Rick Bragg called it “pretty writing.”
The Pulitzer Prize winner and University of Alabama writing professor, the one who made his name in the writing world at the foot of the rubble in Oklahoma City, the same man who armed himself only with a pen and notepad amongst the unrest and bullets in Haiti and the Middle East, had instructed us to spend some time in the pages of “pretty writing.”
He mentioned the works of William Faulkner most often, even if he did believe the writer’s depiction of the American South was a bit idealistic. He praised Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove routinely. I think he suggested Eudora Welty, and he mentioned others I don’t recall now, more than a decade after setting foot in his classroom inside Reese Phifer Hall.
But the intrigue of Bragg and his long-form writing class was certainly not “pretty writing.” No, it was the attention-gripping description in the stories of people in trouble. It was the people who lost limbs and life in the Oklahoma City bombing. It was the people who tried to protect themselves from greenish-gray tornadoes spinning fast through black skies, churning up red dirt and decades-old man-made structures. It was about everyday people, bodega workers in New York City and middle schoolers in Jonesboro, Arkansas, dying tragically and senselessly. Those words were not pretty. In fact, while descriptive and worthwhile, they were pretty disturbing.
But I think that maybe, just maybe, that’s why Bragg lightly pushed “pretty writing” on us. Maybe it was his way of balancing the good with the evil that comes in this line of work. We have seen some things, we journalists who tail the cop cars and fire trucks to the crime scene. We have seen gashes in flesh after a van nosedived into a ravine of bamboo. We have seen blood pooled in the driver seat of a Suburban after it was hit head on by a dump truck. We have seen the chill bumps on a grown man’s forearm while he talks about the tornado that sent him and his wife running for their lives. Yes, I suppose we do need “pretty writing” as a sort of occupational therapy.
I tried in my daily journalism life to find those good stories, the lighthearted interviews that made readers smile. Usually, I found them in the aftermath of something terrible. For instance, I wrote about a woman finding her wedding ring, lost in the destruction of a tornado, on Valentine’s Day. I wrote about a man whose life was spared, by mere inches, when an eighteen-wheeler crashed through his home. I wrote about student-athletes succeeding on and off the field, but only after life unfairly tested them and forced them to grow up too quickly.
These days, with the exception of books and this blog, I write only on a freelance basis, covering high school sports, the occasional city council meeting and the people in the community I call home. Essentially, everything now is “pretty writing.” It’s about a longtime librarian’s retirement plans, about the preservation and planting of trees in Trussville, about a 97-year-old veteran telling lies at Hardee’s. Those stories are the good stuff, the words that more people need to see in newsprint in a world dominated by infuriating online news.
There hasn’t been a ton of topics to write about lately due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Businesses have been closed. Games have been canceled. Meetings have been moved to Zoom. The brakes have been applied to the people-focused journalism I have come to enjoy the most, the times sitting across from someone in a library meeting room, city council chamber or dugout. That, combined with the completion of my next book, Sonny Days: Struggles, Scenery and Solace with the World’s Strangest Shelter Dog — it releases July 29 — has created a writing void, of sorts.
The time apart from the real world has been bittersweet. On the one hand, it stinks. We are missing time with friends and family, time we could be driving to Atlanta for Braves games or spending an afternoon at an amusement park. On the other hand, the one I’ll be driving at here, this semi-pause on life is a time of various house projects, freedom and appreciation.
In all three, I have heard the chirping. Our house is surrounded by woods, so we see and hear all sorts of wildlife. The deer here go bananas for apple-flavored corn. The dozen turkeys we often see do, too. The raccoons steal what they can, and I sometimes see a lone rabbit the size of a catcher’s mitt chowing down. We have seen a coyote in broad daylight and in the black of night, and a couple wayward armadillos who did a number on my yard searching for grubs. There has been just one snake sighting in a year, miraculously, but I did stumble upon a shed skin one time the length of a vaulting pole. The chipmunks have burrowed holes all the way to China and it seems to me that the squirrels will eat sunflower seeds until they explode.
