The case for understatement

How holding back the hype can create the proper tone

One of the greatest unspoken tricks in writing is the art of making the reader feel what you felt as a reporter. I’m talking about that sense of anticipation that builds as you report out a story–the goosebumps you begin to feel as it gradually dawns on you that you have great stuff. You’re not yet consciously trying to organize it (although you should, soon), you’re just digging the sense of discovery.


The case for understatement

One way to try to capture the splendor of your reporting is to remind yourself: Stand back. Let your tone be understated. Let the construction build for the reader–encircle the story quickly enough to let the reader know what’s happening, but use a tone of understatement, so that there is a gradual building of events; that way, the reader gradually falls in love with the story–the same way you did when you were reporting it.

This is impossible on the first try; it requires you to set aside additional self-editing time so you can keep reading the story from the top on down as though you were reading it for the first time. But watch what happens when it’s done well. Here’s a recent New York Times piece about the completion of Ground Zero cleanup, and the emotional dilemma it created. As a reader, I felt pulled into its complexities, layer by layer. It’s the kind of piece I needed to read, personally, from 3,000 miles away, to feel plugged in to the psychology of Sept. 11 from a New York perspective. See if it hits you the same way, and see if you can find some lessons for your own work:

By Dan Barry
May 3, 2002

First, the writer exploits our strong context:

It is nearly done.

Then a quick assessment of the progress, allowing himself a couple of adjectives to remind us of the terror:

Through the blur of unnoticed seasons, in an effort without parallel, 1.6 million tons of material from the collapse of the World Trade Center have been dismantled, examined and carted off to be examined again. That fire-spitting, hellish mound–crushed concrete and scorched metal and body parts–has been reduced, one truckload at a time, to a few piles on a bedrock-bottomed pit.

Third graf: He gets us into the “now” with five quick sentences that sketch the scene:

Now, heavy machines called grapplers pick away at what little remains of a structural Colossus. Bulldozers lay the material out in patches that look like freshly tilled gray gardens. Firefighters rake through the gray, searching for pieces of people. Some mutter that the firefighters are moving too slow, but there is no overtime being paid. Besides, as one fire official put it: how long is too long to search for a finger?

By the fourth graf we’re introduced to a central character, first described as a retired fire captain, only secondarily described as a parent:

The scene is both mesmerizing and macabre. “It’s a little hypnotic when you watch it,” said John T. Vigiano, a retired fire captain who has kept vigil there for nearly eight months, ever since his only children–a police detective and a firefighter–disappeared in a summer morning’s roar. “It’s like a ballet.”

The fifth graf delves into the psychological implications of finishing the Ground Zero cleanup:

The curtain is about to fall on this mournful ballet. The last of what was the trade center will be gone by the end of the month, creating profound physical and psychological shifts regarding a singular calamity. The recovery operation that began in Lower Manhattan on Sept. 11 will end–only because there will be nothing left to dig out– and a new phase, the rebuilding phase, will begin.

Again, the writer pulls his five-quick-sentences-to-encircle-the-scene trick, this time using parallel structure:

It means that the Salvation Army’s rest-and-relaxation tent, called the Taj Mahal, will be taken down. That the Sunday Masses, in front of a cross made of girders, will end. That the residents will no longer worry about the dust billowing from departing trucks. That the laborers and police officers and counselors will share awkward farewells. That the firefighters will finally leave.

Statistical perspective:

On a more universal scale, the end of the recovery operation will expose its most painful truth: that no matter how extraordinary the effort has been, it will forever be incomplete. The remains of 1,008 of the 2,823 victims have been identified, with more to come through DNA matches, but hundreds of families will not fulfill their need to bury loved ones. Coffins are meant to carry more than air, they say, and the urns of ground zero dirt that the city distributed were just that: dirt.

Notice there’s only been one quote used so far. The writer packs more power by distilling human experience and expressing it himself, as he does in the next graf with two examples of the site’s sacred nature. (He wants to keep the story moving, so he will bring us back to the graf’s two characters deeper in the story.) In the last sentence of the next graf, the writer wants to make sure we understand the purity of the families’ wistfulness, so he echoes a widow’s literal belief with two words of his own:

How, then, can private grief be balanced with public works? How can anyone tell Michael Pietronico, who lost his brother, that he is wrong in wanting the entire 16-acre site to be a memorial park? Or tell Monica Iken that she is mistaken to believe that her husband’s heart–his heart–is in this spot?

A beautiful paragraph delves into nuance; look how much one detail–the time needed to compose a letter to the families–gives this passage poignancy:

The approaching end of the recovery is so emotionally freighted that government officials have been holding meeting after meeting to decide how best to mark the moment –how to be dignified about an overwhelming indignity. In a recent letter that took weeks to compose–the salutation reads “Dear Family Member”–Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Gov. George E. Pataki explained that efforts to identify remains will continue at the medical examiner’s office and at the Fresh Kills Landfill, where more than 105,000 truckloads of material have been brought. But they also gently noted that “in the next few weeks, the official recovery effort at ground zero will be completed.”

