Ask yourself: Is this the flaw? Or the feature?
I’m at the point in the book I’m writing on the Birmingham Campaign where everything goes to shit. The Civil Rights leaders had planned, endlessly, for how to stage protests in Birmingham in 1963. One of King’s deputies, Wyatt Walker, knew how man stools, tables and chairs were in every department store where they might stage sit-ins. Walker had even timed, and to the second, how long it took an old man to walk from a Black church to Birmingham’s downtown, and how long it took a child to walk the same distance.
None of that mattered. Once King and the rest got to Birmingham? The Black churches abandoned them, as did the city’s Black leaders and the hundreds of people who had promised and sometimes signed their names to documents pledging they would march. No march, no sit-in worked. The press ridiculed King. So did other Civil Rights groups. So did members of King’s own organization, The Southern Christian Leadership Conference. “We allowed our problems to dictate our decisions,” Ralph Abernathy, King’s best friend, said about the early days of the Birmingham Campaign. “We saw difficulties and complications everywhere and as the work of the Devil.”
It seemed there was no way to succeed, and if they failed in Birmingham nothing less than civl rights itself would, too. The Kennedy administration had abandoned King and the South was hardening its hatred, rewinding, almost, from the land of Jim Crow to a crueler antebellum South.
How King and the rest forged ahead, how they succeeded, will be the work of the book but I can say today that they looked at their available options, all of them terrible, and found that the problems themselves offered solutions. In other words, in their problem was also the way ahead.
There’s a lesson here for anyone, in any pursuit, and a creative pursuit in particular. So often when writing a piece you get stuck. You see only the bad choices you’ve made on the page and don’t see a way ahead. You consider starting over, but there is another way to think about those bad choices: What else are they telling me?
I used to work alongside a brilliant editor at ESPN, Ty Wenger. Ty and I sometimes edited pieces together. I remember one day a story came in from a writer and it was, well, not great. It had a central flaw in its structure and conceit that I didn’t think the story could overcome. I argued we should consider killing the piece. Save ourselves the trouble.
Ty said I may be right. “But what if the flaw of this story were also its feature?” he said. What if, in other words, the problem I saw offered its own solution? What if the writer leaned in to this flaw until it became the best attribute of the story? I, like Ralph Abernathy, had allowed the problem to dictate my decision. Ty was asking me to think more expansively, more counter-intuitively.
In the Birmingham Campaign, Ralph Abernathy ultimately said “Yes, we saw difficulties and complications as the work of the Devil, but in retrospect we usually agreed that it was God instead, creating adversities in order to move us in the right direction.”
Writing is like that. Life is like that. “What stands in the way becomes the way,” Marcus Aurelius wrote. Or, as another Civil Rights Leader, John Lewis, once put it: “Problems don’t happen to us, but for us.”
It became a mantra I’d repeat to myself in my years at ESPN, whether I was editing stories or writing my own: Is this the flaw? Or the feature?
Ask questions like that, about stories, about life, and you’ll always find the answer you need. It will almost always be the best solution.
From right to left: King, Abernathy, and the Birmingham pastor Fred Shuttlesworth, in 1963.
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