Saturday, September 5, 2009

Place as power

On the college football season’s opening morning, I thought I would introduce a poignant piece that uses the sport as a lens through which to investigate place and its ability to forge lives. Brady McCollough’s “Ohio steel town molded three Big 12 coaches” is a wonderful example of how setting can be used to develop character and impact readers.

This is more than a sports story. It includes themes of human growth, community decay and the possibility of resurrection. Whenever I think back to some of my favorite narrative pieces, I realize that they stride beyond the nut graf, forcing readers to consider societal struggles. Authors accomplish this by including action, introducing conflict, suggesting resolution (if applicable) and investigating larger human themes.

Place can serve as character. This is what makes narrative journalism so fascinating to me. It is a difficult -- but much more rewarding -- style. Through immersion reporting, an author makes an environment breathe. The writer can and must include the sounds, smells and scenes that touch his or her conscience during the reporting process.

Consider McCollough’s final scene:

As the team gets ready for a scrimmage last week, pounding around their new domain, Ron brings a poster into the locker room. It’s a rendering of a $1 million wellness center for Mooney, a vision that hasn’t even been announced.

“What’s that?” one of the players asks.

Ron looks beat up. There’s a fresh red scar under his right eye from a painting mishap — he cut his cheek on a piece of wood — and blotches of paint on the back of his calves. What’s that? It better be a future.

I love the “fresh red scar under his right eye.” I love the “blotches of paint on the back of his calves.” I love how McCollough uses seemingly frivolous detail to the untrained eye to convey hope amid struggle. His piece packs a closing punch.

Too often, we as writers and readers become distracted and settle for surface-level analysis. We live in a society that rewards our DSL lives. Take a moment. Slow down. Immerse yourself in place's power within narrative.

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