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Learning from a master

img_blog-gay-taleseWith most things in life, the best way to develop your own skills is to learn from the experts. Writing is no different.

That’s why I found Elon Green’s article from Nieman Storyboard, Annotation Tuesday! Gay Talese and “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” so interesting.

Nieman Storyboard is an initiative of Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation, whose mission is ‘to promote and elevate the standards of journalism and educate persons deemed specially qualified for journalism’.

The article reproduces Gay Talese’s original profile of Frank Sinatra, published in Esquire in 1966, with Green’s questions and Talese’s responses inserted throughout. This approach – continually interrupting the flow of Talese’s original piece with the conversation between the two writers – can at times be distracting, but it also provides some rewarding insights into Talese’s thinking and his creative process.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll provide just one example here:

Dolly’s only child, christened Francis Albert Sinatra, was born and nearly died on December 12, 1915. It was a difficult birth, and during his first moment on earth he received marks he will carry till death — the scars on the left side of his neck being the result of a doctor’s clumsy forceps, and Sinatra has chosen not to obscure them with surgery. …

Green: It defies convention that this paragraph — so standard now in profiles — appears halfway into the story. It usually appears closer to the beginning. Why did you put it off?

Talese: Yeah, well, I thought that’s where it belonged. I was talking to the mother and who knows better than her? The day of birth never seemed like it belonged anywhere other than where it was. It wasn’t important enough for me to think about until then. It’s really the mother’s story at that point. And it probably wasn’t the first time she’d been interviewed about that. I mean, this woman had been interviewed a lot. Don’t think I had first access to these people. I was there, and I got what I got, but I wasn’t the first. It isn’t important to be the first, anyway.

Even without the annotations, Talese’s original piece provides plenty of lessons in what makes for good writing. By reading the work of great authors you can learn a lot about their approach and the techniques they employ.

If you really wanted to set yourself a challenge, you could follow the example of Hunter S. Thompson, who claimed to have typed out F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms word-for-word as a writing exercise.

Either way, I can highly recommend taking the time to find out what happened in 1966 when Frank Sinatra caught a cold.

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photo credit: david_shankbone via photopin cc