Wright Thompson is a friend of mine. We met at the Masters five or six years ago. There was a dinner for golf writers, and I’d never been to anything like that before. I wore shorts and a loud shirt. I got out of my car in the parking lot and saw all these guys in suits. Oh, shit, I thought. I walked in, and there was one other dude in shorts and a loud shirt. I started walking up to him and he started smiling, and I said something like, “You and me, we’re hanging out tonight.” That dude was Wright. And so we did.
Wednesday, February 9, 2011
FIVE FOR WRITING: WRIGHT THOMPSON!
Wright lives in Mississippi. He made his bones at newspapers, including the Kansas City Star, and now writes features for ESPN.com. Whenever they land, they are centerpieces. He appears annually in Best American Sports Writing. He writes long and often personally, and he lays his heart out there, which is a rare thing these cynical days. For a lot of us, it can feel like too much of a risk.
But I love Wright because he takes risks. He takes chances. He’s wide open. The other day, I sent him these five questions about writing. (He’d emailed to say how much he thought of Gene Weingarten’s responses, and I saw my opening.) Hours later, Wright sent back 2,500 honest, beautiful, purposeful words. One more time, he’d served up that big bleeding southern cheeseburger heart of his, and I want to thank him for that, sincerely. I’m lucky to call him a friend, and I’m lucky to be able to read him and feel like he’s kicked my ass again. Love and the occasional beating: I’ll always be glad we were both wearing shorts and loud shirts that night in Augusta.
Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Wright Thompson:
1. You started in newspapers. Now you’re one of the few sportswriters writing exclusively long form, exclusively for the Web. What’s your sense of the state of things? Have you found your sweet spot, or are you still looking?
I go back and forth, man. In terms of my actual job, I feel like I’m home. I was restless for years, wondering what would come next, and how my life, and career, would turn out. I felt very competitive with people. Now I’m competitive with myself. I don’t worry about where I’m gonna work, or how it’ll turn out. I used to plot how to write for Esquire, for instance; now I just read the magazine, admire and study the stories, then go back to worrying about whatever I’m writing. I’m calm. (Well, I’m calmer.) I worry only about the next story, then the one after that. The people around me are really partners in this journey. I mean it. Jay Lovinger, Jena Janovy and Kevin Jackson, they really make this possible. I can’t imagine doing this every day with anyone else.
I’ve always said that one day I’d write books, but to be honest, that won’t happen until I’m bored with this. Right now, as I’m packing for the next trip, that day seems mighty far away. I’m hooked on the rhythm of these stories. It allows me to explore lots of things I’m interested in. Is there a better job? I read a newspaper series about global food shortages and, boom, I’m in Ghana. I read What It Takes and I’m exploring power in Washington, D.C. It really does allow me to learn about things that fascinate me. A recent story I wrote on Cleveland came out of a conversation at dinner with John Walsh about disappearing America, another subject that really fascinates me. I’ve come back to it again and again: Nazareth, Texas; Yankee Stadium; even Vince Lombardi’s house.
My relationship with my editor, Jay Lovinger, is at the center of this. He really gets me: my vanities, my insecurities, my strengths, my weaknesses. He jokingly describes me as a strange mixture of ego and fear. He’s obviously right. We talk daily, about stories I’m working on, about stories or books he’s reading or has read. Sometimes he sends me books. We talk about things Joseph Mitchell wrote, things Hunter Thompson wrote. I ask him to read stories I admire and help me understand how they came to be. We talk about my reporting that day, and what parts of it are interesting to him. It seems that the stories are an almost accidental byproduct of the process.
It is the process that I love and it is inside that process where I feel at home. For instance, the reason the story about the boxer who fought Muhammad Ali is special to me isn’t because of the time I spent reporting or the reaction I received; it is because we edited that one in person at his house—the only story we’ve edited sitting side by side—and that afterward, he drove me back to my hotel in the city and, along the way, we talked about writing. That’s the sweet spot. I love doing these stories. I love doing them with Jay.