I suppose those sunflower seeds bring me to the “pretty writing.” I fill up feeders a couple times per week because the bird population around our house is comparable to the condos around Manhattan — dense and diverse. The Carolina chickadees are the tiniest of them but perhaps the bravest. They stand on swaying branches just above my head as I refill the feeders with seeds. They stare down and dive-bomb the feeders as soon as I walk away.
The blue jays seem to hang out mostly in the back yard, on the metal rooftop of a workshop and in one mimosa tree in particular. The nuthatches tell stories on the power lines. A hawk lives in a huge nest in what must be the tallest and thickest pine tree I have ever seen. Once, I watched as a murder of crows chased that hawk from branch to branch. An owl has landed on our privacy fence late at night and allowed us to snap photos. The pileated woodpeckers spend much more time squealing than pecking, an observation that continues to befuddle me.
The cardinals are my favorite, despite my contempt for the baseball team of the same name. They are as red as fresh strawberries, and they flash across our front and back yard like F-16s. They eat through bags of sunflower seeds quicker than the Atlanta Braves. This bird species must make up the majority of our winged friends here.
Despite all the wildlife that abounds here, the birds are my clear favorite. There is just something about them. They make their homes here, hundreds of them. They live up in the magnolias and in the hedge line of the woods. We have a nest on almost every drain pipe and corner of the house to prove their residency. Recently, we helped a fallen baby bird back into its nest. A week later, another baby bird apparently fell and we kept it in a small box outside until it was strong enough to leave on its own. We often saw that bird’s mom visit the box.
All the birds descend from seemingly out of nowhere when I refill the feeders, so they must live in the shadows, always lurking. They eat together, chickadees and cardinals. They fly together, blue jays and nuthatches. They seem to race along the yard beside our house, like an aerial drag race. They are always around, even when our dogs bark at them from the back yard. The birds act as if these green woods and this blue sky are an aviary, a place they cannot escape, but I wonder if they know that the sky truly is their limit.
They squeal and chirp and caw from sunup to sundown, and I could not imagine this property without those sounds. They are soothing, sans the screech of the pileated woodpecker, like a soundtrack to a simpler time.
I’m not sure, really, why I wrote this. Maybe, as I sawed up a fallen tree or trimmed the gardenia bushes, the birds chirped at me enough to feature them in print.
“I would thus from time to time take advice of the birds,” Henry David Thoreau once wrote. He spent much of his life making “pretty writing.”
Maybe this COVID-19 pandemic has limited journalists, both full-time and freelance, in our writing topics. Call it a scary time for those in a dwindling profession. Call it writer’s block. Call it boredom.
Maybe the birds, their simplicity of life combined with their daily togetherness, provided some inspiration during what feels like the most divisive time in our country since the Civil Rights era. They eat and fly together, remember? Listening to them instead of 24-hour-news “journalists” is calming. Watching them flash and dart over a green lawn instead of the latest protest or riot is time better spent. Learning their habits and tendencies is more educational than most of what is in newsprint. With that thought, some lyrics from a Cody Jinks song, titled “Birds,” strike quite a chord.
“So I’ll steal freedom while there’s still some
And take the whole world in
If I could only leave my worries with the birds of the wind
And I know one day there’ll be solace
So I’ll just live ‘til then
If I could only leave my worries with the birds of the wind”
I was thumbing through Bragg’s book All Over but the Shoutin’ last week, a memoir in which he opens the prologue by describing how he used to watch redbirds fight. He wrote that they would stab for each other’s eyes and that once, he saw one attack its own reflection in the side mirror of a truck. He assumed that latter bird did not like what it saw. I know that Bragg covered some horrific things and his eyes witnessed some unspeakable images. That can change a man. He saw these things not long before he wrote Shoutin’, my favorite book ever written.
Now that he is older, writing mostly about his family, the fine art of piddling and old dogs, I wonder if his pen touches the page a little bit softer, if his fingers tap the keyboard a little bit lighter. They must, to write as descriptively and as pretty as he does.
He must be reading the pretty writing.