What Can We Steal From Brian Doyle’s “The Hawk”?

Title of Work and its Form: “The Hawk,” creative nonfiction
Author: Brian Doyle
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The piece was first published in the February 2011 issue of The Sun.  (The glossy lit mag, not the supermarket tabloid.)  Go ahead; read the piece right here.  Subsequently, the piece was awarded a Pushcart Prize and was included in the 2013 Pushcart Prize anthology.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Inspiration

Discussion:
The titular hawk is a man who, as Mr. Doyle states in the story’s first sentence, “took up residence on my town’s football field, sleeping in a small tent in the northwestern corner, near the copse of cedars.”  The Hawk was, years earlier, a star on that very field who had some success in college and in the “nether reaches of the professional ranks.”  The man tried some business ventures that didn’t succeed and decided to make his home on the very ground where he first tasted glory.  The second half of the piece is Mr. Doyle’s recollection of what The Hawk said to a newspaper reporter who was writing a story about the broken social contract and wanted to use football as a hook.  The Hawk’s statements are appropriately poetic, including one very long, very beautiful sentence about the beauty that still exists in the hearts of all mankind.

If you checked the story out, you notice at first that it’s not very long.  This is not a problem; Mr. Doyle set out to give voice to The Hawk, and he did so.  Make no mistake; whenever we write creative nonfiction, we’re stealing someone else’s life in some way.  Even in a memoir, we are appropriating the lives of others; our friends, our parents and anyone else we may include in the narrative?  What are the responsibilities we have to those people?  Well, that’s up for debate.  The reporter wanted to USE The Hawk to reinforce her point about the way society lets others down.  To her, The Hawk was a character to be pitied, a man who illustrates the mistakes made by our leaders and by individuals themselves.  This is a valid way to go, but Mr. Doyle USED The Hawk to greater effect.  The beginning of the essay is contrived somewhat to evoke pathos.  How could it not?  The guy lives on the football field!  He’s living in the past.  Mr. Doyle makes a great turn, however, granting agency to The Hawk and allowing the man to tell his own story.  You know what?  The Hawk is a pretty deep guy and I’m glad to have met him instead of simply being told what he represents.

And how did Mr. Doyle reconstruct the “quietly amazing things” that The Hawk said?  Well, I don’t know Mr. Doyle, although I’m sure he’s a great guy.  Perhaps Mr. Doyle listened in wonder and then typed out what he remembered when next he was at his desk.  On the other hand, I suspect Mr. Doyle may be the kind of writer who brings a notebook with him as much as possible.  I learned this lesson early.  One day, while waiting for a Greyhound to visit an ex-girlfriend, I overheard the discussion between a man and woman who were clearly very distressed.  “Will we be forgiven for what we did?”  They wondered.  “Don’t you think everyone else will find out our shame?”  They asked.  Boy, do I wish I had had a notebook with me so I could jot down every creepy/awesome line they were trying to write for me.

What Should We Steal?

  • Grant agency to your characters, no matter your genre.  Don’t you deserve to determine the course of our own lives and how we are perceived?  Your characters deserve no less.  If you’re writing nonfiction, consider whether or not you have allowed your characters full citizenship in the work.
  • Bring a notebook with you at all times.  You never know when a great line is going to pop into your head or when you’re going to be stuck in a twenty-minute line at the grocery store in need of something to do.  Even better, you never know when something crazy is going to happen around you that demands to be recorded.

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