Wednesday, February 9, 2011

FIVE FOR WRITING: WRIGHT THOMPSON!


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.

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.

25 comments:

  1. Really good stuff. I've long felt that a) ESPN makes it too hard to find Wright Thompson's stuff on the site, especially old E-Ticket pieces; and b) Wright Thompson is past due for a book collecting his best work.

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  2. Holy Shit! Glad you didn't wait until Thursday. This entire post is priceless, simply for the passage regarding how Wright works with his editor, and for the list of questions his editor asks him after reading the first draft. Any writer who ever wants to be anything should copy those questions and paste them to their wall and themselves those questions every time they sit down to write a story.

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  3. Haaaaa, my Google Alert did not fail me! And I want to be Wright Thompson when I grow up. The female version. Of course. ;-)

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  4. Chris,

    Wright, as you previously did, discussed the singular importance of an editor. I'm curious what you did before you had a trusted relationship with an editor. Did you use peers or focus on careful self-editing?

    Thanks for another great post.

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  5. Wow. I can't believe you waited as long as you did to post this. Thanks, Chris (and Wright).

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  6. I love the phrase "we met at the Masters"

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  7. Just amazing. Again. What a brilliant idea for an interview series. Man alive. Thanks again, Chris. And thanks for opening up, Wright.

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  8. Thanks everybody. Glad you're enjoying the series.

    buddydudeguy—It's hard for me to answer your question, because I've been very lucky. I've worked in journalism for 13 years, but I've had only two full-time jobs and three editors. And they were all fantastic. Graham Parley at the National Post, and first Andy Ward at Esquire and now, for the last eight years, Peter Griffin. They've all played very large roles in my career. I wouldn't have any of my success, or whatever you want to call it, without them.

    Before I worked professionally, I wrote, a lot, but I never showed my stuff to anybody. I just did it. I still don't show my stuff to anybody other than Peter when I'm working on it. (Wright's process of soliciting advice, which works for him, would cripple me.) I would say I'm an extremely careful self-editor: I spend a long time rewriting and polishing blog posts, even. It's just how I'm built. It has to sound right in my head, or I'm not happy with it. And I'll keep going back at it until it sits right on the page, if that makes sense. It has to look a certain way for me.

    I wouldn't wish that particular madness on anybody, but I guess it's helped me.

    But really, you will never do your best work until you find an editor who is as good or better than you at his job as you are at yours. That's just the truth.

    Thanks again for reading. It means a lot.

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  9. Epic. Looks like I'll be spending my day reading all of Wright's stuff.

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  10. Damn. Just when I was getting my head straight about being an editor, this interview goes and makes me wish I could be a writer instead. What a splendid life Mr. Thompson has had! Me, I spend all goddamn day in an office.

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  11. I'm the same way, Chris. I've forced myself to quit being so much of a hardass on myself, at least with my blogs. It's the only way I've been able to publish anything myself.

    Not that very many people read my blog now. But people are arguing over Duke vs. UNC now, so I'm at least making progress.

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  12. Chris - I write a lot, but as far as professionally goes, for the 15 years since college mostly just for TV. We all need editing - I've either been fortunate or unfortunate to get on the air with pretty much whatever I've written without much editing at all. A lot of the writing has some length to it, not just short pieces. I guess I am shocked at how much editing Wright goes through and how much he enjoys it. To me, the credit for the stories should go to Jay as much as Wright. Like a Hollywood script-writing team.

    Has editing become too prominent in published writing these days? We glorify all the great writers in history, all the way back to Beowulf. Am I wrong to suggest that writers mainly self-edited for most of human history? Are we getting away from what writing is? To me, it's a very personal expression - if I haven't written it perfectly, so what, it's what I wrote and I'm proud of it (I may not enjoy it as much when I read it years down the road however!).

