Squeeze a big life into a small space
How do you pack a large life into a tight space?
Try a “pocket profile.” That’s the technique Anjelica Huston used to describe her great-great-great grandfather in her new memoir, A Story Lately Told:
“… a prospector, John Gore, who started up several newspapers from Kansas to New York. A cowboy, a settler, a saloon owner, a judge, a professional gambler, and a confirmed alcoholic, he once won the town of Nevada in a poker game.”
Note that writing short doesn’t mean compressing all the life out of a person. The best line of that bio, obviously, is “he once won the town of Nevada in a poker game.”
The Poynter Institute’s Roy Peter Clark calls this approach “narrative shorthand.” He praises Rosalind Bentley’s use of narrative shorthand in her piece about America’s poet laureate Natasha Trethewey for the Atlanta Journal Constitution:
“The shorthand of Natasha’s life reads like words plucked from a free verse poem: Native Mississippian. Black mother. White father. Poet father. Poet daughter. Atlanta and DeKalb public school student. “A” student. UGA head cheerleader. Trauma survivor. Big sister. Decatur resident. Meticulous housekeeper. Proud wife. Exacting professor. Historical poet. Nobody’s pushover.”
Love the structure of that piece: noun, period; noun, period.
Forbes packs big stories into little packages in these pocket profiles of billionaire beverage-meisters. Here’s a sample:
“Sidney Frank, 85, Grey Goose. Net worth: $1.6 billion.
“Connecticut farmer’s boy grew up poor, milking cows and churning butter. Enrolled at Brown University; couldn’t afford tuition, dropped out after one year. Married Skippy Rosenstiel, heiress to Schenley Distillers fortune. Started Sidney Frank Importing in 1972. Lost money first six years, sold beachfront property on Antigua for $500,000 to meet payroll. Tapped into first fortune by importing Jägermeister liquor from Germany and marketing it with scantily clad Jägerettes pitching to college kids. Created ultrapremium vodka Grey Goose at age 77; sold to Bacardi in April for $2 billion. Now focusing on wine, tequila.”
Note the structure here: After introducing the subject in the first sentence, the author begins each of the subsequent sentences with a verb.
Elizabeth Gilbert also developed a compelling structure for her pocket profile of Sir Joseph Banks, a real person who appears in her latest novel, The Signature of All Things:
“That daunting figure, who had once been the handsomest man in Europe, who had been the darling of kings, who had circled the globe, who had slept with heathen queens on open beaches, who had introduced thousands of new botanical species to England, and who had sent young Henry out into the world to become Henry Whittaker — that very man was dead.”
How can you tell a big life in a little space? Try a pocket profile.