Other LogS

Since the Greek root word "logos" means such varied things ("word," "saying," "speech," "discourse," "thought"), I feel safe referring to the following as other kinds of "logs": journals, diaries, memoirs, court records, personal letters, official letters, telegrams, memoranda, messages, headlines, and news reports. These written records of people communicating with each other are useful in nonfiction articles and books. A fiction writer may invent such communications to lend verisimilitude, to make his or her story sound real. In nonfiction, the writer uses these sources to help communicate the fact that what he or she is writing is the truth, not fiction. These sources also add variety and can help the creative nonfiction writer reinforce a point he or she is making in the more straightforward summary parts. Because the writer frequently sets these special forms of communication in their original format, sometimes including photographic reproductions of handwritten diary entries, for example, they serve also to "add light" to the page. The reader can appreciate these visual breathers in the midst of an otherwise dense page of type.

In a historical study, such as Evan S. Connell's Son of the Morning Star, about General Custer and his last stand, the author uses historical letters, memoirs, soldiers' reminiscences, and Court of Inquiry records. In the following excerpt, we learn something about Generals Custer, Sheridan, and Sherman. The first short quote is from historian Stephen Ambrose; the major quote is from a communication sent by General Sherman to General Sheridan.

Historian Stephen Ambrose characterized him [Custer] as an obstinate little man, given to intense rages, made with battle lust during an engagement, quick to censure and slow to forgive, bursting with energy, forever demanding the most of his men____Women found him exciting, and unlike Sheridan, he seldom cherished a grudge; otherwise, they must have been much alike. Custer might erupt at any instant, he loved to fight and was quick to blame. He could be sarcastic and impossibly demanding. They understood each other, these two. Sheridan perceived in the audacious young cavalryman a sympathetic spirit, one who was not reluctant to discipline troops and who thought the best way to handle dangerous redskins was to crush them. Little Phil [Sheridan] was supported by his boss, William Tecumseh Sherman—himself no shrinking violet. He wrote to Sherman on October 15 that it was up to the Indians themselves to decide whether or not they would be exterminated____

"As brave men and soldiers of a government which has exhausted its peace efforts, we, in the performance of a most unpleasant duty, accept the war begun by our enemies, and hereby resolve to make its end final. If it results in the utter annihilation of these Indians, it is but the result of what they have been warned again and again, and for which they seem fully prepared. I will say nothing and do nothing to restrain our troops from doing what they deem proper on the spot, and will allow no more vague general charges of cruelty and inhumanity to tie their hands, but will use all the powers confided in me to the end that these Indians, the enemies of our race and our civilization, shall not again be able to begin and carry on their barbarous warfare on any kind of a pretext that they may choose to allege____You may now go ahead in your own way and I will back you with my whole authority, and stand between you and any efforts that may be attempted in your rear to restrain your purpose or check your troops."

Historians make heavy use of historic letters in their research, and frequently quote all or parts of letters that help them make a point. Readers immediately get more involved when they hear people speaking out of the past than they do when reading the historian's words alone. In the following paragraphs from the chapter "The Quarrel with America" in his monumental series A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Winston Churchill quotes from an "anonymous" letter by "Junius," and then from a newspaper, the North Briton. We do not usually see Britain's former prime minister, Winston Churchill, described as a creative nonfiction writer. I've included him here to show how a writer of history works in quotes from letters and newspapers of the historic period but also to show that he is creative in his writing of history—he doesn't "create" history; he's creative in his use of language to tell history.

The first decade of his [George Ill's] reign passed in continual and confused manoeuvering between different Parliamentary groups, some of them accepting the new situation, some making passive resistance to the new motion of the Crown. George was angry and puzzled at the wrangling of the political leaders. Pitt sat moodily in Parliament, "unconnected and unconsulted." Many people shared Dr. Johnson's opinion of the Scots, and Bute, who was much disliked, fell from power early in 1763. His successor, George Grenville, was a mulish lawyer, backed by the enormous electoral power of the Duke of Bedford, of whom "Junius" wrote in his anonymous letters, "I daresay he has bought and sold more than half of the representative integrity of the nation." Grenville refused to play the part of "The Minister behind the curtain"; but for two years he clung to office, and must bear a heavy share of responsibility for the alienation of the American colonies.

