consists of simply trying to sort out the regular people from the smugglers at border crossings.

San Ysidro is an especially intense smuggling corridor. So many drug couriers try to sneak into the country that the busts sometimes come every hour, and inspectors say it’s like playing a giant, endless game of cat and mouse across 24 lanes of asphalt–the wide stretch of Interstate 5 where cars from Mexico enter the United States.

Larry R. Latocki, customs assistant special agent in charge, estimates that 95% of all drug cases handled by U.S. customs in California are busts of small carloads. More than half of the marijuana–by far the most commonly seized drug–confiscated along the border in the last year came in small carloads, customs officials say. The average load is 120 pounds.

Think about how often you would see–or would, yourself, insert–a meaningless, aveage quote here to justify Special Agent Latocki’s presence in the story.

Such busts are so routine at the ports of entry that agents’ work takes on an assembly-line quality. Cars are dismantled, drugs measured and forms filled out with mechanical efficiency. On busy days, agents say they feel like doctors in a busy ER: There’s hardly time to process one 70- or 80-pound load before the next comes in.

There are variations, of course. One week the smugglers use middle-aged white women in nice cars. Then it’s deaf students from Mexico, or families, or elderly men in RVs, or college girls in convertibles.

Only now does anyone else to speak onstage, and only because he has an unusual and insightful way of putting it–Jill recognizes he has more color than she does, so she defers:

“You get all gas-tank loads sometimes,” said Special Agent Ransom Avilla. “Then, it’s weird–the last five days it’s all been tire loads. . . . It’s like when every girl is suddenly named Chelsea.”

When drug traffickers’ cars are torn up, however, the results all look the same–the same professionally wrapped bags, the same hidden…

5. Have the courage to consider a technique that grabs the reader by the shirt, pulls him close and reduces complexity to the most elemental human qualities.

Look at what Jenifer Warren did when she and colleague Dan Morain wrote about the degrading relationship between Gov. Davis and Senate leader John Burton:

SACRAMENTO — You knew it would come to this. You knew their uneasy union was bound to crack.

One politician is pure volcanic emotion, the other a public portrait of cool control. One man is blunt and uncensored, prone to spouting expletives. The other picks his words cautiously, ever wary of political faux pas.

They are the oddest of odd couples, united by circumstance and party affiliation but little else. And this month the shaky detente between California’s two most powerful leaders–Democrats Gov. ray Davis and Senate leader John Burton–shattered in full view. As their relationship tatters, it threatens a host of initiatives, from the proposed rescue of Southern California Edison to a state park bond measure and any number of upcoming gubernatorial appointments.

The break occurred in the final moments of the legislative session, past midnight, with only fellow lawmakers, media and a covey of lobbyists on hand. Tempers were frayed, bodies sleep-starved.

Davis was making a last-gasp drive to pass a plan to keep Edison out of bankruptcy. Failure would mean an ugly smudge on his record one year before reelection time. What’s more, the governor feared the bankruptcy of a company employing 12,000 would jolt the state on the heels of terrorist attacks and amid signs of a looming recession.

Burton, however, saw the Edison deal as a corporate bailout that unfairly socked consumers with the bill. He was not alone. The package lacked enough support to pass, so Burton refused to bring it up for a vote.

That’s when the gloves came off. In an unusual act, the governor breached protocol by chastising the Senate and firing off a news release calling for a special session to reconsider the deal–before informing legislative leaders.

Burton hit the roof. In a profanity-laced tirade that drew bipartisan cheers on the Senate floor, he denounced the governor and said Davis had “damn near doomed” any chance for an Edison rescue bill. As for the special session, the Senate president said he would be on jury duty that week.

What becomes of Edison’s bid for economic salvation in the Legislature is unclear. Davis insists he remains intent on winning legislative approval of the rescue plan, but unless it gets a radical make-over, Burton is unlikely to budge.

Far more obvious is this: The state’s top two Democrats have a problem, and it is spilling into the policy arena.

“Squabbling like this–even among members of the same political family–is not new,” said Barbara O’Connor, director of…

After two more grafs, the story continued:

For those who know the two men, the standoff is not surprising. Beyond the stylistic distinctions, they have fundamentally different senses of political purpose that naturally put them at odds.

Phil Trounstine, Davis’ former communications director and now a communications consultant, sums it up this way: “It is a titanic clash of worldviews.”

While the two agree on issues such as support for abortion rights, the mutual interests don’t stretch far beyond that.

Burton is an old-guard Democrat who first and foremost wants to use government to help the less fortunate. He opposes the death penalty and favors more spending on the mentally ill. Pro-labor, he wants the state to boost workers’ compensation benefits for people hurt on the job, a cost borne by business. He also believes unemployment benefits should be increased.

Davis, meanwhile, is a moderate Democrat through and through. He supports capital punishment and, after signing some early bills…

Jenifer said her goal was to quickly sketch the radical differences and conflict between California’s two most powerful politicians and to do it in a context that told readers why they should care. She continues:

That’s why we used the Edison rescue bill scene. For Southern Californians, in particular, the fate of the utility is a big deal, and the last-minute demise of the bailout was the blow that finally, publicly cleaved the relationship between Davis and Burton.

