A writer in the Monday memoir class I lead worked for Life Magazine in 1963. Giovanna Breu was at the magazine’s New York office when legendary editor Richard Stolley was negotiating for the right to reprint stills from footage of the assassination filmed by Abraham Zapruder.
The Zapruder film arrived at the Life Magazine office before Giovanna left to cover President Kennedy’s funeral, and in an essay she wrote for class, she describes sitting with her fellow reporters in New York to review the film frame by painful frame. “It was horrific,” she wrote, explaining that out of decency and respect for the President’s family, they decided not to publish every single frame.
Giovanna left the New York office then to catch a train to Washington, D.C. and work with Life photographer Bob Gomel from two different locations to photograph the funeral. “We had credentials to a rooftop where we watched Jackie Kennedy walk with a long stride and a firm step behind her husband’s body to St Matthew’s Cathedral,” she said, reading her essay out loud in class. “Our second spot was at St. Matthew’s Cathedral where little John Kennedy saluted the body of his father as he lay on the caisson.”
Every writer in class reads their completed assignment out loud every week, so I ask them to keep their pieces short. “No more than 500 words!” I tell them. I may not be able to see who I’m wagging my finger at, but after weeks of hearing their stories, I know who they are.
The 500-word limit encourages writers to edit their work. They learn to use stronger words to express themselves. And no matter how busy these seniors are, 500 words a week is an attainable goal. Asking Giovanna to limit this story to 500 words was probably asking too much, though. Her essay read more like a piece of journalism than a memoir. When she was done reading, I reminded all the writers that the word limit was just for class. “If you want to write longer pieces for your family, or even for yourself, that’s fine,” I said. “We just have to stick to this 500 –word rule in class, you know, so everyone has enough time to read.”
I turned towards Giovanna then to suggest she add more emotion to this piece, that she tell her readers how these events made her feel. Giovanna mulled this idea over for a long time, and the class stayed uncharacteristically silent. Her response finally came in two sad, simple words:” I can’t.”