Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Glints of Good Writing in Prose

Over the summer I've been reading Trampling Out the Vintage by Frank Bardacke, a long exhaustive history of the long exhausting struggle between farm workers and farm owners in California's fertile valleys during the 1960s and 70s. The subject interested me because I lived in California during that tumultuous era and now wanted to fill in my sketchy memories of Cesar Chavez and the movement's endless strikes, marches, and boycotts.

By a long history I mean l-o-o-o-n-n-g: 742 pages of text, sixty-six pages of footnotes, eight pages of bibliography, nineteen pages of index, and four pages of maps—not quite a doorstop, but still a paper brick too heavy for comfortable bedtime reading. When I began, I doubted that I'd ever read to "The End."

Yet from the eloquent opening sentences of the Prologue:

Most California farm workers do not ride to work alone. They travel in company buses and vans, squeeze together in private cars with other workers who often are also their relatives or lifelong friends. For three quarters of a century, people have been driving their cars up and down and across the Golden State. Caravans of cars, loved and hated by mechanically skilled Joads of all nationalities, who intimately knew the carburetors and fuel pumps and transmissions of the Studebakers, Fords, and Chevys...that also may be their homes, death beds and birth beds.

—I knew I'd read my way through this book like the farm workers riding from farm to farm, valley to valley through the rolling California landscape. The road might be wearisome, but it would connect me to the grit and sweat of reality.

Since fiction writers can conjure up big chunks of a text by consulting only their imaginations, we often think of fiction as more personal than nonfiction, for which the conscientious writer must back up every fact, scene, and scrap of dialog with newspaper clippings, letters, interviews, or eyewitness descriptions. In Trampling Out the Vintage Bardacke is as conscientious as they come. He worked in the fields for years and knows how the backbreaking work is done. Here broccoli picking:

The harvester grabs the head with one hand while with the other he thrusts the short, broad knife downward, cutting the leaves away from the stalk. Then, with a sideways stroke of the knife, he cuts the head off the plant, leaving just the right length of stalk below the wide unopened flower. He stretches his fingers to grab another head with the first still in his grip and cuts a second stalk.

Once picked, the produce heads out of California to consumers everywhere:

Trains carried the grapes from Delano to the Roseville yard outside Sacramento and then headed east. Most of the trucks leaving the warehouses went to the big wholesale produce markets, where the grapes were unloaded, and then distributed to retail stores, primarily big chains. Some went to the docks of San Francisco...where they were unloaded and then loaded onto ships for distribution around the world.

Bardacke paints vivid portraits of the farm workers' leaders, here feisty Delores Huerta, whose mother taught her from childhood that "women were just as capable as men":

When looking back at childhood...she [often] told a story about high school that combined both anger at the racist and sexist assumptions of her teachers and pride in her own abilities: a teacher had said that her essays were so good that he did not believe she could have written them by herself.

Chavez and many of his followers were devout Catholics, so Bardacke devotes pages to explaining the papal encyclicals that set the Church's doctrine on social action:

The rich have the duty of charity; the state has the duty to establish regulations about working hours...; the employers have the duty to pay a decent family wage; the workers have the duty to join together in associations for mutual benefit...; and the Church has the duty to teach everyone else their duties.

Note here the clarity of Bardacke's balanced phrasing: "have the duty...has the duty...have the duty...have the duty...has the duty." The elegance of his serial balances gets his point across with a speed that convinces the reader instantly of its truth.

That's what I mean by glints of good writing in prose. After pages detailing the minutiae of Chavez's ups and downs and the proliferation of union initials (NFWA, AWOK, AFL-CIO, UFWOC), paragraphs like this, sparkling with Bardacke's intelligence, illuminate the dense surrounding details. This extended metaphor, for example, highly appropriate in a book about farming:

Rapid out-of-control growth often prompts a gardener to prune, weed, root out, cull. He or she hopes not to stifle growth but to control it, to encourage what is desired by suppressing what is not, thus shaping the overall scheme to the gardener's vision. [The farm worker's] union was in danger of growing too fast, of being overwhelmed with too many plants to tend, too many rows to hoe.

