Wednesday, November 09, 2011

`No Blanks, Just Thanks'

As a reporter I wrote thousands of profiles varying in length from a phrase to many pages of copy. It’s a form – no, it’s not a form. That’s presumptuous. A profile is not a sestina. The rules of composition are dictated by the subject and the writer’s sensibility, not an objective set of strictures. Call it a template or simply another good excuse for writing. Whatever we call it, a profile is an approach I’ve always found congenial.

I had plenty of models, from Chekhov and Pritchett to Liebling and Balliett. A gifted writer of profiles works in two equally essential media – words and human beings. People are almost the only mysteries I’m interested in reading. When writing a profile, you’re forced to push yourself out of the way and try to get close to your subject. A good profile can be revelatory of the writer but only indirectly. The focus is fixed on the subject – good discipline for writers, a notably narcissistic crowd.

Recently I was given a dangerous assignment. Next month, my in-laws celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, testimony to modern medicine and the wonder of human adaptation. My wife asked me to write the story of her parents’ half-century marriage. I’ve known them for fourteen years and picked up much of the story incrementally along the way, but the act of formally interviewing them in two sessions totaling ninety minutes helped me find a latent narrative.

Their lives hardly resemble mine, at least in externals. Canadian by birth, Peruvian by residence, trilingual, well-traveled on three continents, they are cosmopolitans. My mother-in-law was a registered nurse. My father-in-law was a pilot, owned an oceanfront marina and for forty years has sold commercial real estate. They live down the hill from the battlefield in Fredericksburg, Va. The challenge was to make it cohere and amuse without offending.

I’ve been reading No Second Eden, the late Turner Cassity’s collection from 2002. The concluding lines of “The Grateful Minimalist” stand as a stoically amusing life summation, especially the final lines:

“Few works;
Some quirks.

“No blanks,
Just thanks.”

That concluding rhyme brought to mind Auden’s “Lullaby,” a late poem, a sort of self-elegy or settling of accounts, an acceptance of one’s life and death. These lines are from the start of the third stanza:

“Let your last thinks all be thanks:
praise your parents who gave you
a Super-Ego of strength
that saves you so much bother,
digit friends and dear them all,
then pay fair attribution
to your age, to having been
born when you were.”

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