Every person who loves the written word has known a firefly moment. It is the moment at which a single word ignites a sentence, or a perfect phrase illuminates a page. The writer who can successfully cultivate the firefly gift eventually will make it to the top.

It is no problem to find examples among great writers of the past. A reader of Charlotte Bronte recently passed along one of her similes – “as unromantic as Monday morning.” Browsing through a book of similes, I came across a fine line from H.G. Wells. He said that Queen Victoria “was like a great paperweight that sat upon men’s minds.” Look at photos of the lady. Sure enough, a great paperweight.

We do not have to read Great Works or graze through Bartlett’s Quotations to find a firefly moment. Look around.

Robin Givhan, a staff writer for The Washington Post, covered an exhibition last year of figure studies by photographer Irving Penn. His nudes were in the full-bodied tradition of Rubens and Renoir, a switch from his usual subjects. As a fashion photographer, Penn has spent a lifetime shooting tall, reedlike women, wearing trend-setting clothes “draped on their wire-hanger shoulders.” Look at fashion models. Look at wire coat hangers. What a lovely line!

Two years ago The Washington Post reviewed a TV version of Agatha Christie’s famous “Murder on the Orient Express.” In a memorable production in 1974, Albert Finney had played the role of detective Hercule Poirot. Here the lead was taken by Alfred Molina. The Post’s critic compared the performances: “Still a fussbudget and fop, the new Poirot is a bit less formal than the priss with the anchovy mustache played by Finney.” The anchovy mustache!

Two years ago Stephen Cole of the Toronto Globe and Mail wrote a piece about actor Gene Hackman. It appeared that Hackman is uncomfortable with interviews. He walked into a jammed press conference at the Toronto film festival, “looking like a mover who’d just been told that the piano was going to the sixth floor.”

In the same vein, sportswriter Dan Daly of The Washington Times wrote from the Augusta Masters last year. Scott Hoch, who has a fine short game, had just learned that the long holes at Augusta had been made longer. “He looks like his dog just died.”

And thinking of dogs: Douglas Martin of The New York Times wrote an obituary two years ago about Eleanor McDonald, owner and breeder of Special Times Just Right, the bichon frise that had won every prize in dogdom. The pooch is “a dazzlingly white, 14-pound, intensely furry powder puff with sparkling black-currant eyes.” But it is his happy disposition that makes this champion a champion. When he won all the ribbons at Westminster, he jumped into the winner’s silver bowl and raised his front paws in a boxer’s salute.

Such vivid writing is what I have filed for years as “the good stuff.” How do the writers bring it off? They look intensely at the world around them, and they file away images that may come in handy someday. Go, now, and make fireflies of your own.

James Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.


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