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Required Reading: Death of a Racehorse by WC Heinz

Discussion in 'Writers' Workshop' started by jgmacg, Jun 14, 2006.

  1. Re: Mandatory Reading: Death of a Racehorse by WC Heinz

    Sure thing, Slater. Done deal.
  2. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    Re: Mandatory Reading: Death of a Racehorse by WC Heinz

    Monsieur DemiMiler -

    I agree to a point that we can't recapture the time in which the great work of the past was done; or simply ape the style of the greats in a different, later age. That doesn't mean, however, that they shouldn't still be taught.

    I think there's a lot in this piece architecturally and stylistically that bears remembering and understanding even, or perhaps especially, today.

    And I ask this in return - how important a tool is imitation in learning to write well?
  3. friend of the friendless

    friend of the friendless Active Member

    Re: Mandatory Reading: Death of a Racehorse by WC Heinz

    Mr macg

    I wonder if young writers might imitate the wrong things from this piece or at least not seize the right things.

    Look at Death of a Heavyweight thread on WW. The writer started with a bomb. That would be like Death of a Racehore starting with them shooting the horse. It's the timing, structure and selection of detail that counts.

    YHS, etc
  4. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest


    That's why the village elders, such as we may be, must school the younglings on the ways and means of these things. I keep waiting for one of them to ask that very question.

    "How did he do it?"
  5. jaredk

    jaredk Member

    The piece is great because it treats a powerful story simply. He builds the story a word at a time, every word necessary in every sentence, every sentence built to persuade the reader to read the next. It's great because Heinz resists the all but irresistible temptation of melodrama. At the end, the poignancy of the son/brother allusions derives from the promise the same simple words offer at the start. All that, plus this: Heinz was there. He saw it, he heard it, he told it. There's no evidence he asked even one question. It's great reporting by a man who first recognized the story, got his ass out of the press box, paid attention, and went to his typewriter with the full maturity of a reporter who built his career on the idea that the story is the thing, not the storyteller.

    One quibble with previous posts: perhaps the piece was done "on deadline." We don't know that from the reading. We do know that Heinz's paper, the Sun, was in 1949 an afternoon paper. Its deadlines likely gave him plenty of time to work on a piece about the fifth race of the day before.
  6. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    Terrific technical analysis of the story jk. I guess the only quibble is over what constitutes a "deadline." How much time is plenty of time to write something this good?
  7. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

  8. Was watching Seabiscuit for the first time last night when this came to mind...this thread, to be exact. What a story. For a 23-year-old kid, shows just what can happen with pace and tempo of a story, over grand statements and wild opinion. THIS is what a column looks like, IMO.

    So I'll bite... How'd he do it?
  9. jfs1000

    jfs1000 Member

    Boy, that's great writing. I jsut turned 30, but I may pick up that book. I have read osme of his stuff, but not this one.

    I think we should all move towards that. Journalists today are too deadline driven (I know, coming from a PM). It' s an over abundance of facts, analysis and information. I love the Peter Gammons note columns, but there has to be a place for storytelling.

    Sometimes, there is too much information in stories. Even good stories that are informative, but not chock full of info, sometimes falter on the facts. DOAR would have been ruined if you packed it with too much info.

    What happened if he wrote about how many horses die yearly? Just a quick fact. Or something like that, that would have fit, but would have ruined the story?

    This story works because he re-created the scence, he made people feel like they were there, and made the reader care. Hell, I felt bad for the horse reading it many years later.

    the story breathes. It was just a story about one horse, on one track, and one death.

    Death in many ways is poetic because it is final. There is no coming back. He captured death in the story, and that's hard to do.
  10. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    There's so much going on here that's remarkable, let's just talk a little about story architecture.

    Check the meter and the sentence length at the beginning. And then at the end.

    Compare the sentence, "'Air Lift,' Jim Roach said. 'Full brother of Assault.'" to the last sentence in the piece.

    Compare the long sentence beginning "Assault, who won the triple crown..." to the last sentence in the piece.

    Notice the reiteration of the statement, "Full brother of Assault," in the middle of the piece.

    The column is built a little like a poem or concerto. Certain meters and phrases recur and repeat. Heinz knows going in how he wants the column to land, so he front loads the phrase "Full brother of Assault," then reinforces it again halfway along. By the time he strings together that last long sentence, with its inexorable drive, those now-familiar meters and phrases have the rhythm and power of music in them, and the story resolves, like a great song, on a chord that is not only completely satisfying, but at once surprising and inevitable. Hence the chill most people feel when reading it.

    This piece is a tiny, nearly perfect machine of art and engineering. There's a lot to learn here about story structure, and lyric, and what's possible in only a small space. Heinz learned a lot of that from Hemingway. Heinz's powers of observation and description and his matchless ear for dialogue are his own, of course, but he was a true student of Hemingway's work, and often reread him very closely in order to figure out exactly how a certain effect had been achieved.

    So maybe part of the lesson here is that to become better writers, we need to become better readers.
  11. Jg, just read the story - and your analysis - again. One question for you: why do you think the long, heavily-commad sentences at the beginning and the end work so well? Is it something more than the parallelism? (Is there something inherently effective about them?)
  12. amraeder

    amraeder Well-Known Member

    I like the last sentence ".... Air Lift, son of Bold Venture, full brother of Assult." becuase it sounds just like talking about a nobel line. And that is, after all, what he was expected to be.
    And I never would have thought of starting the piece by describing what's going on in the press box. But it works.
    (for the record, if I repeated "full brother of Assult" like that in something I wrote SOMEONE would cut it out becuase "it's redundant." No one's willing to give me an extra word or two for voice. sigh...)

    EDIT: Just finished reading it again, still awed by it. Makes me feel wanting as a writer.
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