What's the value of taking a closer look?
“You have got to be kidding,” I whispered when I drove past the Cadillac Ranch west of Amarillo, Texas. The famous line of ten Cadillacs planted front bumpers in the ground and rear bumpers in the air was barely visible in the distance.
I shook my head, unable to believe I’d driven 75 miles out of my way to see this landmark. Another sucker, I thought as I made a U turn at the next I-40 exit, back tracked on the frontage road, left my car on a cold, grey day, and trekked a quarter mile across a barren field to look more closely.
The nearer I came, the more intrigued I grew. The cars began to pop with color and texture, with messages left by previous pilgrims to this shrine. The rusted out cars were so covered with spray paint the surfaces bubbled like lava. It was not unrealistic to question whether the cars could have remained upright sans paint. Graffiti memorialized Mom, love, and messages of dubious intent.
From a distance the Cadillac Ranch was a big nothing. Close up, it was a fascinating essay in excess, in silliness, in commentary on America.
As I walked around each car, marveling at what these monoliths say about all of us who came there, I realized Cadillac Ranch stands as a tribute to one of my first writing instructors, Mary Kay Shanley. Mary Kay always exhorted us to take a smaller picture, to take a closer look. She gave huge assignments, all to be completed in no more than 250 words.
Mary Kay would have us write about the Cadillac Ranch, but tell an entire story by focusing on one car. One axle. One wheel. In 250 words.
Her assignments were not exercises in the impossible, though sometimes they felt like that. Her point was that if you focused small, zeroing in on the core points that really mattered, choosing each word with care, you could convey more meaning with greater effect in 250 words than if you used three times as many words without care.
With the right 250 words, you’d feel as though you knew the Cadillac Ranch even if you’d never been there. That lesson is one I’ve always remembered. Thanks to Mary Kay for drumming that concept into my head. Thanks to the Cadillac Ranch for a timely reminder.
If you visit:
If you happen to pass through Amarillo, take a half hour and stop at Cadillac Ranch. It’s better up close – just like good writing. And take a can of spray paint. It’s encouraged.
For a even more pleasure:
Sign up for Mary Kay Shanley’s newsletter, Words & Other Worthy Endeavors. Whether you write or not, you’ll enjoy spending time with Mary Kay. Her website is under construction at the moment, but you can reach her through LinkedIn.