    I'm finally forcing myself through the exercise of writing some sort of book, and for the first time I haven't quit after 15 pages - surely someone would say it has a lot of flaws but again, I don't care. It's my voice, warts and all (and horrible grammar). I guess if I wanted to be published and respected I have to be heavily edited but it just seems like Jay should be in the byline right next to Wrights's...

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  13. I've edited and been edited, and in my experience, editing is ideally a two-person version of the creative back-and-forth that goes on in a writer's head. At it's best, the process is about feedback, curiosity, questioning and invisible assistance, not unilateral change-making. (The Lish-Carver Exception duly noted.) But the writer is the focus, not the editor. From the above, it sounds as though Mr. Thompson both enjoys the process and feels he retains sufficient authorship of his work. Anyway, a lot of writing gets done against tough deadlines, and under such circumstances, few writers make the right creative choices 100 percent of the time. That's where a good editor can help.

    Mr. Jones, perhaps a Q&A with an editor...?

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  14. Cannonball: I see what you're saying about taking ownership of what you write, not needing (or wanting) an editor because writing is a very personal experience, but I also think you're totally missing the boat on what good editors do. From what I've read about Chris' relationship with Mr. Griffin and Wright's with Mr. Lovinger, they get it. It's a back and forth. Sure, you're the writer, but that doesn't make your words or your ideas infallible. Looking at things from the readers' perspective counts. It comes down to this: You would rather serve your ego; they would rather serve the story.

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  15. Chris, thanks for the reply and for this well-timed blog series. I'm nearing the end of my PhD and I am increasingly interested in writing. Reading academic work tends to be - borrowing a line from Bruce Arthur - like consuming gruel. I'm trying to balance academic rigour with my own voice in a profession that does not appreciate or encourage that. It is also likely I will teach BA students regularly and the best thing I can teach them is how to edit their ideas and communicate them clearly--since for most students the content of courses is quickly forgotten. So, thanks again Chris, and if anyone reading this has something to share I'd love to hear it--he says, remembering Wright's thoughts on advice.

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  16. Great work Chris. Thompson is one hell of a writer and his words of wisdom are as I would expect them: insightful.

    The editor issue comes up often, but I find more often than not as writers we are blind to our mistakes or misgivings because it's ours. No one wants to dissect something they have worked tirelessly on.

    We all need someone to take a step back with us and help us see that maybe the work isn't perfect, yet. It's like building something, say a shed, and you love the project so much you can't see that the whole time your level was off and now the shed leans one way. You need another pair of eyes to help you see that before you get in too deep. Before you finish the shed and have to take it down and start all over again from, scratch.

    As a freelancer, I love the feedback I get from editors. And with my other project as a editor/writer for a soccer blog, I know the importance of helping one another and guiding writers to the main goal of a piece.

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  17. Cannonball Runner: As an editor, I gotta say, much of what you wrote pissed me off. And I’ll trust my editor’s gut and call you out on your bullshit.

    First, I’d say you’ve been very unfortunate to “get on the air” without much editing. Maybe if you’d had the opportunity to work with a good editor over the years—an editor who truly cared about you as a person, a friend even, and who saw promise in your writing and wanted to share it with an audience—then you would not have kept quitting that “some sort of book” you’re writing. A good editor would’ve given you a deadline and forced you to work hard—and professionally. A good editor would’ve offered any guidance you needed when you inevitably got stuck. A good editor would’ve encouraged and challenged you to go deeper into the story, taking you to a place where, as a writer, you didn’t know you could go. And once you got there, you would’ve thanked him for it, because it would’ve been worth all of your hard work. You can talk all you want about how you “don’t care” if your writing isn’t perfect. But, again, I’m calling bullshit. I think you’re just terrified to work with an editor. You’re afraid of what he might say about your writing and of the extra work he’ll demand.

