#378: What Guns Did To My Childhood
I’ll say it again: Mitchell S. Jackson knows how to write
Happy Thursday, loyal readers. Thank you for your kind words about last week’s interview with E. Alex Jung, author of “The Spectacular Life of Octavia Butler.” I look forward to seeing many of you this Sunday for our discussion of his great article.
This week, I’m featuring another brilliant piece by one of my favorite writers, Mitchell S. Jackson. Before I reveal it, it’s important to note that Mr. Jackson is no stranger to The Highlighter. Some evidence:
His “Twelve Minutes and a Life” was named the best article of 2021
His “Looking for Clarence Thomas” was stellar (and scathing)
His interview with me and Sarai felt like we were talking to an old friend
In that interview, we asked Mr. Mitchell what separates his writing, what makes his writing special. His answer began with a humble preamble. Then he said he likes the challenge: that if he’s going to spend months on a feature story, he wants to push himself, he wants to break convention, he wants to do something new with form.
But then he got specific. The truth is, he doesn’t think of himself as a journalist. Rather, he came up from fiction. He has two master’s degrees in creative writing. He thinks of nonfiction with a fiction writer’s mindset. And that means he cares about writing at the sentence level. He said:
I’m very much concerned with the sentence. I’m almost concerned with the sentence over the story. And so the benefit of writing nonfiction is that, You don’t have to invent the scenes, but the kind of ethos of wanting to make beautiful sentences, that’s really what I want to do.
This sentence-level attention to detail is abundantly clear in this week’s selection, “What Guns Did To My Childhood.” I highly recommend that you read it.
I don’t want to spoil your experience reading the piece, but I do want to call out a couple passages to explain what I’m talking about when I say that Mr. Mitchell cares about sentences. Here’s one:
I’m not some fancy teacher of writing, but I can identify great writing when I read it. Mr. Mitchell could have written another “guns steal young people’s innocence” piece. But because he cares about sentences, we feel the slumped shoulders and the dimmed eyes. We feel the nullification of childhood grace.
If you read the article, I also invite you to notice how Mr. Mitchell plays with words. His word choice is precise: He switches between isn’t and ain’t based on his purpose. He throws in a comcomitant right after a hella.
I’m convinced he does this to mess with his reader — in particular: his white liberal college-educated New York Times-subscribing reader. Mr. Mitchell doesn’t let his reader rest. He doesn’t want them (you?) to be comfortable. He did it in his Ahmaud Arbery profile, and he does it again here. In one example, he interrupts his narrative to remind his reader:
Later, when presenting a list of startling statistics about gun violence, he again pauses to make sure we are listening to him. “Do you hear me?” he asks. In other words, Mr. Mitchell is not letting us go about our day.
I could go on and on, but I’ll stop there for now. Except one last thing: If you are a teacher (many of you are), this is a piece I’d recommend that you read with your students — not only because of the content, but also because of all the writerly moves Mr. Mitchell makes. Please enjoy (and tell me about it!).
⭐️ The 1619 Project docuseries premieres today. Many of you participated in our six-month book study of The 1619 Project last year. Anyone want to organize a watch party of the six-part docuseries? Let me know.
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