Or these shorter glints:

History often chooses her darlings capriciously; this time she did not. Her favors were bestowed on the one who best understood her current passions...

...the stage was set for farm workers to reach out to potential white supporters in American cities—but a set stage does not a drama make.

SNCC staffers were left with nothing but a handful of apologies and a mouthful of humiliation.

[Union officials] were experienced infighters whose maneuvers would make the College of Cardinals or members of the Politboro proud.

History is a record of relatively free and therefore unpredictable human action.

I first noticed such glints of good nonfiction reading Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Again and again Gibbon sums up long paragraphs of exposition with exquisitely balanced phrases that—bang bang bang!—hammer home whatever point he's making at the time:

...a war of about forty years, undertaken by the most stupid, maintained by the most dissolute, and terminated by the most timid of emperors.

The modes of worship that prevailed in the Roman world were considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful.

The fine contemporary biographer/historian Doris Kearns Goodwin also knows how to get across her personal insights, here a neat double antithesis that describes Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt's unusual relationship:

But the separation by night belied the partnership by day... 
No Ordinary Time

Laura Hillenbrand, author of Seabiscuit and Unbroken, often steps out of her narrative to deliver her deeply held beliefs:

Dignity, the innermost armament of the soul, lies at the heart of humanness, [and] is as essential to human life as water, food, and oxygen.

Some might call such personal glints "editorializing," voicing opinions not backed up by research, yet I know that when reading the most fact-based nonfiction, I and many readers still want to connect one-to-one, soul-to-soul, with the writer as well as with the characters. I'm reading Trampling Out the Vintage as if I were listening to a highly informative lecture, yet I learn most when Bardacke sums up dry facts in lively insights, when he lets us see that he is a human too, with opinions and beliefs just as personal as my own.

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Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program. Click here to read more articles by Michael Lydon.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday September 29th 2015, 9:15 AM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)
Oh, I loved reading this. I want to pick up every book mentioned. But I'm not certain whether I'm following the books for themselves, or for the prose of the writer describing them.
Tuesday September 29th 2015, 9:45 AM
Comment by: Augustine R. (Mc Farland, WI)
The Power Broker by Robert A. Caro is another non fiction book that needs mention here. I lived in the South Bronx when the Cross Bronx Expressway was built. Caro's poignant account of this era and chapter 37, "One Mile" still makes me want to cry.
Tuesday September 29th 2015, 9:56 AM
Comment by: Diana R. (Charlotte, NC)
Thank you. I agree that creative nonfiction is not pure journalism. It needs personality and perception.
Tuesday September 29th 2015, 3:09 PM
Comment by: David D. (Seattle, WA)
I pursued a sociology/psychology educational path until I learned I could not say anything. As a sociologist I might screen people for soul numbing jobs. As a psychologist, I might attempt to direct troubled marriages in some better way, although not necessarily better for me. I could only write of these things in factual, documented, dry ways. I had stories to tell and ideas and solutions that might be obvious but not provable by laboratory or field observation suitable for journals.
You have reminded me why I changed my major to liberal arts but also informed me that I could have done more if I had the talent.
Oh well, life as a mechanic of several sorts has not been too bad.
Thanks for this piece; I read The Decline and Fall ... at age 12 and loved what you pointed out.
Wednesday September 30th 2015, 12:45 AM
Comment by: Craig J.
I've been told, and believe it to be true, that art should entertain, edify and instruct. "Good" writing can always entertain, no matter the subject or genre, but if it's corrosive psychologically or socially, or if it provides a misleading picture of the world or its history, then technical excellence can't redeem it. It's not art, just interesting trash. We need to strive for more than beauty in any form of writing.

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