There were other conflicts. On April 23, 1763, a newspaper called The North Briton attacked Ministers as "tools of despotism and corruption____They have sent the spirit of discord through the land, and I will prophesy it will never be extinguished but by the extinction of their power."

One of the best sources of historical information comes from court records, where the words of men and women are recorded verbatim and preserved. For Son of the Morning Star, Evan S. Connell went back to the records of a Court of Inquiry convened by President Rutherford Hayes to investigate the matter of U.S. Army Major Reno's behavior in the battle now known as "Custer's Last Stand," or the Battle of Little Big Horn. Reno testified at length, partly about the battle itself, partly about General Custer, as we listen in on the following excerpt from his testimony:

Reno was asked about his relationship with Custer. He replied that he felt no animosity, he and the General got on well enough. But the implication of this was unmistakable, so he added that even if his own brothers had been riding with Custer he could not have done any more than he did.

His response did not satisfy Lt. Lee. "The question is, did you go into that fight with feelings of confidence or distrust?"

Reno again responded that he and General got along all right. "My feelings toward Gen. Custer were friendly."

"I insist that the question shall be answered," said Lee.

"Well, sir, I had known General Custer a long time," Reno said, "and I had no confidence in his ability as a soldier."

Author Connell, with all those records in front of him, could have simply said something to the effect (taken from the end of that piece of testimony) that Major Reno had no confidence in General Custer's ability as a soldier, but he elected to quote the testimony ahead of that point. I'm speculating, of course, but I imagine that as a creative nonfiction writer (and as a first-rate fiction writer, too) he saw the dramatic possibilities inherent in the way Lt. Lee kept at Major Reno until he said something damaging. Connell let the suspense build, using only the Court of Inquiry's words. He did not invent a sequence of questioning the way a fiction writer would be allowed to. Nonfiction writers also know the value of suspense in involving and holding the reader.

Joseph Wambaugh reported to good effect the verbatim transcript of a criminal's statement to detectives in his nonfiction novel The Onion Field. In his foreword, he wrote, "The courtroom dialogue was not re-created." Wambaugh could have told his readers what he thought was the state of Jimmy Smith's mind as he talked to detectives, but he made the point much more effectively by letting us hear the wanderings of this tortured mind.

The statement was difficult to follow, at times incoherent, and Pierce Brooks looked at Jimmy Smith and imagined the absolute fear that was on him that night when he huddled there, handcuffed, a blanket over his naked shoulders, his feet bloody and painful, while he was interrogated, not for his usual five-dollar shoplift, but for the murder of a cop. He could easily imagine Jimmy babbling incoherently, and he could understand how a man like Jimmy Smith could have survived his wretched life by never giving anything but an indirect, evasive reply to anything anyone ever asked of him.

Brooks could understand, but that was all. He despised the lying coward too much for a quantum leap into pity. Jimmy had blurted things to the Bakersfield detectives: "When I hit the county jail, I'm gonna make them give.. .give me.. .I know that I...you know,...that I, you know.that I'm not mental, that I couldn't do it, you know, do that. I hope I didn't do it. I might do it, you know, in a pinch, or maybe if I was shoved into it, or something, but I mean, as far as just outright, you know, just kill a man, you know. Was there anything else you wanna know?"

Presidents, members of Congress, generals, and other notable people tend to write memoirs about their experiences, and writer/historians turn to these written records as research sources. When sections from memoirs are pulled out and quoted in articles and books, they give readers more than facts—they give them human beings. For this reason, creative nonfiction writers frequently quote from memoirs, as in the following excerpt from the Pulitzer Prize—winning historical study of the final year of America's Civil War, A Stillness at Appomattox, where Bruce Catton quotes from Ulysses S. Grant's Personal Memoirs.

