“Why’s this so good?” No. 36: Alice Steinbach and one boy’s vision
I wish I had come to this assignment when Alice Steinbach was still alive. I could have thanked her one last time for writing “A Boy of Unusual Vision,” a stunning immersion into the life, mind and vision of a 10-year-old blind boy. Now I commend it to those who haven’t yet discovered its deceptive simplicity, and as a toast to Steinbach, who recently died of cancer at the age of 78. I never met her, but I did leave a scribbled note of admiration on her desk at the Baltimore Sun one time when I was passing through. Later, when she left the newspaper to write books about her mid-life adventures in travel and learning, I sent her a note of unabashed envy; hers was a path I wish I had the creativity and moxie to follow.
“A Boy of Unusual Vision,” which won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize in feature writing, also lays a path to be studied and followed. Every time I read it – which is often, as it is a staple in various workshops I teach – I gain glimpses of how it influenced my own best writing. More important, it reminds me what’s possible in journalism. Who doesn’t need a bit of that these days?
The story is a masterful example of how a journalist can use literary techniques – scene, dialogue, revelatory detail, character development, the top and bottom rungs of the ladder of abstraction – to elevate nonfiction from craft to art. It is all the more remarkable because Steinbach wrote it in the early days of the narrative movement in newspapers, before we had much language for this kind of work. If all you do is study how she reveals character through quotes, action and the sparest of descriptions, your time will be well spent.
But I want to drill down on four other things at work.
1. Let’s start where Steinbach starts, with her first three words: “First, the eyes.” This is what I mean by deceptive simplicity. What could be easier than starting a story about a blind boy by staring straight into his unseeing eyes? And what could be harder? Steinbach doesn’t waste time circling into the story of Calvin Stanley. She plunks us right down in front of him and aims for the heart. She doesn’t tease; we know by the second sentence that Calvin is blind, and by the third that he has been so since birth. In three paragraphs, we know the essence of his character and how that came to be. (That third paragraph is an example of a nut graph that is as unapologetic as it is elegant.) No tiptoe of pity is needed or allowed in Calvin’s life, and none is present in Steinbach’s choice of words.
I can imagine a less courageous writer stringing out an opening that introduces Calvin as the all-American everyboy playing baseball or riding his bike, then hitting the reader with – surprise! – the thing that makes him different. That’s a trite and tired attempt to create story tension. Instead, Steinbach challenges us to look from the start into those opaque eyes, and then beyond into the mind behind the eyes. Her opening explores a core question that recurs throughout the piece: What does someone who can’t see see?
This approach is all the more powerful because what she has Calvin “look” at (while we look at him) is not some definable object he could envision with his hands. It’s color. And then variations within color. Wow.
2. Use of second person can be a too-easy trick but Steinbach employs it as a powerful tool. Even if this piece were in a magazine, where first person is standard, “you” feels like the right play. One of my tests of effective intimacy journalism is to see how close the writer can get readers to the story, and how long she can keep them there. Sure, I know the writer is present and narrating the piece. But as the story goes on, does my sense of the writer fade and my own sense of presence grow? Do I feel like I’m in the scene? Do I feel like I’m watching the action, hearing the voices, staring into those eyes? Steinbach turns “you” into “me.”
3. A small but intriguing thing that strengthens that sense: the use of colons. (Clever of me, yes?) Such an abrupt form of punctuation could cause a piece to feel jerky, but Steinbach uses it to strip away unnecessary setups and transitions and thus keeps me more tightly bound to the story. Notice how she handles attribution. By simply stating the name of the speaker in front of a block of dialogue, she turns the names into a quick cue, like the sound of a new voice, that lets me know who will be speaking but does nothing to distract me from what is being said. (This is a radio writing technique that print writers would be wise to learn. Colons are great organizers and broadcasters. I think of them as efficient little bullhorns that sound an alert: Here’s what’s coming. Pay attention!)