The writer doesn’t let Mr. Vigiano go AWOL. He brings him back to reflect on the quandary the story has been developing, creating an effortless transition:

Mr. Vigiano knows that the moment is near. The remains of his younger son, Detective Joseph Vigiano, 34, were found in October. (“Imagine being happy when they find the remains of your dead son,” he said.) But there has been no trace yet of his older boy, John, a 36-year-old firefighter, and this father without children can do nothing but watch the diminishing piles.

Think how many stories would feel obligated to force-feed you a graf of quotes by the dad. Here the writer knows you will learn more-feel more-if he simply describes what the father did:

In the first few months he was there every day, from 7 in the morning until 11 at night. But then he broke his arm at the site, and something else snapped as well. Now, he drives in every Wednesday from Deer Park, on Long Island, with other retired firefighters who come to support a man so respected on the job that he was called “Monsignor.” And on Sundays he escorts his wife, Jan; he gets her coffee, makes sure she wants for nothing as she stares into the abyss.

Still showing rather than telling, until the end of the graf, when you have the context to appreciate the quote, same as if you had been at the site for months, watching the poor old man:

Mr. Vigiano is so much a part of the site that construction workers, police officers and firefighters have formed a protective cocoon around the slightly hunched man of 63. They shake his hand and are slow to let go, as though some of his grace might be transferred through touch. Mr. Vigiano says that he visits the disaster site for them and will remain here as long as they are here. But once the recovery is over, he is gone, and he has no plans to come back. “There is nothing here for me,” he said, looking down into the pit. “My sons are in heaven.”

Nice two-sentence transition to a diverse range of reaction beyond our character:

John Vigiano claims no ownership of how one should feel about the end of recovery at the disaster site. The matter is so immense that people come to it from different points in the circles of grief and awe.

Rather than trot out additional characters in the next graf, which we’d do so often out of obligation, the writer synthesizes three classes of reaction, including three sub-classes in the third. He knows this is enough, that we have witnessed every class of response in the past six months, that there are pictures in each reader’s imaginations. This choice keeps the story focused on its theme-the site, and its final cleanup:

There are those for whom the obliteration of the Borders bookstore symbolizes vulnerability and the loss of a way of life. And those who cannot forget leaving the site with the muck of death still on their clothes and taking the subway two stops to another world, another city. And, of course, there are those who lost loved ones: some who come to the site faithfully, some who never come, some whose inability to articulate feelings about the recovery’s end can say so much.

“I don’t judge any of them,” said the Rev. Brian Jordan, a Franciscan who has said Mass at the site every Sunday. “I just listen and say, `I hear you.’ ”

A secondary character is introduced, not for what he will tell us, but for what he will not tell us (or his wife), and what that says about the depth of feeling:

Giacinto (Jack) Mirto is one of the thousands of trades people who have been heralded as heroes for working a job that no apprenticeship could have prepared them for. He is 29, a broad-shouldered man from Toms River, N.J., and he declines to specify what he has witnessed in seven months of operating a grappler machine at the site.

“I’ve seen it all,” he said, sounding like a soldier fresh from battle. “Everything was just there, right in front of you.”

He remembers how his heart raced at his first sight of the destruction; how his 65-ton Hitachi excavator nearly fell through the debris floor; how time lost meaning, how Thursday could just as well be Tuesday or Sunday; how he forged a bond with the ironworkers, laborers and others working beside him. Now this part of his young life is nearly over. And while he did not know any of the victims, he said, he is ready to work a site that does not merge the emotional with the physical. “It’ll be good to start spending time with family,” he said. But that does not mean he will suddenly open up to his wife, Gina, about what he has been through. “I don’t tell her nothing.”

With that, we are exposed to a deeper, more specific section that reflects on the conflicted psychology of obsession and unfinished business. First we hear a boss, then a counselor, then a firefighter in the crucible:

Bobby Gray, the supervising foreman for the site’s operating engineers, said people like Mr. Mirto have not had time to sort out what they have been through, just as they are not prepared for the end. He said that laid-off union members constantly ask to come back. “They just keep calling and calling and calling: `Get me a day. Get me a night,’ ” he said. “I think that it’s out of some sense of duty that you want to see this thing through to the end. After everything they’ve done, they just want to be there for when the job is finished.”

For many firefighters, the job will never be finished, the vow to recover the dead–including their own–not kept. For months now, the Fire Department’s counseling unit has been dispatching teams to give firefighters at the site a chance to vent (“We assure them that picking up body parts isn’t a normal thing,” said Malachy P. Corrigan, the director of the counseling unit.)

