A few days ago I saw that Rick Bragg had a new book out, a third part to his memoirs. I’ve never read anything but excerpts from Bragg’s memoirs, and I knew nothing about Bragg until I learned of him a few years ago when I was a newspaper reporter. Back then, I read his collected New York Times pieces, Somebody Told Me, and I read sentences like this lead:
This is a place where grandmothers hold babies on their laps under the stars and whisper in their ears that the lights in the sky are holes in the floor of heaven. This is a place where the song “Jesus Loves Me” has rocked generations to sleep, and heaven is not a concept, but a destination.
And I fell in love with such sentences (though I just noticed the antecedent-reference problem in sentence one. Does the second “their” refer to babies or grandmothers? Even editors at the New York Times slip, eh?).
These sentences were not the kind of sentences you read in daily newspapers, not regularly, at least. These sentences had a voice, a melodic Southern lilt, not the monotone thrum of AP style. They were the kind of sentences I wanted to write (though as I read them over again as I write this blog post, not so much. They have a treacly sentimentality built in; you can hear the “sad” in them if you listen well enough). They also vividly and succinctly captured the sad nature of the story they were telling — of a twister hurling itself through a rural Alabama town and church, and killing children.
Still, they are sentences with voice, the kind of sentences I wanted to write as I was learning to be a good feature writer. I wanted to write these kinds of sentences so bad I imitated them in my own newspaper feature stories.
Also, despite their treacly Southern sentimentality, they were the kind of sentences I wanted to serve as leads to the kind of stories I wanted to write when I was a newspaper feature story writer. Full of the elements of good storytelling so rare in newspapers. Narrative and description, setting and scene.
In this particular story, it seems, though it’s not a first person tale, Bragg put himself, his knowledge of growing up in the South, into the writing: It’s clear in the voice and in the images of the lead, in which the children’s hymn “Jesus Loves Me” appears as a song you should know if you, too, grew up Protestant in the South or Southwest and went anywhere near a church. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me, for the Bible tells me so.
Bragg’s voice, the frame of his experience, lends authenticity to the piece. It makes you as a newspaper feature writer want to write this kind of feature, the narrative-driven feature that you now believe, like others, may be the amazing grace that saves newspapers, and the wretch newspaper sales have become, because you believe people actually do read, or want to read, newspapers and that there are readers out there in the world who are good readers who want real stories, the kind of stories you like to write.
But then Bragg goes and does something deceitful like not giving credit to an unpaid freelancer for gathering some notes, and then writes a story with a dateline on it, a dateline that belongs to a place where Bragg may or may not have been, or at least wasn’t there very long. And you shrug your shoulders and say, OK. It’s not really that big of a deal. It’s just the New York Times shaking in a holy-roller snit because one deceitful person — Jayson Blair — was enough for them, so another becomes a fall guy and Bragg does what seems the right thing: He resigns.
So, you forgive him. It’s not like he’s made shit up like Stephen Glass or even worse James Frey or Margaret Seltzer, who made shit up about whole chunks of their lives, or made up whole lives for themselves because somehow their quietly desperate life wasn’t good enough to write about.
So you forgive Bragg, because he didn’t make shit up, as far as you know, and you feel it in your gut that what he’s written is real, no matter who took the notes. It’s real because of the voice (you’ve heard the man speak, and you know the voice is real: It’s a personable Southern voice that makes you feel as if you’re welcome at Bragg’s table for a glass of sweet tea).
It’s real because of scenes and images like this:
The 400 mourners stood and said the Lord’s Prayer. Then, Hannah’s coffin was moved slowly back down the aisle to the hearse. The organist played “Jesus Loves Me.”
But then you think, hell, if I hadn’t credited my former assistant editor on work she did, at the very least my editor would have ripped me a new one, and so would my assistant, and maybe I would have lost my job. And then you see Bragg putting out a book on Jessica Lynch and getting a job teaching journalism at the University of Alabama, and finishing up his memoirs, and you, on the other hand, are struggling to find a good job, and that makes it hard to forgive the man his sins (as much as you want to, because maybe he’s taken enough crap), even if he does write sentences like this:
Oseola McCarty spent a lifetime making other people look nice. Day after day, for most of her 87 years, she took in bundles of dirty clothes and made them clean and neat for parties she never attended, weddings to which she was never invited, graduations she never saw.