Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Good news/bad news

Why would you write a poem about that dirty old Henry Hill and Father's overcoat? Aren't there nicer things to write about?
Richard B. Wright, Clara Callan

Richard B. Wright
Early in Richard B. Wright's novel Clara Callan, Clara sends her sister, Nora, a poem she has written about the town drunk now wearing their late father's overcoat. The poem includes the lines "That sombre banker's coat/Now the glad rags/Of a foolish man." That brings the above reply, where Nora suggests her older sister write poems about "nicer things."

Writing about nicer things is what Clara does in her letters to her sister for most of the rest of the novel. Her life falls into turmoil. She is raped by a tramp and later has a doomed affair with a married man, yet Clara writes letters full of the kind of happy news she thinks her sister wants to hear. That is until desperation forces Clara to share her bad news. Nora, of course, then scolds her sister for not confiding the bad news earlier.

The phrase "I've got some good news and some bad news" is the start of many a joke. Yet it also describes the dilemma most of us often face when we write a letter (or, more likely, an e-mail), talk with a friend or even write a poem or a story. Should we focus on the positive or the negative? Should we ignore the bad news altogether?

We tend to admire people with stiff upper lips who, however much they may suffer, just don't talk about it, while avoiding those who seem to complain all the time. We like to be around those who, as the Carter Family song goes, "keep on the sunny side of life." Yet life, like any street, does have two sides, and both sides need attention. It can be a mistake to ignore either our blessings or our problems.

During my long newspaper career I heard frequent complaints that newspapers print only the bad news. I never thought this to be true, for newspapers print much good news, even on their front pages. Rather people seem to read and remember the bad news more than the good news. Stories about murders and plane crashes are just more interesting than those about science fair winners and people with unusual hobbies. If a newspaper ever failed to report a rape or murder in their own neighborhood, those people who complain about too much bad news would probably be among the first to protest.

Like newspapers, we should be willing to report both our good news and bad news, at least to those willing to receive it.

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