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In Only 66 Words, He Captured the Endless Horror of the American Healthcare System
Passionate writers who want to drive home their points should take note.
Back in high school, my pimply-faced classmates and I were forced to read Ernest Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms.
I hated it.
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(This seems inevitable now, seeing as I was 16 years old, captured in the throes of puberty, and generally distracted by things like miniskirts and loud noises.
High school reading is wasted on high schoolers)
Farewell was a bit better Invisible Man (over my head) and heaps better than The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (OMG so depressing), but still. I couldn’t handle Papa Hemingway. The blood, guts, and gore were too much. The detached description of violence twisted my stomach. How the hell could this be the pinnacle of American literature?
I quit before the end.
Probably there was a dodgeball game happening.
I found out the truth about Hemingway and his gut-wrenching descriptions much later.
Hemingway is well known BECAUSE he wrote so brutally.
A writer’s first responsibility is sharing the truth. This often means stringing together unspeakable words to piece together a picture of terror. 1984 is not a happy read, but it’s a powerful one. Man’s Search for Meaning is grim, but it’s everlasting.
And the paragraph we’re looking at today is horrible, but telling.
In a New York Times post called How Do We Fix the Scandal That Is American Health Care? Nicholas Kristof points out quite a few unsavory details about American healthcare.
The shocking statistic from the article is that Mississippi now has a lower life expectancy than Bangladesh.
The shocking writing to observe, though, happens in paragraph four:
A medical setting cannot hide the violence of a saw cutting through a leg or muffle the grating noise it makes as it hacks through the tibia or disguise the distinctive charred odor of cauterized blood vessels. That noise of a saw on bone is a rebuke to an American health care system that, as Walter Cronkite reportedly observed, is neither healthy, caring nor a system.
It’d be reductive to credit this paragraphs’s power to the rhetorical figures I’m about to mention. It works because of the raw facts. No metaphors here. No similes. Just disgust.
(If you’re willing to put the horror of life in your reader’s face without flinching, you’ve gone a long way toward hooking them.)
But there are a few techniques we can learn from here.
First, there’s the assonance (repeated vowel sounds) of “hide the violence” in that first verb phrase. “Mask the violence” is not as catchy.
Second, there’s the polysyndeton (using conjunction instead of commas) which makes the onslaught of terror feel like a barreling freight train instead of a rote list.
Third, there’s the alliteration (repeated consonant sounds) in the third verb phrase of the first sentence: “disguise the distinctive…”
These are all rhetorical figures.
The fourth technique worth noting is a persuasive choice: the reference to Walter Cronkite. Calling on his ethos (reputation) validates this writing.
“See, Cronkite agrees with me!”
Possibly Nic is a fan of Cronkite, but he could also be sharp enough to know readers of the New York Times are typically in the demographic who knew and admired Cronkite.
In other words, he pulled every possible string to bring attention to a gruesome, changeable affliction on society.
We should all be so diligent.