Paige Williams is a National Magazine Award-winning writer whose stories have been anthologized in five Best American volumes. She teaches at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard and edits Nieman Storyboard.
For elegance + acute observation in the service of theme
“The family as a socially isolating unit is an idea not limited to humans. In the wild, infants represent competition for resources, and it is not uncommon for a mother’s job to be primarily about hiding and protecting their infants from members of their own species. Jane Goodall observed chimpanzee mothers completely protecting their infants from contact with other nonsibling chimpanzees for the first five months of life, pulling their infants’ hands away when they reached for nearby chimps.”
“Because we spend much of our young lives dramatizing and imagining ourselves as parents, it isn’t surprising that even the strongest of us let the body’s failure become how we define ourselves. But nature, which gives us other things to do, tells us otherwise. The feeling of grief subsides; we think through our options and make choices. We work, travel, find other ways to be successful. After completing The Waves, at forty-eight, Woolf writes of a feeling of intoxication that comes from writing well:
“Children are nothing to this.”
For unpretentious power + authorial restraint
“Of course, my father numbered his boys among the reprobates and never missed an opportunity to let us know it. He resented that we just assumed that we’d have stuff, like food and clothes. In the great ledger of material things, my family didn’t merit a mention. We had little to speak of, and as the youngest I got everything we did have last. It was just life and nobody complained. But compared with some of the boys I went to school with, we were absolutely prosperous. In my town, you showed yourself to be truly poor by showing up at school barefoot. And there were so many kids without shoes that we really didn’t think much of it. I remember one kid from my street vividly. Aiken was a fully muscled man at ten. Aiken was weathered at ten — steel-calloused hands, deep-set, weary eyes — looked like he punched a clock as a longshoreman just in time to make it to Mrs. Norris’s fifth-grade class every morning. Aiken had no shoes, and he wore the same clothes every day of the week. You’d see his mama out in the yard doing the wash on Sunday, and they’d start out clean on Monday, and by Friday they’d have fresh holes and be pretty ripe. But Aiken walked through the world unfazed by this, and even though we didn’t have a pot to piss in, either, I felt sorry for him all the same. In Aiken’s grim acceptance of the world and its privations, my father saw a lesson for me. When my brothers and I asked for extravagances, like shoes, Daddy would say, ‘You girls better marry rich wives, you’ve got expensive tastes.’ Now, you’re probably saying to yourself, surely this was meant affectionately! A little ribbing, to make men of us. But just to make sure that we knew he wasn’t joking in the slightest, he’d quickly add: ‘You’ll never amount to anything.’”
For vibrant wordplay and sentence structure
“Marques scoops his head toward Padilla’s face on the sandy floor, a move that resembles canine tenderness, as if he’s leaning down to lick him, but instead the bull drives his sharp left horn through the bullfighter’s jaw. When Marques tusks up, the horn crunches through Padilla’s skin and bone, exiting through his left eye socket. Cameras clock the instant that a glistening orb pops loose onto the matador’s cheek. A frightening silence descends on the crowd. Nobody knows the depth of the wound.
“Marques gallops on, and Padilla gets towed for a few feet, pulled by his cheek. He loses a shoe. Skin stretches away from his jawbone with the fragile elasticity of taffy. Then Padilla’s prone body is left in the bull’s dust. He springs up like a jack-in-the-box and hops around. His face is completely red. As the blood gushes down his cheek, he holds his dislodged eye in place with his pinkie. He thinks he must be dying. I can’t breathe. I can’t see.”
For exquisite reporting and detail
“Her name was Olga Rodríguez. She came from a peasant family, in the central province of Santa Clara, that often went without food. ‘We were so poor,’ Rodríguez recalls. She studied diligently, and was elected class president. Her goal was to become a teacher. She was bright, stubborn, and questioning—as Rodríguez puts it, ‘always a little different.’ Increasingly angered by the Batista regime’s repressiveness, she joined the underground resistance, organizing protests and assembling bombs until, one day, agents from Batista’s secret police appeared in her neighborhood, showing people her photograph. ‘They were coming to kill me,’ Rodríguez recalls.
“When the secret police could not find her, they beat up her brother, heaving him on her parents’ doorstep ‘like a sack of potatoes,’ she says. Her friends begged her to leave Cuba, but she told them, ‘I will not abandon my country.’ In April, 1958, with her appearance disguised and with a tiny .32 pistol tucked in her underwear, she became the first woman to join the rebels in the Escambray. She tended to the wounded and taught rebels to read and write. ‘I have the spirit of a revolutionary,’ she liked to say.
“When Morgan met her, he gently teased her about her haircut, pulling down her cap and saying, ‘Hey, muchacho.’ Morgan had arrived at the camp literally riding a white horse, and she had felt her heart go ‘boom, boom, boom.’”
For humor + descriptiveness + a masterful sense of the absurd
“Going to a nightclub, like going on vacation, sometimes gives rise to this really stressful internal-feedback loop that initiates when some dark part of your brain transmits a pretty obvious question: ‘Am I having fun?’ Then: ‘Is this fun? What about that?’ Or, ‘Those people look like they’re having fun—are they pretending like I am?’ Or, ‘I should be having fun, but am I really? How about now? Or…now?’ And then this other part of your brain says, ‘Shut up, this is your dedicated night for fun, you paid all this money for it, and if you’re not having fun now, maybe you’re not capable of fun, so please for the love of God just shut up.’ ‘Okay. Okay… But how about now?’”
“You can kind of see how the chemistry between Jason and Noah works. Jason is handsome and prone to fixing his hair while he speaks to you. He is just tan enough so that you wonder whether he is naturally that color. He’s superserious about electronic dance music and keeps the satellite radio in his Denali tuned to ‘Electric Area’ and presents as the kind of guy you want to be with on the night when occasion lands you at a fancy nightclub. It’s wrong to say that Noah is a lovable schlub, because he’s not that schlubby. I’m not implying that he isn’t handsome, though I am implying that he is bald and sweats more than Jason, and I don’t think he’s ever had a tan in his life. When he opens his mouth, accentwise, the Manhattan of the 1990s, of the Beastie Boys and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, comes out. Jason is pals with millionaire DJs from Amsterdam; Noah is friends with, like, Jay-Z and Paris Hilton. And also everyone. It’s just very, very easy to like him.”