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What Calvin Trillin learned from his college writing course

August 17, 2017 at 6:20 PM EDT
As a longtime writer for The New Yorker, Calvin Trillin was less interested in directly explaining why what he was writing was important than in just telling a good story. Trillin offers his Brief but Spectacular take on some of the best lessons he learned on writing and why he always shared his rough drafts with his wife, Alice.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Now to another in our Brief But Spectacular series, where we ask people to describe their passions.

Tonight, we hear from journalist and novelist Calvin Trillin. His book “Jackson, 1964: And Other Dispatches from Fifty Years of Reporting on Race in America” became available in paperback last month.

CALVIN TRILLIN, Writer: I was sort of between projects a little while ago, and I thought, this would be a good opportunity to re-catalog my collection of Civil War artifacts. But I don’t have a collection of Civil War artifacts, or any other collections.

This is time to put that harpsichord kit together. I don’t have a harpsichord kit. I don’t have a golf game to polish. So, I suppose it’s just writing or sitting quietly in a dark room.

For 15 years, I did a piece every three weeks for The New Yorker that was about 3,000 words. The New Yorker didn’t require what newspaper people sometimes call the nut graph, which is the paragraph that tells you why this story is important.

The billboard paragraph in some of my stories would have to say something like, all over the country, disreputable people in small towns are killing each other, something like that. I mean, I didn’t have one of those.

So, I was only interested in whether it was an interesting story. I didn’t know much about The New Yorker when I was a kid. I had one cousin who took The New Yorker, and she was considered rather strange.

I definitely backed into journalism. I think most people of my era backed into journalism because they didn’t want to go to law school or they were trying to write a novel and couldn’t figure out how to do it.

I knew I wasn’t going to do anything that required manual dexterity or mathematics skills. I have always said that mathematics was my worst subject. I was never able to persuade the teacher that many of my answers were meant ironically.

I took a writing course in college that had those usual mottoes, like — like show, don’t tell and all that sort of thing. And one of them was, individualize by specific detail. I thought that was the most useful one, particularly in attempts at humor.

Humor is sort of indefensible. If the woman in the second row doesn’t laugh, it isn’t funny. That’s one reason there’s no way to sort of try to imagine your audience when you’re writing. I think you could only satisfy yourself.

My wife, Alice, who died in 2001 was the person I showed rough drafts to, I think the only person. What all writers want to hear if they show somebody something is, brilliant, don’t change a word, even if you know it’s sort of rough. Obviously, she wasn’t going to say that.

When Alice died, I was going over the galleys of a novel about parking in New York, a subject so silly that I think I would’ve hesitated to submit the book to a publisher, if she hadn’t, somewhat to her surprise, liked it.

When the novel was published, the dedication said, “I wrote this for Alice. Actually, I wrote everything for Alice.”

My name is Calvin Trillin, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on my life and writing.

HARI SREENIVASAN: You can watch more Brief But Spectacular videos online at pbs.org/newshour/brief.

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