Words of occasional wisdom from Bruce Oakley

I need a shrug

Posted by boakley59 on March 17, 2009

Snap out of it, a wise friend advises over the phone. He read “On not writing well” and encourages me by agreeing that “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” is the correct response.

The trick is not in knowing the answer, but in acting on it.

So we talked for a while and I explained the kinds of things that are easy for me to write and how I have wandered from that literary path. I explained again that I have bottled myself up in trying too hard for perfection, in trying to make every observation a piece of an argument to be won instead of a simple point about a lesson to be learned.

Give up on the stiff and the stuffy, he suggested, and write like Mark Twain. Educate with humor.

It’s a nice idea, but that’s not my gift. I can tell stories about funny things, but I can’t make the people in those stories pleasantly ridiculous. I don’t feel right making anyone but me the laughable one, much as I may dislike or disagree with them. I do better with sorrow and pity, hope and empathy.

Lately, as you’ve read in other posts here, I have lost touch with empathy. I reminded my friend that I have gotten caught up in the neat packages of fiction and the caricature partisan meanness of talking heads. Argument has become battle, not discussion, and the aim is defeating the foe, demonizing as necessary.

I have lost my shrug, I told him. He sounded none too sure about what I meant, so I had to tell the story of the shrug so he wouldn’t think that I had lost some marbles, too.

Quite some time ago (even in dog years), I was one of the younger lions (perhaps I should have said cat years?) at a large metropolitan newspaper. I was all wrought up in deadlines and perfectionism and the impossibilities that arise from the collision of the two. Even with high skill and much practice, it is difficult to be excellent and fast at the same time all of the time. If you hold yourself to a high standard, you will be tortured by this Promethean Sisyphean task.

One night, after the deadline crush had passed, I got to talking to one of the more experienced editors about our struggles to roll the rock up the mountain shift after shift. He shrugged, an elegant move that I came to admire. Then he told me about the time he learned to let go.

The details are lost in the mists of memory; only the shrug remains clear.

He spoke of a night much like the night we were talking, except that something had happened after deadline — a fire, a gunfight, maybe a local leader’s heart attack. Reporters, news agencies were on the scene but nobody knew what anybody knew. The press was supposed to roll at 1 a.m. My friend would have to remake the front page and the jump page (where stories continued) to get this news, whatever it was, into the morning edition. 12:55: He prepared new versions of those pages with blank spaces for the breaking story. And he waited. 1 a.m.: He waited some more. 1:10: Still waiting, still no hint of how much information might become available or when, beyond the simplest of statements: We know this thing happened. 1:15: Can’t wait blindly anymore or we run into overtime at the press or worse, timely delivery to readers’ porches becomes impossible — we might get the breaking news in, but no one will read that or any other news because the paper won’t arrive before they go out the door to their own jobs. Run the presses; we go with what we’ve got. Go home, sleep well, mission accomplished.

But (to borrow from another Greek myth) the newspaper gods took their nibbles at my Promethean friend’s guts the next day. The update on the big event had been filed at 1:20, five minutes after my friend had shut operations down for the night. The big boss was furious; the newspaper had failed its readers on the biggest story of the month (the year?) and so looked foolish and incompetent. He let my friend have it in old school, blue newsroom language. My friend took it all but let it pass right through.

When the tirade ended, he shrugged. Oh, to have that gentle grace! He shrugged and said, “What more could I do? I was alone in the newsroom; I held the press past the time I was supposed to for a story I wasn’t sure I would get. I waited to the point of no return and then I did the best I could. That’s exactly the decision I was there to make. I made it.”

He was comfortable in his shrug. He did everything he could in the time available and he wouldn’t worry about what might have been. He taught me a great lesson that night, and I have passed it on to other young lions over the years. I tell them of the newsman with the great shrug. Now, all these years later, I am trying to bring that lesson back to life and recover my own shrug, so that I can get on with my writing.

Here, now, this version of this tale is the best I can do. It’s the story I’m here to tell. I’ve told it.

Everybody needs a shrug now and then.


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