The pursuit of [Confederate General] Early had been ineffective because too many men were in position to give orders to soldiers like Wright and Emory. All lines of authority were crossed, and the War Department was buzzing and fretting and issuing innumerable orders, taking time along the way to modify, alter, or countermand the orders other people were issuing. Looking back long after the war [General] Grant wrote his verdict: "It seemed to be the policy of General Halleck and Secretary Stanton to keep any force sent there in pursuit of the invading army moving right or left so as to keep between the enemy and our capital; and generally speaking they pursued this policy until all knowledge of the whereabouts of the enemy was lost."

Author Catton wisely mixes quotes from senior military officers like Grant with letters and reminiscences from the lower-ranking officers and enlisted men. In this passage about an ill-fated charge, he draws from Charles H. Banes's History of the Philadelphia Brigade.

Down to the right were the troops which had made the unsuccessful attack earlier in the day, and it was resolved to send them back in again. The men had just succeeded in re-forming their lines after the repulse when a staff officer came galloping up, riding from brigade to brigade with orders for a new attack. One of the men who had to make this charge wrote afterward that "there was an approach to the ridiculous" in the way in which these orders were given. He specified:

"No officer of higher rank than a brigade commander had examined the approaches to the enemy's works on our front, and the whole expression of the person who brought the message seemed to say, 'The general commanding is doubtful of your success.' The moment the order was given the messenger put spurs to his horse and rode off, lest by some misunderstanding the assault should begin before he was safe and out of range of the enemy's responsive fire."

The soldier who wrote so bitterly about the way the charge was directed confessed that some of the best men in the army "not only retired without any real attempt to carry the enemy's works, but actually retreated in confusion to a point far in the rear of the original line and remained there until nearly night." Staff officers sent to recall them found the men quietly grouped around their regimental flags, making coffee.

Official letters and telegrams are sometimes of such dramatic content that the writer includes one—even reproducing its actual format. C. D. B. Bryan, in Friendly Fire, did just that with the type of letter no one wants to receive.


20 Apr 1970

I have the honor to inform you that your son has been awarded posthumously the Bronze Star Medal and the Good Conduct Medal.

Prior to his death, Michael had been awarded the National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Vietnam Campaign Medal, Combat Infantryman Badge, and the Marksman Badge with rifle, automatic rifle, and machine gun bars.

Arrangements are being made to have these awards presented to you in the near future by a representative of the Commanding General, Fifth United States Army.

The representative selected will communicate with you in the next few weeks to arrange for presentation. Any inquiry or correspondence concerning presentation should be addressed to the Commanding General, Fifth United States Army, Fort Sheridan, Illinois, 60038.

My continued sympathy is with you.


S/Kenneth G. Wickham

Major General, USA

The Adjutant General

People also expose bits of themselves when they talk on the telephone, the radio, or television, so creative nonfiction writers are well advised to keep their ears alert. Sometimes the writer can hear both sides of a telephone conversation; other times he or she may have to re-create one side from what's heard on the other end or from what one person recalls about the other side of the conversation. Reporting only one side of a conversation, however, can lend drama and verisimilitude to a report of an incident. Gay Talese, in his extended article about bridge building "The Stage in the Sky" (collected in his book Fame and Obscurity), captured this telephone conversation between Chris Reisman and someone named Willy:

The day after Reisman had been hired by the American Bridge Company and sent to Murphy's shack on the Staten Island shore, Murphy's welcoming words were, "Well, I see we got another ass to sit around here." But soon even Murphy was impressed with twenty-three-year-old Reisman's efficiency as a secretary and his cool manner over the telephone dealing with people Murphy was trying to avoid.

"Good morning, American Bridge..."

"Yeah, say is Murphy in?"

"May I ask who's calling?"

"May I ask who's calling?

"Yeah, dis is an old friend, Willy...just tell 'im Willy."

"May I have your last name?

"Your last name?"

"Just tell Murphy, well, maybe you can help me. Ya see, I worked on the Pan Am job with Murphy, and."

"Just a minute, please," Chris cut in, then switched to Murphy on the intercom and said, "I have a Willy on the phone that worked for you."

"I don't want to talk to that bastard," Murphy snapped back.

Then, back on the phone, Reisman said, "I'm sorry, sir, but Mr. Murphy is not in."

"I said I do not expect Mr. Murphy to be in today."

