Friday, September 26, 2014

Obliquely Speaking

The AP, my employer the last 32 years of my journalism career, also served as the springboard to one of the most enjoyable sidelights of my experience as a journalist _ a chance to play professor at a distinguished institution of higher learning. I doubt Syracuse University would have come calling in the autumn of 1984 had I not been the Syracuse correspondent for the world's largest news-gathering organization at the time. But I was, and the university did, in the form of an invitation from Dr. Sam Kennedy, chair of the Newspaper Division of the S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, to organize and teach a sports-writing class the following spring.

I gulped while accepting, having just been informed that I would have to develop everything from scratch. I'd also been told that the university had the resources to cover for me in the event airplanes fell from the sky or ships collided in the St. Lawrence Seaway (one of my favorite beats) on the one day a week that I was to scheduled to lecture on sports writing. That was reassuring, and I set about writing a syllabus, compiling a reading list and mapping out a schedule that would allow me to be in class three hours per week and then grade the spot quizzes and writing assignments for 15 students.

It was during the preparation phase that I realized I wanted to teach one principle of good writing which I could not find in Stanley Woodward's "Sports Page," the textbook that first year. It was the principle of triad chords in music _ harmoniously stacking a set of three notes. The application in prose is to stack three similar thoughts, with each repetition intensifying the effect of what the writer is saying. I'd seen the triad used frequently in the work of incomparable Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray, and planned to cite examples from his writing. Murray, who won the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association's Sportswriter of the Year award 14 times, mixed caustic humor with deep insight. He famously described tennis as:
"A game in which love counts for nothing, deuces are wild, and the scoring system was invented by Lewis Carroll."
In another column, one of my favorites, Murray borrowed a proverb attributed to Dutch theologian Desiderius Erasmus to begin his epic putdown of boxer Floyd Patterson:
"In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. In a congress of murderers, a cutpurse is an honest man. And, in a heavyweight division of palookas, Floyd Patterson is a champion."
The catch was that I didn't have a term for what Murray was doing. I came up with one in the nick of time, coining the term "oblique entry" for that type of circling a subject to create interest at the top of a story. It worked well _ it was gratifying to watch the young would-be writers in the class reach for notebooks, It was also a bit alarming: I could envision one of them telling a real professor something like, "Mr. Reisner says Oblique Entry is the way to catch a reader's attention," and having that get back to the faculty lounge. So I told them something like, "Now, this is my own term. You won't find it in a textbook, because I haven't written a textbook. But try repetition of a theme at the start of a feature story or column if you want to jazz up your writing."

I've followed my own advice on utilizing the harmonic triad many times since, and people seem to like it.

In the most extreme example in "The Leather Man," Chapter 31 is 50 percent oblique entry. The first half of the three-page chapter discusses the Bear River Massacre, a little-known battle between a cavalry regiment and the Shoshone Tribe in southern Idaho. Some estimates put the Native American loss of life at 450, making it one of the greatest slaughters in Indian Wars history.

As the story unfolds, readers come to understand that the chapter is not really about the battle _ the historical markers which interpret it for interested motorists simply lie on the route the Canyon State team bus has taken to reach Logan, Utah, and a game against Utah State which the Wranglers have little chance of winning.

A paragraph in the middle of the second page conveys the message. As the bus passes the monuments, sports information director Marc Carter tries to imagine the scene near the Bear River in January 1863, and an idea strikes him:
What we're heading into is a long way from a massacre, but that's probably what the Sunday papers will call it.
That sentence is a bridge between the drawn-out entry and the introduction to the most important game in Canyon State's history. Carter's musing continues, and he expounds on the reasons Utah State is an overwhelming favorite: tradition, more money, a history of success against a stronger schedule, and great players. Carter, a character in my work-of-fiction first novel, recalls eight Aggies players who began NFL, AFL or Canadian Football League careers during a seven-year span beginning in 1959.

The Canyon State-Utah State game, pairing a fictional college with an existing university, posed a special problem for me. I had to choose at the outset whether to invent a successful, upper-level college program or work around the pitfalls inherent in a meeting of fictional-historical teams. I chose the latter and made it work by not giving the year of the game or mentioning a Utah State player or coach by name. I want Aggies fans of all ages to know that I have great respect for the program. In fact, it was their dominance of regional opponents in the 1960s that led me to pick them as the overwhelming favorite against Canyon State.


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