There was an Op-Ed essay by opera singer Craig Gilmore in the Los Angeles Times this past weekend that caught my eye, held my attention, and kept me thinking. It was a beautifully wrought piece, and one of the questions I kept asking myself was, “Why?” Why was it so elegant and arresting? What did the author do right?
Among other things, he mastered the art of making his story both universal and highly personal – a tactic that skilled writers often use to rope us in. Beginning writers tend to miss the big picture completely. They focus in so tightly on the scene or the moment that they forget to lift their eyes to the horizon and give the reader a sense of context.
Thinking big is a very difficult concept to explain to writers who are struggling to get it, and so I decided to break down this piece so we can check it out in detail.
I would suggest opening up the PDF to follow along as I break it down.
1. The duality of Mr. Gilmore’s piece is announced in the title itself, where we get a big historical event slammed right up against the image of one room in one man’s home:
This painting was looted by the Nazis, then seized from my living room
2. The opening lines of the piece have the tone of a thriller – a tactic which sets the stage for the story’s broad scope. In the first six lines, US agents arrive unannounced at Gilmore’s home, he questions their identity, and they question the provenance of a painting he had owned for ten years. The agents claim that the painting had been looted by the Nazis from the National Museum in Warsaw, but Gilmore doesn’t buy it. There is mystery and intrigue in this setup, and the reader wonders what, exactly, is going on. Who, exactly, is right? And is Gilmore or his painting in danger? The questions pull us into the narrative.
3. I love the third paragraph of the piece just for the words Gilmore uses – dumbfounded, Googling frenzy, gawking, bombshell, beloved lady. It ends with Gilmore weeping because when confronted with the evidence that his painting was never his to rightfully own, he realized it must be given back. He describes the duty he feels to return it.
Duty is a big concept. How often in our lives do we feel a sense of duty? When driving to work? To the grocery store? Planning a vacation? The fact is that duty is not something we are often called to perform, and by putting duty at the center of the story, Gilmore gives notice that his story will touch on something universal. He puts a stake in the ground that he is going BIG here.
4. In the fourth paragraph, Gilmore deftly pulls back from the story at hand and flashes back to give us some context for the idea of duty. He uses “some years ago” to alert us to the flashback, and tells a story about his traveling to sing (he is an opera singer) on a government-sponsored tour of Israel. He cites his inability to perform – which is a kind of duty – in the presence of Holocaust survivors and returns to story present (4a) overwhelmed by the horrors of the Nazi’s behavior towards these people, and towards his painting. In other words, he ties together the big picture atrocities directly to the painting hanging in his house.
5. Gilmore then goes even bigger with his story by explaining the personal connection he feels as a gay man to people’s loss of basic rights – both during the war, and today. He cites historical facts about the numbers of deaths of outcast people during the war, the ongoing fight for rights in the LGBTQ community, and the vast numbers of missing works of art.
6. Next, Gilmore brings the story back down to his own life, as he works to return the painting to its rightful owner. He shows us what duty looks like when it is very, very personal. “I clutched to the words `global citizenry’ as my mantra,” he writes:, and then: “... we realized our beloved lady was, herself, a global citizen, called upon to serve a greater purpose than the beauty she lent to our Silver Lake home.”
7. He could have ended the piece there, but he introduces another very big, universal idea -- the concept of the power of art in our lives. There is one grand sweeping sentence about the power of art – “It’s difficult to express how a painting can become such an integral part of your life, even a part of your identity” -- and then several about the day-to-day life the painting oversaw from its place above Gilmore's dining table. “The ups and downs of 10 years, she was there for it all.” We get a sense of these people’s actual lives, of the things they did, and the things they valued. We feel how much they will miss the painting when they do their duty and let it go. The story now feels very specific to this household -- not about an idea at all, but about real people in their real lives and their real home.
8. That specificity is preserved when Gilmore describes the farewell party they threw for their painting. The writing here is so particular and specific. It is a striking switch from the historical heights we have just come down from, and as a result, we right there with them in the room: “As the day of departure drew near, we did what anyone would do for a loved one who was leaving: We threw a farewell party. Emulating our 17th century lady, David and I sported neck-ruffs crafted from car air filters, and prepared a buffet of Polish sausages, pierogis and vodka punch. Our friends came, marveled at the story, and expressed their personal goodbyes. It was a cathartic evening.”
9. How do you end a piece that has ranged from war and duty and Nazi looting to a party you threw for a painting you have loved? Gilmore has gone big and he has gone small, and he strikes just the right note by ending with a letter he and his partner sent along with the painting – a letter the reader can imagine might only ever be seen by a handful of curators at the other end of the line. But it’s a sweet note that captures precisely the mix of personal and political inherent in the piece itself:
“This painting has been a revered part of our household, and we are grateful to have been a safe haven over the past decade of her almost 400-year story. We very much look forward to visiting Poland, and seeing our dear friend hanging at the National Museum, Warsaw.”
A couple months ago I did a similar breakdown in a post entitled What Ann Patchett Can Teach Us About Giving Away Your Story.