"Well, okay, I'll try tomorrow."

"Fine," said Chris Reisman, clicking him off, picking up another call with, "Good morning, American Bridge____"

Not much need be said about that phone conversation except that we learn a fair amount about Murphy and Chris Reisman, and about the general caliber of operation going on. To get so much background information to the reader through straight exposition would have lacked much and would not have put us right there in that construction workers' shack. People seem to enjoy overhearing phone conversations—and we tend to believe what we learn about something in this manner.

In Jan Morris's lengthy study of the inner and outer workings of New York's Port Authority and its ports, The Great Port: A Passage through New York, she captures this end of a phone conversation in a union hiring hall somewhere down near New York's piers:

I felt rather like a hoodlum boss myself, as we swept around the docks in the recesses of an immense Cadillac, which if not actually bullet-proof (it was only rented) smelt authentically, I thought, of bourbon and cigars. The hiring hall we visited certainly seemed innocent enough. The hiring bosses looked genteel, and the longshoremen, told there was work at Hoboken or Brooklyn, stepped into their waiting cars rather as though they were off to the office (though, in fact, since they are paid for the time they take in travelling to the piers, they often stop off for unnaturally long coffee breaks). It reminded me of Sotheby's, and was conducted, like that other earthy institution, with a certain ritual urgency. In the office a man was on the telephone, collating the needs of the port for labor that morning.

"Okay, Jersey City wants twelve drivers, eight banana men .. .Sure, I got a driver at Bayonne, where d'ya want him?.. .No, like I say, they don't want work in the hold.. .Yeah, yeah, send him to Berth 7, ITO.. .Whassat you say? Sure, category A, yeah."

In remote parts of places like Africa, northern Canada, and Alaska, transportation is expensive and difficult, and telephone service nonexistent, so many people must depend on radio messages. Joe McGinniss wrote about this in his Going to Extremes and captured for his readers some typical messages going out over the open airwaves. Sometimes people without a radio themselves have to depend on someone else's hearing and recording the message—and getting it to them somehow, sometime, somewhere.

Bush Pipeline on the radio: a way to make contact when you are out in the backcountry without a telephone, or when you were trying to reach someone who was.

"For Mom at Shell Lake. I had my physical yesterday and it was all right, except it cost fifty-one dollars. Gordon."

"To Julie at Chase. Ellen will be at Talkeetna Saturday. Would you come down?"

"To Mom and Sparky at Peter's Creek. Come into town as soon as possible. Might have a job lined up for Sparky."

"For David Burns at Gakona, or on the Gulkana River. Call your attorney at 274-7522 at once. From Geri, your attorney's secretary."

"For Boulder Creek Lodge. The transmission won't be finished until tomorrow. I'll be out with fresh supplies if the weather holds and I'm able to make it through the pass."

Sometimes a writer will find that snatches of conversation may be telling, dramatic, vivid, involving, despite their shortness of burst. Joan Didion, in her short study of El Salvador, Salvador, collected what professional photographers in the field sometimes call "grab shots"—photographs made on the run, shot from the hip—shots that, if properly set up, would most likely be missed because of the pace of action. With a tape recorder, or a good ear, the writer can grab snatches of conversation, as Joan Didion did here.

There had been, they agreed, fewer dead around since the election, fewer bodies, they thought, than in the capital, but as they began reminding one another of this body or that there still seemed to have been quite a few. They spoke of these bodies in the matter-of-fact way that they might have spoken, in another kind of parish, of confirmation candidates, or cases of croup.

There had been the few up the road, the two at Yoloaiquin. Of course there had been the forty-eight near Barrios, but Barrios was in April. "A guardia was killed last Wednesday," one of them recalled.


"Was it Thursday then, Jerry?"

"A sniper."

"That's what I thought. A sniper."

Paul Theroux's Sunrise with Seamonsters, in a chapter about New York City's subways, captures for us some of the straaange goings-on and straaange snatches of conversation we hear on New York's streets and subways.