But the scene over Edison in the Legislature was a bit long and unwieldy, and as a reformed anectdotal leadist I refused to rely strictly on the back-and-forth of that night.

At first I thought of just doing the ”one is, the other is” structure, but that seemed a bit cliche and I thought it needed some sort of set up. The line ”you knew it would come to this”–first uttered by my husband during a midnight brainstorming session, incidentally–seemed perfect because their break had seemed inevitable to anyone who knows anything about the Capitol. It worked for the rest of the readers, too, by effectively foreshadowing what they’d learn later–that tensions had been building ever since Davis was elected governor.

Dan Morain had remarked earlier in the week that this was ”an odd couple story,” so I grabbed that, amped it up and used it to sum up the relationship in the third graf.

The nut graf is real Spartan–and, I figured, could be so because we’d already proved our point above. It read, ”Far more obvious is this: The state’s top two Democrats have a problem, and it is spilling into the policy arena.”

The quote just below that, I hoped, added a little authority to the conclusions we’d already drawn.

Next, I thought it was important to point out that their differences are not just stylistic, ”you say toe-may-toe, I say toe-mah-toe” kind of stuff, but rooted in their political philosophies. The ”world views” quote backed that up well. Then it was off to the races.

I think one reason we were able to write the top with confidence is that both Dan and I have observed these guys for quite awhile, and did a lot of reporting (much of it on background and thus, not in the story) to assure us we had the right take.

Another note: I wasn’t sure the first graf would survive. In the past, I’ve used ”you” or a collective ”we” and had editors take it out. I think it’s a great way to make a story feel familiar/accessible.

6. Pay attention to those desperate blurts.

Teresa Watanabe was writing a “primer” on Islam the second week after the terrorist attacks. It was supposed to help readers understand the contradictions of a religion that advocated peace yet had been exploited as a rationale for mass destruction. As you can see, my description of the story wouldn’t make much of a lead. What would make this distinctive? As we talked over the story, Teresa asked a rhetorical question: “What kind of religion is this?” It became the introductory sentence, a single shot of audacity to break down resistence to a complex story by framing it in the most fundamental terms:

What kind of religion is this? How can Islam be used to justify both peace and war?

The recent terrorist attacks, which authorities have blamed on Islamic extremists, have highlighted the tensions and contradictions in the practices of the world’s 1 billion Muslims. Muslim leaders quote Koranic verses against aggression, while Osama bin Laden ignores such commands and cites other exhortations in the book to slay the infidels. Muslim women have ruled countries like Pakistan, while the Taliban of Afghanistan denies them the right to work or attend school.

The religion has produced world empires, a civilization of stunning beauty and a theology of peace and submission to God. But it is also plagued with images of ruthless jihadi warriors, chopped-off hands, forced conversions–and now, hijacked airplanes blasting into the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

Since the Ottoman Empire collapsed after World War I, diverse Islamic practices have flourished in the absence of a central religious authority. Extremist ideology has flourished as well.

“The crumbling of the Islamic civilization has removed the established institutions to seriously challenge the extremists,” said Khaled Abou El Fadl, UCLA acting professor of Islamic law. “Extremists have always been there in the Islamic tradition, but they tend to be very powerful when the institutions of society weaken and crumble.”

Most Muslims–and non-Muslim experts on Islam–are quick to say that extremists are distorting the faith and…

Cliché watch

Consider this a potential-cliché advisory: After the Sept. 11 attacks, as Americans reevaluated What it All Meant, writers at my newspaper used the expression “represents a sea change” on Sept. 18, 23 and 26:

Whether all of this represents a sea change in popular culture or merely a passing tic of heightened concern will depend in part on how events play out from here forward. The arc of popular culture has bounced upward–or been driven downward–by major events before. (Calendar)

All of this represents a sea change for travelers. Before Sept. 11, the public outcry over airline delays and airport congestion threatened the aviation industry with re-regulation, namely a bill of rights proposed to reduce the hassles and keep passengers better informed. (Business)

The new calculations represent a sea change for a region that just weeks ago was grappling with how to accommodate an expected doubling of passengers by 2025. (Metro)

The August-September total newspaperwide was 13. Expect to see it a lot more in print. Do your best to avoid being drowned by it.

Quote of the week

From Sports Illustrated’s Jack McCallum: I shall see to it that in my copy no opponent will “torch” another, nor will I allow anyone to speak of a particularly horrible defeat as Black Sunday. I’m extending my ban on war, holy war and war room to border skirmish. I’m going to leave suicide squeeze alone, but suicide squad is permanently on the bench in favor of special team. As for the two large and skilled members of the [San Antonio] Spurs, they are no longer the Twin Towers; they’re Tim Duncan and David Robinson.

Above all, I pledge to recognize that a golfer who delicately scrapes a shot from the fringe onto a steeply inclined green and into a small hole is not courageous, fearless or heroic. We know who those people are.

RECOMMENDED READING: “The Onion” returned last week after a respectful period of silence, providing desperately needed humor. No other news organization seemed able to match The Onion’s report that the hijackers were stunned to wake up in hell instead of paradise. On a more serious note, Seattle Times investigative reporter Duff Wilson has created a terrific all-purpose reporting website, “Reporter’s Desktop.” Both sites are available at the “Favorite Links” section of this site.