What counselors hear from the firefighters in the pit–who sift and wait, sift and wait–is the anger rooted in the realization that more than 150 of the 343 firefighters killed have not been found or identified. “I think that the day the operation shuts down is going to be more critical than any other day for the Fire Department,” Mr. Corrigan said. “Their mission is over, and what are they going to do now?”

Rich Denninger, a counselor and retired firefighter, agreed: “They know what’s going to happen, and they don’t like it. When it shuts down, a third of the guys are going to say, `We aren’t finished yet,’ and the rest are just going to walk away.”

Recovery workers feel this way because of people like Robert Kelly, a firefighter whose brother, Firefighter Thomas R. Kelly, has not been recovered.

Robert Kelly, a man who seems to sag in his coveralls, has spent a lot of time at the site, helping where he can, and knows that no whistle has sounded in recent days to signal the discovery of another body. He said he is almost looking forward to the end, to being a full-time father again, to not dedicating so much time to such an awful place. Of the dead, including his brother, he said: “They wouldn’t want us to sit here and mope. They’d want us to go on.”

Still, Mr. Kelly said, “I can tell you that when I’m here, I feel my brother.”

The writer uses that quote to transition to the question of what should be built on the site, but he does it by including a painful, important notion in the next sentence:

That sense of a lingering presence, created in part by the reality that many victims were essentially vaporized, is not uncommon among families who lost loved ones, and has further complicated the planning for the site’s future. The 16-acre property was once an economic center that many people argue must be recreated in some fashion. But the knowledge that the site may soon be transformed is “torture, pure torture” for many people, said Jonathan D. Greenspun, the commissioner of the city’s Community Assistance Unit. “They’re afraid of hearing that this is over.”

He brings back the two characters from the affecting eighth graf, beginning with the woman who believes her husband’s heart-his heart-is buried at the site:

Monica Iken is among those who think that everything is moving too fast, who fear that the dead will be forgotten in all the chatter about opportunity for a downtown renaissance, who are bracing for that difficult moment when the recovery ends. The remains of her husband, Michael P. Iken–a bond trader for Maxcor/Euro Brokers–have not been found or identified, and so all she has is that forsaken site where he spent his last moments.

See if you don’t appreciate Iken’s quotes more here than you would have in the eighth graf. You understand the story more deeply now; it gives her words more resonance.

“People need to understand,” she said. “They’re there. Their souls are there, and that is our graveyard. It would be very difficult to acknowledge that my husband went poof, and there is nothing of him.”

In trying to give substance to the intangible, Ms. Iken said she has formed the organization, September’s Mission, “to make sure that we have the most beautiful memorial that the world will ever see.”

“We need a place to go in the future,” she said.

Michael Pietronico agrees. Growing up in Jersey City, he was called “Little Bernard,” after the older brother he adored. Now he bristles at the blueprint traces of buildings and streets over the place where his brother, a bond trader for Cantor Fitzgerald, died. The recovery of his brother’s remains has not lessened his anger.

“It just troubles me to think of buildings built on that site, and construction activity picking up, when there are a lot of people’s remains effectively etched in the soil,” he said. “It just seems cold to me to expect people to go about their lives around that site as if nothing ever happened.”

Mr. Pietronico knows that he is in the distinct minority, but still, he believes that nothing should be built on the site except a memorial. “The world can move ahead without 16 acres more office space,” he said.

An acknowledgement of the complexity of sentiment

But among those who lost loved ones on Sept. 11, there are different degrees of passion for the disaster site–and for a memorial. As Father Jordan said, “There are 3,000 families affected, and probably 3,000 opinions for a memorial.”

Mae Mills acknowledges that she does not feel the same emotional grip that others have for the place that consumed her husband, Charles. He was an enforcement director for the State Department of Taxation and Finance who, at 61, was talking about retiring and losing weight for his daughter’s coming wedding. Now, he is gone, never to be recovered, and Ms. Mills claims that she knew it the moment the second plane hit.

There needs to be a memorial somewhere on the site, she said, but rebuilding downtown would be the best memorial to the dead. She said that she visited the site for the first time in months a few weeks ago, and was struck by the transformation. West Street, for example, was about to reopen.

“It was nice to see life going on,” Ms. Mills said, adding that she did not know how much meaning to ascribe to the recovery’s end. “I think we’re going to be talking about this 10 years from now,” she said, “and still be frozen in time by the enormity.”

Now, you’re probably beginning to wonder what kind of quote will end the story. That’s because we’re conditioned to think you end a feature with a quote. But remember what this writer is after–a deeper, more subtle sense of truth. If he can show it to you, rather than falling back on somebody else’s words, he’ll do it. He leaves us in the midst of an unexpected, somewhat unsettling moment, a moment in which we want more of a sense of completeness, a moment in which we are (whether the writer intended it or not) very much like the people we’ve been reading about:

The late-afternoon sun glanced through a SoHo cafe’s window to highlight the ruefulness in Nikki Stern’s smile. She had just been asked what the end of the recovery work at the disaster site meant to her, and her mind was whirring with thoughts–including the realization that so many dates are now markers. The Ides of March, for example: the day the police came to her Princeton home, signaling that the remains of her husband, James E. Potorti, had been identified.