Then a Muslim flapped his prayer mat—while we were at Flushing Avenue, talking about rules—and spread it out on the platform and knelt on it, just like that, and was soon on all fours, beseeching Allah and praising the Prophet Mohammed. This is not remarkable. You see praying, or reading the Bible, or selling religion on the subway all the time. "Hallelujah, brothers and sisters," the man with the leaflets says on the BMT-RR line at Prospect Avenue in Brooklyn. "I love Jesus! I used to be a wino!" And Muslims beg and push their green plastic cups at passengers, and try to sell them copies of something called Arabic Religious Classics. It is December and Brooklyn, and the men are dressed for the Great Nafud Desert, or Jiddah or Medina—skull cap, gallabieh, sandals.

"And don't sit next to the door," the second police officer said. We were still talking Rules. "A lot of these snatchers like to play the doors."

The first officer said, "It's a good thing to keep near the conductor. He's got a telephone. So does the man in the token booth. At night, stick around the token booth until the train comes."

Jan Morris reports in her book Destinations that New York City's daily life is "spattered with aspects and episodes of unhinged sensibility" and lists a few items she snatched up during a two-week stay. Here are some items selected from her list:

Item: At the headquarters of the New York police, which is a functionary called the Chief of Organized Crime, I heard an administrator say to a colleague on the telephone there: You're going sick today? Administrative sick or regular sick?

Item: A young man talks about his experiences in a levitation group: Nobody's hovenng yet but were lifting up and down again. Were hopping. I've seen a guy hop fifteen feet from the lotus position, and no one could do that on the level of trying.

Item: An eminent, kind and cultivated actress, beautifully dressed, is taking a cab to an address on Second Avenue. Cabdriver: Whereabouts is that on Second Avenue, lady? Actress, without a flicker in her equanimity: Don't ask me, bud. You're the fucking cabdriver.

A special category of conversational snatches is the one-sided conversation between the pet owner and pet. Jan Morris, in the same listing of items, snatched this one as it went by on a leash:

Item: I feel a sort of furry clutch at my right leg, and peering down, find that it is being bitten by a chow. Oh Goochy you naughty thing, says its owner, who is following behind with a brush and shovel for clearing up its excrement, you don't know that person.

I suppose I could write an entire chapter on graffiti found in and around our cities and toilets as illustration of the point that we, as a people, do say something about our society through what some of us write on walls, sidewalks, and subways. I'll be content here to add simply the one bit of graffiti given by Jan Morris.

Item: Graffito in Washington Square. yippies, jesus freaks and moonies are government operated

People also reveal something by the instructions they write for the public in public places, like hotel rooms, restaurants, and highways. I

recall one sign in an English hotel room where my wife and I were staying. On the back of the door was a series of instructions for various things like checkout time and room rates. The instructions on what to do in the event of fire consisted of about six items. Before they instructed us about crawling close to the floor to find unused oxygen, or about not using the lift during a fire, they gave what the English must consider a priority instruction: "(1) Put on your wrapper."

Not long after returning home, I came upon an article in the New York Times by Donald Carroll, author of the book The Best Excuse. I've excerpted several examples of public instruction from his article, "Truly Inspired Gibberish":

Consider, for example, this advice from the brochure of a car rental firm in Tokyo: When a passenger of foot heave in sight, tootle the horn. Trumpet him melodiously at first, but if he obstacles your passage then tootle him with vigor.

Back in your hotel room, if the hotel is Japanese, you might well be confronted with a polite warning combined with an impossible request: Is forbidden to steal the hotel towels please. If you are not person to do such thing is please not to read this.

The final instruction says more about the Japanese people's desire never to offend guests than any amount of long, expository writing or lecturing could accomplish. At first, such items seem simply humorous, but then we see something deeper. Sometimes, of course, the mangling of English or other languages leads to something no deeper than a chuckle, such as the sign Carroll reported in the same article: "There is, for instance, a dentist in Hong Kong who advertises: TEETH EXTRACTED BY THE LATEST METHODISTS."

I guess there are one or two things to be learned from all the foregoing: (1) Non-Methodist tourists—better have that six-month checkup before leaving home, and (2) if you should be recommending this book to a friend, trumpet its praises at first melodiously; that failing, tootle with vigor.

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