The repetition of colons and nontraditional attribution also become part of her structure. They hold the story together from section to section in the same way repeated words or themes can. And they help control pace, signaling the reader to slow down in passages that deserve more attention, then switch to a new scene or speaker or perspective without losing track. Consider the passage introducing Calvin’s father. He speaks with pride and a bit of awe about his son’s courage, then ends his soliloquy on a somber note.
The father: …“But he gets sad, too: You can just look at him sometimes and tell he’s real sad.”
The son: “You know what makes me sad?”
That abrupt and parallel attribution strengthens the echo of “sad,” and our awareness of the father-son relationship.
4. The fundamental genius of this piece lies in the reporting. So much reporting, and so damn good.
The story is dense with quotes, many of them quite long. That can drag a story down. Quotes usually interrupt the action and change the syntax/voice, like changes in a musical beat, so readers are forced to pause for a nanosecond to reorient themselves. Overuse of quotes can be a sign of weak observational reporting in the field, or of a writer who found it faster and easier to type than to write.
But in Steinbach’s piece, the quotes serve their highest and best use. They have the power of in-the-story dialogue rather than third-party pass-alongs. They are detailed, rich and revealing. They convey the range and weight of emotion. Maybe the Stanleys are all natural storytellers, but I sense the magic of a great interviewer at work – one who asks and listens and watches and asks some more and really listens, thus turning her subjects into the storytellers she needs them to be.
Steinbach draws on all five senses (and the sixth, emotion) when she “interviews.” Smell and touch are especially good at putting readers in a scene. And she uses her own eyes to see the story (choice of words fully intended).
Her third section, where she describes Calvin riding his bike – “a serious looking, black and silver two-wheeler” – is one of my favorite passages of journalistic writing. I often use it to teach young writers to pay attention to the worlds they are covering. In these few paragraphs, Steinbach again makes daring use of the second person, demanding first that we try to imagine how to ride a bike (or understand the color blue) without vision. She then takes us on a sighted tour of the alley, letting us see what she sees. And finally she leads us deep into Calvin’s world, showing us how he sees.
And although Calvin can’t see the signs of spring sprouting all around him in the neighboring backyards – the porch furniture and barbecue equipment being brought out of storage, the grass growing emerald green from the April rain, the forsythia exploding yellow over the fences – still there are signs of another sort which guide him along his route:
Past the German shepherd who always barks at him, telling Calvin that he’s three houses away from his home; then past the purple hyacinths, five gardens away, throwing out their fragrance (later it will be the scent of lilacs which guide him); past the large diagonal crack which lifts the front wheel of his bike up and then down, telling him he’s reached his boundary and should turn back – past all these familiar signs Calvin rides his bike on a warm spring day.
Steinbach used herself as a source. Her experience becomes the reader’s experience – she is our stand-in – and it informs the rest of her reporting. I have no doubt she asked Calvin what markers he used to negotiate that alley. I wouldn’t be surprised if she rode a bike down it herself.
A last note, on the final scene. I am struck by the deft discipline Steinbach showed in holding back, until the end, the fact that Lois Sivits, the beloved teacher, is also blind. That’s a conscious choice that gives the story one last punch of power – this time a gentle one that serves as an intriguing bookend to the blunt “First, the eyes” opening.
The ending also catches me by surprise. A more standard structure would return the story full circle to something more expected. Perhaps about color again, or about Calvin’s eyes or maybe his or his parents’ voices – people and themes more dominant throughout the piece. Over the years, I have been ambivalent about whether I want the piece to fulfill that expectation. But this ending has stayed with me, perhaps because it is unexpected. It takes me to a place in the story where I haven’t really been before. It takes me to the heart of Calvin’s world, where I can’t follow, and where he is different, and where his visions are those I can only try to imagine.
Jacqui Banaszynski (@jacquib) is the Knight Chair in Editing professor at the Missouri School of Journalism, senior collaborations editor for the Public Insight Network of American Public Media and a faculty fellow at the Poynter Institute. She won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize in feature writing for “AIDS in the Heartland,” a series about a gay farm couple facing AIDS.