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What did I do wrong...and right?

Discussion in 'Writers' Workshop' started by SuperflySnuka, Jun 17, 2007.

  1. Your thoughts encouraged...

    On the outside, Leon Coffee is smiling.

    The white paint hitting the red, it surrounds his mouth and conforms into a smile, each side coming together at the same angle.

    The smile is permanent for hours, until the end of the night, when he retreats, alone, to his dressing room. It will rinse off like it has thousands of times, the paint running down his face, the smile running with it.

    On the outside, Leon Coffee is smiling.

    But on the inside...

    "Larry Mahan, the great all-timer, said it best, 'I wouldn't take a million dollars for what I've done,'" Coffee said. "'But I wouldn't give a dollar to do it all again."

    His hair graying around the edges ever so slightly, his eyes revealing just a hint of Crow's feet, Coffee's years on the road have taken their toll. He talks about his life slowly, measured, in grand terms. About his biggest successes, being able to put smiles on the faces of thousands of people. About his biggest failures, not being able to be the kind of husband and father he wanted to be.

    One after another, he recounts his highs and lows.

    From high.

    "Kansas City, Missouri, I fought a one-eyed lion. That animal was the baddest bull you've ever seen in your life. He was some kind of bad. I fought him till his tongue fell out. Boy, these people gave me a standing ovation. First standing ovation of my entire life, didn't know what it felt like. Boy, I'm talking about the greatest thing ever. I thought I was God's gift to the bull-fighting community. I was it. You couldn't imagine the thrill. The joys of having 17,000 people looking at you."

    To low.

    "Man, I go into that dressing room, I clean up, I walk back out there and ... there ain't a soul in the stands. Empty. I said you know, it ain't far from the penthouse to the outhouse. All them people that were cheering me on, they're all gone. And now I'm standing here alone. 'Where are they now?' 'Why didn't anybody wait on me?'

    "'I'm here. I'm still here.'"

    He ebbs and flows with the story. About the standing ovation, he stands, pumping his hands. About the empty arena, he looks to the floor, sad.

    And that's his life.

    Adored by thousands in a packed arena, ignored by the ghosts of thousands in an empty arena.

    "That's when you take you out of the equation," Coffee said. "If you leave you in the equation, you're gonna be heartbroken a lot. It's not about me, it's about what I do."

    He adds an extra, "what I do," partly to confirm to the writer that he loves his lot in life, partly to confirm to himself.

    "It's not about me, it's about what I do. What I do," he said.

    Like Tiger Woods talking about golf or Wayne Gretzky talking about hockey, Leon Coffee talks about making people laugh. He's put on the makeup since 1969, though he wouldn't reveal his age. He prides himself on performing across five decades, two centuries, two millenniums.

    "Not everybody that you know can go out and put a smile on somebody's face," Coffee said. "Make them forget their troubles. Make them laugh. Make them entertained. And I'll tell you, if I walk out there in that arena, I better have the guts to do my job. I don't care if my mother just died, if I make a point to walk into that arena, them people don't care if my mother just died. They paid their hard-earned money to get entertained, and when I put on my makeup, I'm going to go do the job. If I can't do that job, I'm not gonna walk out there."

    Not that he hasn't been tempted to stay in the trailer. In 1995, right after the Oklahoma City bombing, Coffee had to do a show in Guthrie, OK. At the time, explosions were part of his act. Sensibly, he kept them packed and had to go out cold, ad-libbing the entire show. It was hardest, he said, looking out at the devastation, at the heartbreak that so much of the audience felt.

    But from the concrete came a rose.

    "This is the greatest compliment I've ever gotten, at this woman's worst time in her life," Coffee said. "Lemme tell you what she said. She said, 'I've lost loved ones in that bombing, and the doctors told me to get away from it all. I didn't think it could be done. But Leon Coffee, he put a smile on my face.'"

    Soon, though, those smiles will be painted on by another clown.

    In his mystery age, his heart staying put but his knees giving out, Coffee will soon retire his green hat, polka-dot shirt and worn jeans, which look almost as old as he is, whatever the number.

    Once a bull rider, then a bull fighter and now a clown, his days in the rodeo are numbered. Giving up the riding was hard, giving up the fighting was harder, giving up clowning is something he can't imagine. Oh, he has his future lined up -- a stake in the soon-to-start National Rodeo League, of which he serves as chief operating officer -- but he still misses his time as a bull fighter.

    With the next phase of his life, from the bull room to the boardroom, he takes pride in what he hopes will become the NFL of rodeo. Citing the lack of money cowboys make on the road, Coffee imagines the NRL providing a stable income for riders and ropers, and, as he said, "Now, cowboys have to pay to come to rodeo. Soon, the rodeos will have to pay the cowboys."

    "I, we, wanted to make it to where cowboys could make a living," Coffee said. "Make things a little better for them. I tell them, 'I'm not gonna make you rich, but I'll give you a living.' It's taken 11 years to put this together, and it's been a blast. A long, hard road. But to know these cowboys can make a living, it's worth it."

    He knows something about being on the road, himself, having spent 12 days out of 365 away from home in 1984. Now, out of a year, he's on the road for 200. But that number will shrink in half in the next few years, maybe sooner.

