Saturday, October 5, 2013

Week 7: Structure; Profile; Lecture

This week a profile of a person.

A profile is a look at a person, but not a three dimensional, in-depth look. It tries to give the reader an unforgettable shot, 'sideways' in the sense that it never claims to be a full-fledged, detailed biography.

I have three samples: 'What the Dog Saw,' a profile of Cesar Millan, the dog whisperer, by Malcolm Gladwell, a profile of a sports figure by Joe Posnanski, and one I just wrote: 'Well-Respected Citizen.'

I'm going to describe what I see in the Gladwell piece and then some of the writing problems I had doing my profile.

Gladwell: Gladwell is such an impressive writer. Reading this profile made me want to try something similar, though in the end I wasn't able to imitate a lot of what impressed me.

Here's what Gladwell does:

* He opens with a typical scene in Millan's work

* Continues with a physical description of the man

* Adds some biographical information

* Then some interview material and a behind-the-scenes look at Millan's 'empire'

* Backs up for a full and formal introduction of the subject of the profile

* Gives another typical scene from Millan's tv show

* Offers scientific overview and speculation about animal behavior

* Continues with detailed description of Millan's body language working with dogs

* Backs up to describe Millan's marriage and how it connects to his relationship with dogs

* Ends with another typical Millan scene with dogs

Described that way, it sounds like an awful mess, an English teacher's nightmare (we'd say: "Malcolm! Where is your outline for your profile!") but if you read it, you will see the author glides incredibly gracefully from one element to another.

We should all be so lucky as to produce a 'mess' like that!

Several things stood out for me: Gladwell avoids inserting himself into the profile. Although he obviously saw in person some of the scenes described, he becomes a camera, a recorder, and excludes his ideas, opinions, and obvious reactions. I liked that idea and wanted to imitate it in my own piece.

Another noticeable feature is Gladwell's recurrent use of dramatic scenes of Millan working with dogs. These are salted throughout the piece to keep reader interest. Think of them as the sweet raisins in the raisin bread. They are not the whole thing, but they are what makes the piece what it is; they define the piece and without them we would be far less interested in Millan. The old-fashioned and slightly patronizing name for these raisins is 'human interest material.'

The final thing that stands out is something I've already mentioned: the organization. If I could write that way, I would, but it requires talent I do not have. I can but stand back and admire.

'Well-Respected Citizen." That brings me to my profile.

Originally I wanted to do a profile of a truly well-respected citizen, the extraordinarilty talented and good man who was my neighbor for nearly forty years until his death this winter. I had many stories, much material, and could have done a much more in-depth profile (if 'in-depth' is the right word for a profile) than the one I eventually did.

I decided against writing that profile, not because I had anything at all bad to say about the man (on the contrary), but because he was private and his family is private, and I did not want to open the slightest possibility of invading that privacy by putting a profile on line.

So, I came up with Robert Osborne, whose privacy concerns are non-existent. The things he might have liked to keep most private wound up a matter of public record. The downside of writing about Robert Osborne is that the material is sketchy. I didn't have much to go on.

I had a few personal stories, though, imitating Gladwell, I avoided the first-person in the piece. The clever reader will see the writer in there easily enough. I had some newspaper articles from 2005 and 2006. I had some information from my wife and a bit of local gossip.

Was this enough? Should I have interviewed the many local people who knew the man? I was tempted to make a few phone calls but had to rein myself in--all I needed was 900 or 1000 words for my ENG 262 profile. More information might have added spice but also length and complexity I wasn't prepared to cope with.

Even fitting together what I already had became a question. Some stories would have added a lot of bulk to the piece without necessarily shedding much light on Osborne. He came before the Swanville Planning Board when I was serving on it, and we had many evening sessions where Osborne and his rather intimidating partner browbeat us until they had our approval. I wanted to write about the partner in the profile but decided against it.

And what about the story of Osborne's 1994 marriage to a former town clerk, a marriage quickly ending in divorce. What was that all about? I wasn't sure. It was certainly strange and a generator of gossip, but in the end I could find no way to use it effectively.

In a perfect world, I would have tracked down Osborne himself, if he's still alive, and interviewed him. I would have asked about his youth in Massachusetts, his war service, his marriage, education, how he came to Maine, his children, business, and so on. Would he have talked to me? I think he would. I think he would be happy to have the chance to once again vociferously deny what the jury was convinced of beyond a reasonable doubt, just as he did in court.

In that same perfect world, my piece would have flowed as smoothly as Gladwell's. I would have been able to avoid those triple asterisks between my vignettes. I would have had more juicy material. I would have remembered more of our 35 year-old conversation in the restaurant in Liberty, and I would be surer that what I remember is accurate (I'm not.)

This was a difficult piece to write. It took a week of thinking, of doing bits and pieces, and of arranging and assembling them. 'Difficult' does not mean unpleasant. I never doubted I could finish what I had begun and that it would adequately satisfy my sense of my capablities. I knew I wouldn't disappoint myself, and I enjoyed shuffling the puzzle pieces around the page until I had my profile.

You will notice that the structure of my profile follows Gladwell's example and does not go chronologically. I try to present the man in his best guise at town meeting and then offer a sharp, dramatic contrast by showing him at his sentencing. Then I back up to give anecdotal material stretching back several decades. This approach is certainly not a requirement of a profile, but using it allows the writer a lot of flexibility and an easy way to cherrypick material and avoid 'completism'--the sense that he has to tell everything he knows.

It's a profile, not a biography. The ultimate question: Is the reader left with a clear outline or silhouette of the profilee?

Try one yourself. Do not, please, write about Barack Obama, Pope Benedict XVI, David Ortiz, or Mother Teresa. Write about someone closer to home.

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