Wick Communications

Read the greats and be great

In Writing techniques on October 20, 2011 at 3:29 pm

I found something interesting on the Web today. It’s called the Nieman Storyboard.

It is an attempt to discuss story across many media and is a part of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. I know, I know: La-de-da. If nothing else, it is an excuse to look again at one of my all-time favorite writers: Gene Weingarten.

Weingarten writes for the Washington Post and anyone who likes entertaining writing. One of his all-time best pieces was headlined, “The Peekaboo Paradox” and it was about a disheveled childhood party entertainer who went by the name The Great Zucchini. Here’s just a snippet of the 2006 piece:

… At the moment, the Great Zucchini was trying and failing to blow up a balloon, letting it whap him in the face, hard. Then he poured water on his head. Then he produced what appeared to be a soiled diaper, wiped his cheek with it, and wore it like a hat as the kids ewwww-ed. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Great Zucchini was behaving like a complete idiot.

Trey’s aunt saw me taking notes. “You’re writing a story about him?” Vicki Cox asked, amused. I confirmed that I was.

“But … why?” she asked.

Why, indeed? That is the fundamental question every newspaper reporter should ask himself before embarking on a story that will jump five times from the Web page. As always, the answer lies in seeking to understand the human condition. Back to the story of a man who makes $100,000 a year with a two-day workweek and is described as “a complete idiot:” …

If you want to understand why the Great Zucchini has this kind of success, you need look no further than the stresses of suburban Washington parenting. The attendant brew of love, guilt and toddler-set social pressures puts an arguably unrealistic value on someone with the skills, and the willingness, to control and delight a roistering roomful of preschoolers for a blessed half-hour.

That’s the easy part. Here’s the hard part: There are dozens of professional children’s entertainers in the Washington area, but only one is as successful and intriguing, and as completely over-the-top preposterous, as the Great Zucchini. And if you want to know why that is — the hook, Vicki, the hook — it’s going to take some time.

The story, you see, isn’t about that idiot, it’s about us idiots. It’s about parents who work long hours and want desperately to give their kids the best. It’s about suburbia, and kids and money and privilege. That’s why it’s a great story.

There are lots of examples of stories like this on the Nieman Storyboard, including a David Foster Wallace take on cruise ships that also shines a light on a particular aspect of the world only to have that light reflect back on his readers.

You have to read great writing to be a great writer. This is one place to start.

Clay

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