Ms. Stern belongs to five committees related to Sept. 11, and prides herself on being able to recognize the myriad ways that people are trying to cope with the disaster. When asked for her own opinions about the site’s future, she said she only knew that her husband liked the hustle and bustle of downtown–its “life force,” she said. “If Jim isn’t here in my heart, he isn’t anywhere,” she said. “That makes him portable.”

Her cellphone rang. It was a friend, calling to say that she had just been notified that her own husband’s remains had been identified.

“Are you sure you’re all right?” Ms. Stern asked, her voice quavering. “Are you sure? I’ll call you later.”

She hung up, and cried a little. Then she composed herself and returned to the question of what the end of recovery at a place in Lower Manhattan means to her.

RECOMMENDED READING: Here’s “Newsthinking’s” favorite columnist, Thomas Friedman of the NYT, counterpointing on May 19 the wave of stories about what-Bush-knew-about-Sept. 11:

If you ask me, the press has this whole story about whether President Bush had a warning of a possible attack before 9/11, and didn’t share it, upside down.

The failure to prevent Sept. 11 was not a failure of intelligence or coordination. It was a failure of imagination. Even if all the raw intelligence signals had been shared among the F.B.I., the C.I.A. and the White House, I’m convinced that there was no one there who would have put them all together, who would have imagined evil on the scale Osama bin Laden did.

Osama bin Laden was (or is) a unique character. He’s a combination of Charles Manson and Jack Welch — a truly evil, twisted personality, but with the organizational skills of a top corporate manager, who translated his evil into a global campaign that rocked a superpower. In some ways, I’m glad that America (outside Hollywood) is not full of people with bin Laden-like imaginations. One Timothy McVeigh is enough.

Imagining evil of this magnitude simply does not come naturally to the American character, which is why, even after we are repeatedly confronted with it, we keep reverting to our natural, naïvely optimistic selves. Because our open society is so much based on trust, and that trust is so hard-wired into the American character and citizenry, we can’t get rid of it — even when we so obviously should.

So someone drives a truck bomb into the U.S. embassy in Beirut, and we still don’t really protect the Marine barracks there from a similar, but much bigger, attack a few months later. Someone blows up two U.S. embassies in East Africa with truck bombs, and we still don’t imagine that someone would sail an exploding dinghy into a destroyer, the U.S.S. Cole, a few years later. Someone tries to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993 with a truck bomb, and the guy who did it tells us he had also wanted to slam a plane into the C.I.A., but we still couldn’t imagine someone doing just that to the Twin Towers on 9/11.

So I don’t fault the president for not having imagined evil of this magnitude. But given the increasingly lethal nature of terrorism, we are going to have to adapt. We need an “Office of Evil,” whose job would be to constantly sift all intelligence data and imagine what the most twisted mind might be up to.

No, I don’t blame President Bush at all for his failure to imagine evil. I blame him for something much worse: his failure to imagine good.

I blame him for squandering all the positive feeling in America after 9/11, particularly among young Americans who wanted to be drafted for a great project that would strengthen America in some lasting way — a Manhattan project for energy independence. Such a project could have enlisted young people in a national movement for greater conservation and enlisted science and industry in a crash effort to produce enough renewable energy, efficiencies and domestic production to wean us gradually off oil imports.

Such a project would not only have made us safer by making us independent of countries who share none of our values. It would also have made us safer by giving the world a much stronger reason to support our war on terrorism. There is no way we can be successful in this war without partners, and there is no way America will have lasting partners, especially in Europe, unless it is perceived as being the best global citizen it can be. And the best way to start conveying that would be by reducing our energy gluttony and ratifying the Kyoto treaty to reduce global warming.

President Bush is not alone in this failure. He has had the full cooperation of the Democratic Party leadership, which has been just as lacking in imagination. This has made it easy for Mr. Bush, and his oil-industry paymasters, to get away with it.

We and our kids are going to regret this. Because a war on terrorism that is fought only by sending soldiers to Afghanistan or by tightening our borders will ultimately be unsatisfying. Such a war is important, but it can never be definitively won. Someone will always slip through. But a war on terrorism that, with some imagination, is broadly defined as making America safer by also making it better is a war that could be won. It’s a war that could ensure that something lasting comes out of 9/11, other than longer lines at the airport — and that something would be enhanced respect for America and a country and a planet that would be greener, cleaner and safer in the broadest sense.

Too bad we don’t have a president who could imagine that.

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