Squeeeeeez it!

One life told in 408 words

Most of us would say the same whiny thing if asked to do a profile in 400 words: “Whhhhaaaaaaa! I can’t capture a life in 400 words!”

But suppose you took it upon yourself to see if your writing tools included harsh self-discipline–suppose you tried to write a 400-word profile every once in a while. Think of it as an exercise that will develop the self-editing skills that are even more in need when you’re writing long.

Squeeeeeez it!

Squeeeeeez it!

I thought of this while reading a 408-word profile by Gregor McGavin in the Riverside, CA, Press-Enterprise. Gregor is drawn to features about marginalized yet sometimes hopeful people, and this is what he wrote last week on the 30th anniversary of Elvis’ death. Much of what I liked about the story came from what the writer didn’t do–beat me over the head about the adversity of the protagonist. As you read, think about what you might have done differently, for better or worse.

By Gregor McGavin

The transformation takes place in an office at the end of the makeshift ballroom, where a Saturday night dance is just getting started.

Off comes the navy blue blazer, then the collar and tie.

Even the Superman T-shirt has to go.

On comes a cream-colored bodysuit with a six-inch collar and a V-neck down to his belly.

On go the gold-framed shades.

He cinches a broad gold belt around his waist, picks three favorite compact discs from his bag and strides to the door.

“Here comes Elvis,” Tim Page says with a grin.

Life has often been more cruel than tender to Page, a mildly retarded Riverside man of 49.

He and his brother Joel, who is also retarded, live with their older brother Rick, a truck driver. Tim needs a caseworker to help him with day-to-day living.

He works as a janitor in Colton. Pushing a broom and a mop pays $2.28 an hour, on top of his monthly disability check.

But one night a month — this night — Tim Page gets to be the King.

The monthly dances hosted by Riverside nonprofit group Ability Counts are a huge hit with the developmentally disabled people they serve.

And Page is perhaps the highlight of it all.

Tonight, the hall is dressed up in red crepe-paper.

The deejay spins songs from the ’80s — Michael Jackson, Madonna, the Romantics.

“It’s not my kind of music, but it’s OK,” says Page, his thin frame and sharp features set him apart from the older Elvis, though his hair is dyed black for performances.

Slowly the dance floor starts to fill.

Couples sway.

A big guy in a sports coat struts.

A fellow in a Stetson shakes strangers’ hands and another guy walks in circles.

Page paces as he waits for his cue, but says he’s not nervous.

Finally, the moment arrives.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the deejay says, “put your hands together for Elvis!”

Page steps on stage to a driving beat.

He swivels his hips as the horn section starts.

His hair flies and his right arm works like a piston.

He points and poses and the crowd cheers.

Page works his way through “C.C. Rider,” then straight into “Burning Love,” and “Suspicious Minds.”

The voice falters now and then, but the moves are pure Presley.

When the music ends, Page lifts his mic one last time.

“Thank you,” he says in a low drawl. “Thank you very much.”

Thirty-four separate, short sentences, averaging 11.9 words per sentence. The words themselves were short–4.3 charactes per word. In keeping with the virtue of brevity, I asked Gregor to write a short self-analysis. He said:

“This story was so loaded with poignancy, I wanted to be sure to not overwrite. So I tried to use mostly short, simple sentences and avoid any over-the-top adverbs.

“I thought that leading the reader from Tim’s preparations through his performance was a good way to work in his personal story without beating the reader over the head with it. Then, I just tried to capture the excitement of the dance and the joy that Tim and others take from it.

“I had to write very economically, because what I was really trying to do was to capture a moment that meant a lot to these folks. I think I picked my spot well, and from there, the story almost told itself.”

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