Jason Fry on Michael Lewis on Obama: How small choices matter
“If you want to learn from great writers, spot moments where they grab you—and then figure out what they did and why they did it.”
That’s the conclusion of Jason Fry, who blogs about the New York Mets and serves as an ombudsman for ESPN, but in this case is talking about “Moneyball” author Michael Lewis’ long profile of President Obama in Vanity Fair.
That’s what Fry does here. He notices a detail about Air Force One that Lewis includes about a quarter of the way into the piece. It isn’t the detail itself—that Lewis is sitting in a place on the plane “where the seats and tables can be easily removed so that if the president’s body needs to be transported after his death there’s a place to put his coffin.” It’s the way Lewis chooses to present that detail:
A logical and tempting technique here would be to show Lewis—the White House tourist—noticing the unusual configuration, learning its purpose, and reacting to that. And indeed, that’s exactly what happens later in the piece. But presenting that same information as known fact is more effective, particularly here. We are startled, and stop to consider what this information means, but Lewis is impassive. He knows this odd, resonant detail about Air Force One, tells it to us, and moves on.
To present this fact to the reader in this way is to claim immense authority as a narrator; by picking a wise spot for making that claim, Lewis earns that authority. (It wouldn’t work with, say, the White House’s French doors. Or late in the story.) We immediately treat Lewis as an authority, and continue to grant him that status, even when he later plays the naif.
As Fry notes, it’s a little thing, that decision to present that detail in that way. “But there are no little things for the best writers.”
Every word counts in every piece. And there are choices you can make about how those words do their work. Make sure you’re thinking about those choices, not just gliding over them.