Grab your axes and your mortarboards

David von Drehle is a bridge builder.

His work includes a fantastic feature on the Tucson shootings where he argues that the incident exposed the political factions of D.C. as not one against the other, but “both sides against the normal.”

His obit for Ted Kennedy details the life of a man who grew up in a family for whom “Death, normally the great leveler, had become the ennobler.”

The current editor-at-large for TIME magazine quotes Aristotle and recites Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” from memory. He also doles out some great advice (and is one of the most approachable writers I’ve met).

von Drehle pushes Euclidean geometry for stories. Write the beginning and the end first. When you know the points where you’re setting off and where you want to end up, then you can build the middle bridge, the line.

“There’s all kinds of bridges. Plain, fancy, risky, rickety, short, long. Most of us shouldn’t do most of those bridges.” He suggests mastering the chronological and succession of ideas formats first.

As for leads, that first point in the Euclidean line, von Drehle boils the thousands of different starters into three types:

Genesis lead, “In the beginning….” It’s a chronology story.

Dickens lead, “It was the best of times, it was the worst times…” The main theme is duality.

Orwell lead, “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Present a riddle or question that you resolve.

My friend Kurt posed this provoking question to our writer-in-residence for the evening: “Can you fool yourself into thinking the sentences are right because they are familiar?”

“Cutting is as much a process as composing,” von Drehle responds, “and you have to take as much satisfaction out of it. Nothing gives muscle to your writing like compression.”

To prove his point — “length has nothing to do with narrative” — von Drehle cites a famous, if perhaps apocryphal, story of a challenge posed to Ernest Hemingway to create the shortest story he could muster.

Hemingway’s response was a scant six words that rival the Gettysburg Address for power and succinct form.

“For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”

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