    "Them knees ain't got nothin' left," Coffee said. "I may come back net year, I may not. I can't put my name in the record books no more."

    And with that, he breaks into a smile.

    And it's not painted on.
  2. housejd

    housejd Member


    I'm not too experienced or anything like that, but I really, really liked the detail in this story, and some of the language was great.

    My only complaint would be that there's no newspeg. Nothing that says "This is why this Leon Coffee's story is relevant." At least not near the top of the story. You start to get into the news of it near the bottom. Coffee is retiring. That's why this profile is relevant. That's why it's a good time to tell his story.

    Profiles can be tricky like that, I think. But it's always good to tell readers why they should care.

    Other than that, good read, I thought.

    Take care.
  3. That's a very good point, and thanks for responding.

    This story was on Day 7 of our rodeo coverage, so most readers sort of had it in context. The story wasn't really that he was retiring, it was just a profile on a famous guy who comes to town, everyone thinks he's this happy, fun guy and really his life sorta sucks...

    but I do understand your point...

    Thanks again
  4. DanOregon

    DanOregon Well-Known Member

    Great tempo.
  5. chazp

    chazp Active Member

    You need to state somewhere in the first few graphs that he's a rodeo clown. You don't realize that until near the end. It would explain "the white paint hitting the red." Nice story, but let people know who he is earlier.
  6. MartinEnigmatica

    MartinEnigmatica Active Member

    Yeah, I'll agree with chazp here. I figured he was a rodeo clown or some kind of performer...but to say he's a clown kind of further drives home the image of the sad clown you paint so well. His entire clown existence isn't sad, no, but you do an excellent job portraying just what his life is really like.
    The only thing I'd like to see you do is trim a bit of where you explain what he wants to do as a rodeo executive. It's related, but kind of blindsided me because it wasn't about his rodeo clown/bullriding and fighting days. If you used that space for some more detail instead of the issues surrounding the modern cowboy, the piece just might get stronger - though I want to reiterate it's very strong already.
  7. spnited

    spnited Active Member

    No offense, superfly, but I was 20-25 grafs into the piece just trying to find out who Leon Coffee is and why yoou are writing about it.

    I don't mean to be harsh, but you put together a lot of pretty writing and interesting anecdotes without telling me a thing about Leon Coffee.
  8. That's totally understandable, Spnited, and I respect your opinion. What I sometimes tend to do is fail to realize that a reader might be reading online, without the picture of a rodeo clown putting on his makeup. Without the headline, "The Clown Prince of Rodeo", without the four accompanying pages about the College Rodeo Finals that were held on seven straight days.

    I'll heed that warning for next time.

    Thanks guys, keep em coming.
  9. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest


    Thanks for posting your work for us to see.

    I'm going to fall in behind the previous comments, and ask for a little more clarity at the top as to why we're here to read about Mr. Coffee. This needn't be a long, dry graf of exposition, or a standard news peg, but rather a single sentence that lays out the occasion for story, and delineates, however briefly, who and what he is.

    As I always do, I'm going to ask for a more detailed physical description of the principal subject of the piece. Needn't be exhaustive, just salient. How does he look, sound, walk? I imagine Leon has a pretty stiff gait by now.

    Contrary to standard newspaper thinking, I'm also going to suggest that you not assume the piece will run with a photo, or explanatory hed/subhed, or as part of a series the reader has been following all week. As a craft matter I'd recommend instead that you write your first drafts of your feature stories as if they were going to stand utterly alone in the world, without supporting material. Better to think of each story as completely self-contained than get in the very bad habit of excluding narrative detail because you think it will be covered in a box or picture next to the story.You, or your editor, can always make the decision to excise something if it duplicates information presented elsewhere.

    Per spnited, I'd suggest that even on a tight deadline you take a couple of minutes to figure out what the central theme of any story is going to be. Is Leon's story about regret? About a life well-lived? Lost youth? The inexorable passage of time? Having figured that out, you'll be amazed how much more sharply your features come into focus.

    And from the Small World Files: I did a story on Mr. Coffee in 1984. I clowned for a week at the National Western Stock Show in Denver with Leon and Miles Hare and a couple other fellas. One of the things I remember about the piece was the inventory of Leon's injuries, which, even then, was a very long list indeed. One night Leon and Miles were working the barrel and I was hunkered down in the dirt over by the chute. Charlie Sampson's bull pitched him off coming out of that chute, and Charlie, who was wearing a hockey helmet even then, got tangled up in the door. Miles ran over to distract the bull, which hooked him, flung him, and then stomped him into the arena floor with his front hooves. Broke both of Hare's shoulder blades, cracked a couple of ribs and vertebrae and shattered his collarbone. All of which, being about four feet away, I heard very distinctly. There's a picture somewhere of me throwing up at the foot of the fence at that very moment. Leon on the other hand seemed unimpressed.

    Thanks again for posting.
  10. JMacG,

    That is unreal that you worked with Leon. Very nice man, very funny guy. Not a big fan of the racial humor he allows to be said, but a great entertainer.

    All the points you made were valid. I sometimes focus too much on the style and flare than the nuts and bolts. Unfortunately at my shop, it was a crazy week and I couldn't really sit down and pick it with a fine tooth comb.

    We'll be in touch with my next story. Thanks.
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