Five things from Jon Krakauer’s Narrative Genius that You Should Steal and Use Immediately

Show, don’t tell.
Learn from Jon Krakauer in Into the Wild.

ONE: Dialogue

I was working then as an itinerant carpenter, framing condominiums in Boulder for $3.50 and hour. One afternoon, after nine hours of humping two-by-tens and driving sixteen-penny nails, I told my boss I was quitting: “No, not in a couple of weeks, Steve; right now was more like what I had in mind.” It took me a few hours to clear my tools and other belongings… (135-136)

What Krakauer does here: There’s dialogue, but only one line. Rather than giving us the entire conversation, he gives us only what we most need to understand the substance of the conversation.

The lesson to learn: Let the people in your narrative speak, but use just what you need with dialogue. The reader may not need the entire conversation. Continue reading “Five things from Jon Krakauer’s Narrative Genius that You Should Steal and Use Immediately”

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You fling a book on the floor… (novel excerpt)

from Italo Calvino, If on a winter’s night a traveler, translated by William Weaver

You fling the book on the floor, you would hurl it out of the window, even out of the closed window, through the slats of the Venetian blinds; let them shred its incongruous quires, let sentences, words, morphemes, phonemes gush forth, beyond recomposition into discourse; through the panes, and if they are of unbreakable glass so much the better, hurl the book and reduce it to photons, undulatory vibrations, polarized spectra; through the wall, let the book crumble into molecules and atoms passing between atom and atom of the reinforced concrete, breaking up into electrons, neutrons, neutrinos, elementary particles more and more minute, through the telephone wires, let it be reduced to electronic impulses, into the flow of information, shaken by redundancies and noises, and let it be degraded into a swirling entropy. You would like to throw it out of the house, out of the block, beyond the neighborhood, beyond the city limits, beyond the state confines, beyond the regional administration, beyond the national community, beyond the Common Market, beyond Western culture, beyond the continental shelf, beyond the atmosphere, the biosphere, the stratosphere, the field of gravity, the solar system, the galaxy, the cumulus of galaxies, to succeed in hurling it beyond the point the galaxies have reached in their expansion, where space-time has not yet arrived, where it would be received by nonbeing, or, rather, the not-being which has never been and will never be to be lost in the most absolutely guaranteed undeniable negativity. Merely what it deserves, neither more, nor less.

Us and Them by David Sedaris

When my family first moved to North Carolina, we lived in a rented house three blocks from the school where I would begin the third grade. My mother made friends with one of the neighbors, but one seemed enough for her. Within a year we would move again and, as she explained, there wasn’t much point in getting too close to people we would have to say good-bye to. Our next house was less than a mile away, and the short journey would hardly merit tears or even good-byes, for that matter. It was more of a “see you later” situation, but still I adopted my mother’s attitude, as it allowed me to pretend that not making friends was a conscious choice. I could if I wanted to. It just wasn’t the right time.

Continue reading “Us and Them by David Sedaris”

The Inheritance of Tools, by Scott Russell Sanders

At just about the hour when my father died, soon after dawn one February morning when ice coated the windows like cataracts, I banged my thumb with a hammer. Naturally I swore at the hammers the reckless thing, and in the moment of swearing I thought of what my father would say: “If you’d try hitting the nail it would go in a whole lot faster. Don’t you know your thumb’s not as hard as that hammer?” We both were doing carpentry that day, but far apart. He was building cupboards at my brother’s place in Oklahoma; I was at home in Indiana, putting up a wall in the basement to make a bedroom for my daughter. By the time my mother called with news of his death–the long distance wires whittling her voice until it seemed too thin to bear the weight of what she had to say-my thumb was swollen. A week or so later a white scar in the shape of a crescent moon began to show above the cuticle and month by month it rose across the pink sky of my thumbnail. It took the better part of a year for the scar to disappear, and every time I noticed it I thought of my father.

Continue reading “The Inheritance of Tools, by Scott Russell Sanders”

Fish Cheeks by Amy Tan

I fell in love with the minister’s son the winter I turned fourteen. He was not Chinese, but as white as Mary in the manger. For Christmas I prayed for this blond-haired boy, Robert, and a slim new American nose.

When I found out that my parents had invited the minister’s family over for Christmas Eve dinner, I cried. What would Robert think of our shabby Chinese Christmas? What would he think of our noisy Chinese relatives who lacked proper American manners? What terrible disappointment would he feel upon seeing not a roasted turkey and sweet potatoes but Chinese food?

Continue reading “Fish Cheeks by Amy Tan”

Knock Knock by Daniel Beaty

As a boy I shared a game with my father
Played it every morning ’til I was 3
He would knock knock on my door
And I’d pretend to be asleep
’til he got right next to the bed
Then I would get up and jump into his arms
“Good morning, Papa.”
And my papa he would tell me that he loved me
We shared a game
Knock Knock

Until that day when the knock never came
And my momma takes me on a ride past corn fields
On this never ending highway ’til we reach a place of high
Rusty gates
A confused little boy
I entered the building carried in my mama’s arms
Knock Knock
Continue reading “Knock Knock by Daniel Beaty”

272 Slaves Were Sold to Save Georgetown. What Does It Owe Their Descendants?

by Rachel R. Swarns

Originally published by the NYTimes, 16 April 2016

WASHINGTON — The human cargo was loaded on ships at a bustling wharf in the nation’s capital, destined for the plantations of the Deep South. Some slaves pleaded for rosaries as they were rounded up, praying for deliverance.

But on this day, in the fall of 1838, no one was spared: not the 2-month-old baby and her mother, not the field hands, not the shoemaker and not Cornelius Hawkins, who was about 13 years old when he was forced onboard.

Their panic and desperation would be mostly forgotten for more than a century. But this was no ordinary slave sale. The enslaved African-Americans had belonged to the nation’s most prominent Jesuit priests. And they were sold, along with scores of others, to help secure the future of the premier Catholic institution of higher learning at the time, known today as Georgetown University. Continue reading “272 Slaves Were Sold to Save Georgetown. What Does It Owe Their Descendants?”