Not that you asked, but a quick word about the process with Jay: when I write a story, I’ll file it to him, and he’ll read it and then call me. We’ll talk about themes, about structural problems, about issues with the dramatic arc, and then I’ll rework it. Am I being mysterioso? That’s a word he uses a lot, and it’s not a compliment. Am I promising something I don’t deliver? What is it about? How is it about the larger human condition? What are you trying to say? Are you saying it? Why are you making the reader try to read your mind? Why are your sentences like that? How does the writing reflect the theme? What will the voice of the piece be? If you’re in it, what character are you going to create? Are you being deliberate? I’ll file again and he’ll go through and ask more questions. These are specific, in all caps, in the text. I’ll answer those, reworking again. Then he’ll line edit. I have a terrible habit, as he frequently points out, of stepping on my endings. So he often cuts a line—or, occasionally, a graph or two—at the ends of sections. I feel confident taking big swings with him because I know he won’t let me look like a fool. I trust him completely. I really enjoy watching stories get better with each round.
In terms of the writing, I go through phases. Sometimes, I read something and it both makes and ruins my day. I don’t know if other people feel like that. On days like that, I’m still looking. On days like that, I am a long way from where I want to be as a writer. I put tremendous pressure on myself. I think I’m still growing. I hope I’m getting better. I love gangrey and, now, this blog, because I can see inside other people’s process. Some yahoo came on gangrey a month or so ago, and talked about it as a circle jerk. I think he really missed the point. It is a place where writers feel comfortable really talking about the process, about what works for them, without fear of snark. I learn specifics but, mostly, I’m inspired by the level of commitment. It inspires me to stay committed.
2. If I took a poll, I would guess that “Holy Ground”—your story about your late father and the Masters—would rank as your most beloved. What was it like for you to write that story—the physical process—and where does it rank for you?
I cried the entire time I was writing. It was in the Augusta National press room. I was a mess. The entire thing took, I don’t know, four hours to write? I know I sat down with a blank screen and when I stopped writing, the story was finished. There was virtually nothing changed by Jay. I drank coffee. I ate chicken sandwiches. I remembered my daddy. I felt his presence. I sent the story to my mother. She had one veto. I had, on a roll, said something about going from the back seat of a car to a church to a hospital room. She—a very proper Southern lady—said there were no back seats. I changed it to a fraternity party dance. Otherwise, it ran almost as the original draft. People still bring that story up to me. I’ve had people at Augusta, on the course, see my press badge and tell me how much it meant to them. The emails, they’d just kill you. Stories about fathers reconnecting with sons, about sons taking their dads to see games. Those were the most special. Well, second-most special. The most special is how much it meant to my mom. I just went and found her email. I’d sent her the story, saying, basically, this is locked and about to close. Last shot. She wrote: oh my; i am sitting at my computer weeping and your daddy is in heaven crying tears of joy that the boy he adored loved him so and is a man to be so proud of; thank you for this; i love you so! xoxoxoxox mama.
The story ranks at the top of the list in some ways, but, in other ways, it doesn’t. Maybe writers will understand what I mean. I didn’t write that story. There was no craft. I opened a vein.
3. You appear in many of your stories. That means you’ve broken a cardinal journalistic sin and deserve eternal damnation. Don’t you?
I can feel the flames lapping at my feet as I type.
I gotta be honest. I think the dusty quote-unquote rule about first person is just dumb. I use whatever device best tells the story, including first person.
And, by the way, using it all the time is just as dumb as never using it. You know this: all stories need characters who change. When I’m reporting a story where my main character is, as in a short story or novel, changed or affected by the obstacles presented to them, then I write it third person omniscient. I love that voice. The Gay Talese voice. If it would work, I’d write every story that way. But… sometimes, based on assumptions or expectations or our own biases or just the fundamental nature of the story itself, the person who changes is the writer—and, by extension, the reader. In those cases, the story needs to be first person. The writer is the ombudsman for the new world. He is a narrator. In, say, the story I wrote recently about Zenyatta, the narrative arc was my journey from the expected to the real. Barn 55 changed me. That change was the story’s motor. It felt intellectually dishonest to not write it first person.
The other reason to write first person—a recent Ali column, for example—is because, especially on deadline, it allows me to say most clearly what I am thinking and feeling. Again, it seems cheap and dishonest to not do it. It feels like I am putting an artificial construct—the idea of “the story”—in between the reader, who wants to know what something was like, and me, who just experienced that something. I feel silly not doing those first person.