    Also, to say that Jay’s name should appear next to Wright’s byline is an insult to both of them. I don’t know Jay, but I can promise you he’s not in this for the byline. (I’m sure the same goes for Wright.) Chris wrote that a writer will never achieve his best work until he finds an editor who’s just as good at his job. I think the reverse is true, as well: Editors do their best work when they’re working with great writers. I imagine when a new story of Wright’s goes online, it makes Jay look like a pretty damn good editor. But make no mistake: The writer does the digging, the vetting, the interviewing, and the writing. He also does much of the suffering. So the byline belongs to him only. For the editor, the collaboration with the writer—getting to work on a great story with someone he truly cares about, considers a friend even—is the best part of the gig.

    So you should give us editors a chance sometime. At the very least we’ll help you with your “horrible grammar.” Which should never be embraced.

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  18. I'll have a longer answer later to the "editing debate," but for now, here's this:

    Years ago, a friend of mine bought a guitar. He told me that he wasn't going to learn chords; he wasn't going to conform to the accepted standards of guitar-playing. He was just going to play what "sounded good."

    Well, chords are, in fact, what sound good.

    Editors exist for the same reason chords exist. They help make writing sound better. It's not a weakness to be edited; it doesn't take away from the work the writer has done. It's just meant to improve it.

    Are there bad editors out there? I'm sure there are, just as there are bad writers. But good editors are invaluable. Because—and no offense to Cannonball—if you're writing for yourself, as a means of personal expression, it's one thing; if you're writing for an audience, if you're expecting someone to pay you for the privilege of reading your work, then you had better be prepared to put your best work out there, and your best work will not come without an editor.

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  19. Jones! Came across this quite by accident. I like. Miss you at soccer.

    Naz

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  20. Your friend's band sounds awesome.

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  21. I've been freelancing for almost two years now and I really miss having that writer-editor relationship. Of course, I have editors who read my work now before publication, but it's not the same. Now I turn an article in, the editor asks about something that needs clarifying, and we both move on. I have nobody during the writing process to have those give-and-take discussions that make all writing better. It's definitely the thing I miss the most about my old newspaper job.

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  22. Yeah, Cannonball Runner, I used to think that way. I was oh so proud of myself and my writing ability. It and I were surely gifts bestowed from on high to bless the poor average humans I courageously suffered to live with, just enough so that they could experience all this lavish prose I could bequeath to them.

    I was 19.

    I'm not much older now. But nobody knows that from what they read. Why? Because I gave up. I gave in. I trusted my editors. They haven't all been good. But the ones that are good, they have been the gifts from God to me. I now see myself for what I am—a guy who likes words and is passionate about arranging them well, but for the sake of the stories I long to tell, not so people praise me.

    I don't know what your motivation is as a writer. But if it's just to be published, just to "be a writer"—then rest assured that I, for one, will never get past the first five pages of anything book you ever write. Maybe not the first five sentences.

    The greatest writers care about one thing: The story. They become great by working with great editors. In every good book, if you read the acknowledgements, you'll see something that says they couldn't have done it alone, that they should have put a million people's names in the byline, and on.

    Every good writer knows he's only as good as his or her editors.

    I hate being edited. It's terrifying. But I've seen how much better it makes me, and now, I couldn't imagine publishing something without an editor. It's the biggest reason I'm such a hesitant blogger. Not because I'm afraid of looking bad. But because I so crave what I know an editor adds to my work.

    I ramble too much. I'll shut up now.

    In case it didn't cross in all that: Editors are good, and good editors are great.

    The end.

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  23. Chris-

    I really enjoyed reading this and love the idea of you picking the brain of other writers. I've met Wright a few times (through Mizzou alum functions) and he was such a cool guy and you can tell he loves what he does.
    I'm currently a sports writer in a small town called Fulton, Missouri and I am looking to get a critique of my work/correspondence with an accomplished guy who, once upon a time, was in my position. If you are up for this, I'd love to find a way to contact you away from this comment board just so you don't have to flash your contact information for the whole world to see. Please let me know.

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  24. God, I can't get enough of this stuff. Please keep 'em coming, Chris. And now I need to go read a lot of Wright Thompson.

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