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Required Reading: Death of a Racehorse by WC Heinz

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

  1. Colton

    Colton Active Member

    Having read that, I feel so unworthy... just a tremendous piece of work.
  2. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    SVB -

    I think the effect owes a lot to music and to meter. The success in the rhythm and the parallel here has as much to do with poetry as it does with prose, and as such constitutes a fine example of the alchemy of great writing, in which the combination of baser metals produces gold. By which I mean that some things are beyond the easy reach of the textbook or of teaching. This isn't merely a triumph of recipe or architecture - it's about the writer's ear for language and music.

    Heinz learned as much about this from Homer as he did from Hemingway.

    Long sentences, like music, can be very carefully metered by the placement of commas. The comma is where the reader, like the musician, is pausing to draw breath. Built correctly, with roughly equal pauses in roughly matching places from sentence to sentence to sentence, the effect can become nearly hypnotic.

    So, having built the sentences at the opening of the piece as he did, Heinz had only to recall them at the end of the story to generate the same satisfying effect in the reader that a concertgoer experiences when the last chord of a piece of music resolves.

    To master the voodoo of what Heinz did here - or to mimic the effects achieved by any of our betters - the only real answer is to read and read and read. As Heinz did.
  3. buckweaver

    buckweaver Active Member

    Outstanding stuff, y'all. Never get tired of reading that story, and those two lines never fail to give me chills (the "Aw ----" line, and the "Full brother of Assault" line.)

    I have to quibble, though, with the previous question about writers today and desks today. Are those people -- are we? -- truly the obstacle that would kill (or at least rip apart) a story like this in a modern-day paper? Is it about the people ... or is it the period we're in?

    What do you do if your writer turns in a story like this one night?

    As a writer-turned-desker in my day job, and still a writer in the moonlight, I'd like to believe that I'd know to leave well enough alone. That said, there are structural limitations to the space any paper can create for any "deadline" story, no matter how great.

    Not trying to turn this thread away from an analysis of the writing, but I think that's an important question about stories like this. What do you do?
  4. I'm not a desker, and this isn't an answer to your question, but I'll always be grateful to the massively inept, bad-change-making SE at one of my previous papers. When I turned in the best story I'd ever written - one in which I attempted to be poetic/musical - he ran it untouched.

    (My actual answer to your question: I think an editor should get himself sufficiently versed in literature, in poetry - in classic sportswriting, too - to recognize the brilliance and the music of a piece like this...to recognize the poetry of those eight-comma sentences and let them be poetic eight-comma sentences. If every piece every day had an eight-comma first paragraph, I'd have a little talk with the writer...but one, once in a while, as brilliant as this one is, should be acceptable to all.)
  5. Thanks, Jg. Insightful as always.

    One semi-argument. I love how you tell every advice-seeker on this board to read, read, read everything. Do you believe, though, that reading everything will give one the ability to write those two Heinz sentences?

    Seems to me you'd need to be born with one-in-a-million talent - and then also read everything - to approach them.
  6. buckweaver

    buckweaver Active Member

    I truly don't believe that great writers are born. They're made, and then they're remade, and remade again. It's a process, just like writing itself, and while the Heinzes of the world may start further along in the process than the rest of us, he had to make himself work at it to get that good.

    I don't think reading everything is necessarily the answer; that's a quick fix to a problem to which there is no solution. But it is part of the process, an important part, to being a great writer. You can be a great reader without being a great writer; that's realistic for most of us. But you can't be a great writer without being a great reader -- thus, j-mac's advice. That's one part we can control.
  7. [quote author=buckweaver]
    But it is part of the process, an important part, to being a great writer. You can be a great reader without being a great writer; that's realistic for most of us. But you can't be a great writer without being a great reader -- thus, j-mac's advice. That's one part we can control.

  8. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    Mr. Heinz would never admit to being one in a million. He thinks of himself as a craftsman - a stone mason, a boat wright, a builder of things. Meticulous, yes, and a perfectionist certainly, but he's an artisan as much as an artist, and he'd never sit still for being called a genius. He'd kick you in the shin for saying it. Because to do so would undervalue how hard he had to work to get things right. He took the gift of his talent and made it mighty with hard work.

    To work at the craft of writing is to understand what writing is - and what it can be - and what can be done with language and image and meter and metaphor and character and a hundred other attributes of story. It seems to me - and seems to Heinz, and to every great writer I know - that the only way to learn what writing is or might be is to read.

    The trick for writers is to learn to read with a writer's eye. And a pen in your hand. Every book you admire should be dense with questions and exclamations written in the margins. Writers should read the way magicians watch other magicians - with every sense tuned to how they did it.
  9. Chi City 81

    Chi City 81 Guest

    Just bumping this for all the newbs who may not have read this. READ IT! NOW!
  10. hockeybeat

    hockeybeat Guest

    Thanks to Doc for bumping this back up.
    I finished reading Tom Callahan's The GM, a tome on Ernie Accorsi's last season with the Giants.

    In the week leading up to the Giants' 30-7 loss to the Saints, Accorsi was cleaning out his office while comparing the state of newspaper writing from what it was to how it is now.

    The GM: Chapter 22, Double Safety Delayed Blitz. Page 219
  11. Angola!

    Angola! Guest

    Here's my question: How do you read with a writer's eye, though? Are you talking about how I was forced to read books in Literary Criticism in college where we would break books down, chapter by chapter? Or is there some trick I am missing?

    Also, there was some talk earlier in the thread about columns and how they have changed so much, which brings this question to my mind. I write a weekly column during the football season and then random columns during the rest of the season. Generally my columns are more features than opinion, so which is right and which is wrong?

    To be a column do I have to have an opinion on something? Or can I just tell a good story? I like to be able to tell the story because in a column it can be easier to write than in a feature, just because you can use a little bit different style in a column.

    Anyway, if anyone wants to answer some of these questions I'd be thankful.
  12. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

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