1968: october 31
another day, another wall

studs terkel

Studs Terkel is on a very short list of people who taught me how to write. Not that he knew this ... it's not like we ever met. But I found his many oral histories to be fascinating, for the way he was able to put a person's words on a page in such a way that each one of those people had their distinct personality. It's not as easy as Studs made it look, I assure you. He managed to do this while simultaneously staying out of the way, and giving us a peek at Studs ... you never read a Studs Terkel oral history without hearing his voice behind the questions.

When I say he taught me how to write, I don't mean in any specific sense. In fact, the one time I tried to imitate him in public, I got shot down. I interviewed two local disc jockeys and wrote up the interviews for a music magazine. I did this in the style of Studs: set the stage, then let the person talk, with few questions inserted to break the spell. My piece was not only rejected, but I was shamed by the editor, who asked if I'd ever read an interview before. I was hurt, but I was also thinking it odd that a person could be an editor of a magazine and not understand the Studs Terkel style.

The book of his that had the biggest impact on me was Working, because it came during my decade as a steelworker, and I loved that someone cared enough about us to put us in a book. (We had a friend at the time who was doing her master's thesis on alienation in the workplace, and she had a billion books to read, including Studs' ... I invited her to come down to the factory to talk to some actual blue-collar gents and ladies, but she said she had too many books to catch up on.)

One of my favorite memories of Studs Terkel has long been his participation in an early-70s TV series, The Great American Dream Machine. In the midst of comic satire by the likes of Albert Brooks, Marshall Efron, and Chevy Chase was a segment that consisted of Studs Terkel in a Chicago bar, sitting around with regular folks drinking beer and jabbering. I have no idea how "real" it was, in a staged/live sense ... for all I know, it was actors in a studio. Studs made me believe, which is what mattered.

That was one of his greatest gifts, I think: he made you believe in the crucial importance of every person he interviewed, rich or poor, famous or obscure. That, and the part where he was an unreconstructed radical leftist until the day he died. Which he did, today, at the age of 96. I can think of no life more worth emulating.

Comments