One year a number of us in my program were quite taken with a small book published by a colleague somewhere whose writing class had looked into old crimes as their research project; their principal source was, I believe, the archives of the New York Times. We decided to experiment with his idea in our own course.
Our students liked the assignment (I wish I could remember the book or author, because he deserves the credit!), but some of the papers that resulted showed a struggle with expressing the information they had found.
So today’s quotation is a demonstration of yet another student trying to work out his thoughts as he wrote (about one “Lewis,” the prime suspect in a fatal strangling), and then considering the result his final draft:
“After searching for people who had bloodstains, the detectives decided that in a strangling case there was no blood involved. When a person is strangled there is no blood. That is one reason why they are harping on Lewis, because he had no blood.”
Now, why the detectives would initially have looked for bloodstains as the telltale mark of a strangler, unless they assumed the killer or killed might have had a nosebleed or something during the struggle, is a mystery in and of itself; and maybe this is the puzzle that set my writer off on such a gnarled thought sequence.
But what really led the paragraph in the direction of the bizarre is the writer’s shift from “bloodstains” to “blood.” On one level, to be sure, the two words can refer to the same thing; but first we are told that no blood was “involved,” and then that “there is no blood,” and by the time we get to the end of the paragraph we are left with the picture of detectives combing the city not for a man with no bloodstains on him (wouldn’t almost everyone in the city qualify as a suspect on those terms?) but for a man walking around without any blood—perhaps the first zombie in America?
Why didn’t my student take a few minutes, once he had unraveled the blood issue, to rewrite the paragraph? Even though I (and you) know what he meant, I can’t get that last picture out of my mind.