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  • Writer's pictureNanette Varian

Fun Home, Leslee Unruh and the Art of the Time Shift

Updated: Nov 11, 2020

OK, so what does a hit Broadway musical about a lesbian cartoonist have in common with a magazine article about a successful anti-abortion, pro-abstinence activist? Timing. Or, rather, time shifting—a challenge that sometimes arises when writing or editing a magazine story.

Among the many glories of Fun Home is the seamless way in which the story shuffles time frames and perspectives among what we could call the Three Ages of Alison—precocious kid, gawky college student and wry middle-aged artist. We are there, in the living room, dorm room, embalming room, as grown-up Alison conjures a living palimpsest of her cartoon panels to try and make sense of her talented, remote, closeted father’s decision to step in front of a truck not long after she comes out as gay. It's not just a masterpiece of storytelling; it is a masterpiece of editing.

Putting together a magazine story can be a maddening and exhilarating puzzle. One of my favorite writers is Amanda Robb, and we faced some tricky time-shift challenges in one of the profiles she wrote for More, the magazine where I work.

One day when we were brainstorming story ideas, Robb mentioned a woman she had come across in South Dakota while reporting a 2006 story, “Last Clinic Standing,” for Marie Claire. We realized that she could make a terrific More profile—Leslee Unruh was a powerful, influential, controversial woman who provided a window into one of the most inflammatory issues of our time.

Robb’s 2008 More profile combines unpublished material from her earlier visit with scenes and dialogue gathered from a new trip to South Dakota, plus follow-up conversations. In one paragraph, a new quote from a Planned Parenthood official abuts another quote from the same person acquired during the earlier interview. (It made sense to put it there but, aye yai yai! More on that conundrum in a moment.)

I always like to run fresh quotes in the present tense—“Unruh says,” as opposed to “Unruh said.” Some people oppose this technique, but others feel that, when used in feature writing, it gives the story a more immediate feel. And I agree. Presenting interview subjects in this way puts the reader in the room with them.

Quotes picked up from other media are of course attributed—in the past tense—to the original source: “. . . as Jane Doe told the New York Times.” To avoid confusion, I believe that even firsthand quotes, if they were gathered some time ago, and not for the assignment at hand, should also be presented this way: “Unruh told me during our first visit, two years earlier . . .”

At one point near the beginning of the More story, Robb’s conversation with Planned Parenthood’s Sarah Stoesz shifts from the past tense to the present, a move signaled by the use of “says” instead of “said.” There was a lot to pack into this piece, and space was tight. Looking back, I wish I’d added at least one more word: “Stoesz says now.” But that feels like a small quibble. This is a terrific story, full of great reporting, smart analysis, colorful writing and a remarkable sense of humanity on all sides. And well worth figuring out how to assemble the pieces of the time-shift puzzle.

You can read Amanda Robb’s award-winning story, “Leslee Unruh’s Facts of Life,” here.

And for God’s sake, go see Fun Home as soon as you can! Download the cast album, and treat yourself to Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, by Alison Bechdel, the groundbreaking graphic memoir on which the show is based.

Care to share your thoughts about the challenges of time-shifting, or the “says” versus “said” debate? Comment below. (Your email will not be visible.)

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