It’s hard enough telling a story well without school marms handing down rules about what you can and cannot do. I feel the same about people who say reconstructing scenes is wrong. I didn’t realize we were creating an obstacle course, with artificially increased degrees of difficulty? I thought the idea was to tell a powerful story that is true. The only requirement is that it is true. Everything else is a tool.
4. What’s the worst advice you’ve ever received, about writing or about life? Or about both?
This will sound weird. I treasure advice. I seek it out constantly. Friends are laughing now, because I love lots of voices weighing in about stories. My best friends once made a t-shirt for me that featured the tag line: Read my story?
But I’ve never been someone who blindly follows advice. I take what sounds right to me and ignore the rest. I try to make my own decisions. Any mistakes I’ve made, in life or in stories, are all my fault. They aren’t the result of bad advice. And with stories, when somebody says something I don’t agree with, or that I sense is wrong, I ignore it. I seek lots of opinions but ultimately trust myself.
5. Your job has allowed you to travel the world: Brazil, China, Ghana, Mexico, and most recently... Green Bay. You’re about to go to India. What’s your best road story? And do you think it’s important for a writer to live a large-size life? Does grand experience help a writer's work or hurt it?
Oh, hell. There are endless great road stories. I remember the little poems most. The night you, me, MacGregor, Charlie Pierce and KVV closed down Elaine’s after reading “Death of a Racehorse” at W.C. Heinz’s wake. A picture of us at that table is framed next to my desk. That was a great night. I remember eating at the duck place in China with my translator, her husband, Rick Maese and my wife. (Several hours later: Maese and I took Sonia to a famous Beijing brothel to see how long it would take her to figure out the fun 80s dance party was actually something else. The answer? Several hours. We were pounding drinks, dancing, maybe to Vanilla Ice, when she looked around, noticed the men all wearing suits, and the women all in various costumes—a Mongolian school girl!—saw the dark corner shenanigans, and said, “Uh, guys?” And it was such a fun dance party, by the way, that after realizing where we were, we all kept dancing, ordering drinks and smoking cigars. That was a great night, too.) I remember the fifth of Wild Turkey with Shashank and Evelyn overlooking the Serengeti. I remember spaghetti at the Chateau Marmont (over and over again), and the tacos at the smuggler’s horse farm, the 2 a.m. charcoal-grilled skewers at a salaryman’s bar in Japan, the salty, greasy burgers at Al’s for lunch and dinner the day I was writing about Lombardi in Green Bay. These are the things I remember, even more than the stories themselves. I remember, about to fall asleep on the way to the airport in Brazil after reporting the story on Tony Harris, feeling very confident that there was a home run in the notebooks at my feet, and that Bon Jovi song about making a memory came on the radio, and whenever I hear it now, I remember the backseat of that taxi cab. They’re flooding back now. The all night café in Santiago. The backseat of black Mercedes-Benzes in strange foreign capitals. The frequent 12-hour layovers in Amsterdam: my friends who I meet at their regular café, the coffee, the quick trip to the Van Gogh museum to stand, for 15 minutes, in front of my favorite painting. The house in Augusta, Georgia. Playing gin rummy with a television producer at that bizarre hotel bar in Haiti. Flying over Baghdad, crossing the Tigres, in a Blackhawk. Moonshine in Nazareth, Texas. And in Kiln, Mississippi.
I guess my point is: this is the life I dreamed of as a boy. I got into this business to see new things. I’m vain about my thick-ass passport. Yes, I’m a cliché: I grew up obsessed with Hemingway. I wanted his sentences—and his life. I’ve been to his house in Cuba and in Key West. I’ve been to the Floridita in Havana and Harry’s Bar in Venice. I wanted an adventure. The search for it inspires me. In that sense, it makes me a better writer. I like exploring new cultures. I love new experience. I like being outside my comfort zone. I seek that feeling. So it makes me a good reporter. I hope. It helps my work. I think. I hear people talking about “the writing life,” and part of me rolls my eyes, but another part says: that’s what I want. I don’t want to be in media, or create buzz, or be a brand (though I do think about that), or have a take, or yell at people on television, or be followed by a million people on twitter (I’m not on twitter), or anything like that. I want a life that takes me out into the world and allows me to come back with stories that matter to people. I want to do each of those stories as best as I can.
I don’t want to ever regret a single one.
6. Why are your answers so long?
Because Gene’s were so good, I decided to fight back with quantity.