Glenn Stout is a man of many projects. Among fans of longform sports writing, he’s perhaps best known as the editor of the vaunted Best American Sports Writing series. (The 2011 edition, guest edited by Jane Leavy, will be released in October.) He’s also written dozens of his own books, covering a wide variety of topics, from baseball to the World Trade Center site to Trudy Ederle, the first woman to swim across the English Channel.
Glenn’s next book, Fenway 1912, is about the building of that ballpark and its first season. It will also be released in October.
I admire Glenn for his having forged a career mostly as an editor and author of books—a very tough nut to crack—but also because of his continued interest in helping develop young writers and readers. Glenn treats the words that make it into print like an inheritance, like objects that are being passed down. And I believe he wants, more than anything, for those words to be good—to be worthy—and for them to continue to be good. I don’t know anyone who’s done more to seek out and highlight bright new talent. He’s like an old birddog scout, and I can still remember the first time he found me. Getting a phone call from Glenn, telling me I’d made BASW, was one of those moments I’ll remember happily forever.
Many thanks to Glenn for taking the time to participate in Five for Writing. There are many lessons here worth noting if you, too, wish one day to be collected.
Sons and Daughters of Bold Venture—Vermont’s own, Glenn Stout:
1. You’ve edited Best American Sports Writing since its inception in 1991. (Happy anniversary!) I have to think you’ve read more sports writing than anyone else alive, and that you’re hard to impress. But what impresses you?
What most impresses me in a story, no matter what the topic, is confidence. Writing that is assured and certain from the first word captures me. This tells me the writer knows the story, has done the work and knows who he or she is as a writer. The story starts fully realized without floundering around or requiring extra tugs on the starter to get the engine to turn over. That’s often the difference between a great story and simply a good one.
As a reader I hope to find small moments of transcendence, when the words lift off the page and take you somewhere totally unexpected, where you didn’t expect to be taken. I can still remember the very first time words had that affect on me. I was thirteen years old and had an assignment in school to create a collage to illustrate a poem. Up to this point in my life I hadn’t read anything more substantive than The Baseball Life of Mickey Mantle and had no desire to. I asked my older brother what I should read and he handed me some poetry collection. I opened it up and I read the poem Suicide’s Note by Langston Hughes: “The calm / Cool face of the river / Asked me for a kiss.”
That just knocked me on my ass. The world split open and my life changed. I wanted to write. I was taken away and in a very real way I have never gone back. Everything I have done since, as a writer and a reader, is an attempt to duplicate that experience. How do you explain how the words of a black, Harlem Renaissance poet written in 1925 spoke to a rural white kid living in the middle of a cornfield in Ohio? Because words have real power, that’s why. They change people. Working with them is a privilege, and if you think otherwise, you should be doing something else.
So I search for a little of that, the place where sound and sense combine to take you away. It really makes my day when I discover that in a writer I have never heard of before, or from someone I do recognize who suddenly writes a story that is completely new and unexpected. Those are good days, real good days, and that’s what keeps me looking.
2. What makes you stop reading? When do you know a story’s not going to make the cut?
Predictability, those moments when the writer is just getting from point A to point B, filling the page, driving the car down the road while thinking about something else, writing words but not using them because he or she doesn’t know what to do next, utilizing meaningless quotes, falling back on the kind of rote description and commonplace phraseology that appear in almost every story and get in the way, not making every moment in the story contribute. I studied under the poet Robert Kelly in college and he cautioned us that when we were reading something and found our attention starting to drift that was usually a sign that the writer had gone from being engaged in the work to just filling in the blanks. If that happens more than a few times—or if it happens at the start—I move on. The only criteria I’ve ever been able to come up with for the stories I set aside is that I ask myself if I’d like to read them again. If I don’t I figure no one else will either.
3. How has editing that series informed your own writing? I imagine seeing those piles of great stories on your desk could either be intimidating or inspiring, depending on how your own writing is going. What have the words of others meant to yours?
The words of others are the only reason any of us are writers. Apart from my own books and BASW I also write juvenile non-fiction (first as the ghostwriter for thirty-nine Matt Christopher sports biographies, and now of my own series—Good Sports), and I often speak to kids about writing. I always tell them what I think is the first, best lesson of writing—to write well you must read, and that means read everything—fiction, non-fiction, poetry, newspapers, magazines, blogs—all of it. Reading fills the vessel, and reading good writing helps make the act of writing second nature and natural, so while you are writing you are not thinking about the rules, but instead are learning how to follow the story, listening, inhabiting it, ferreting it out from the clutter without stopping every second to think “How should I do this?” It’s the same way musicians play, and painters paint. I really think each story is already there and most of what we do is about staying mindful and attentive, to let the subject speak and create its own shape, and to let the sound and rhythm of your words capture that voice.
I don’t find that the amount of reading I do for BASW gets in the way of my own work—I generally read for that at the end of the day, on the bike or elliptical, and on the weekends. In terms of style, I’ve been doing this long enough that when I do find work that is particularly inspiring, I don’t have to worry about being imitative, which was a concern when I was younger. And I’ve been doing this too long to be intimidated; I’ve published enough and have had enough positive feedback to figure I must be doing something right.
What is most valuable is that good writing is not only inspirational on its own, but often full of practical lessons, often more structural than stylistic. And when you begin any project—particularly the big book projects I tend to work on—you need to have a big box of tools and it is always good to have more. For instance, the structure of my biography of the first woman to swim the English Channel, Young Woman and the Sea, was inspired by the way I had seen other writers pull complicated stories together. I alternated chapters about her with chapters about the Channel and the history of swimming and then united the narrative at the moment she entered the waters of the Channel. You have to keep learning as a writer, because each time you approach the page the subject is going to ask for something a little different.
4. As either a writer or an editor, you’ve had a hand in more than eighty books. Your blog is called verbplow. I get the sense that you must treat words like work, like a more manual brand of labor—that during the course of most days, you must sit down and force yourself either to read or to write something. How do you make yourself do it?
That’s funny you ask about that because just the other day I had this realization that all the things I’ve ever really liked to do are activities that require me to use my hands and my brain simultaneously. You are right that in a sense I do see writing as manual labor, and the metaphor in verb plow is intentional, but that doesn’t mean it’s not valued, or necessarily laborious, because there is also that “labor of love” thing. I love doing what I do and can’t believe I get to do this every day. Growing up the idea of becoming a writer was unimaginable. We didn’t have a lot of money. My parents didn’t read much. Words saved me. They took me away, sent me to college, delivered my life. Now I get to mine the language every day, and talk and work with other writers—that’s dreamland stuff.
I don’t see my work as a chore, and only rarely does it feel forced—I want to do this and by now it’s all a part of my life, like breathing. I spent a number of years doing actual manual labor and I have to say I learned as much about writing from pouring concrete and hauling steel as I ever did in any workshop, or any course. Manual labor teaches you to work in increments, to maintain, to stick to things, to finish what you start, and that’s what I do. On a practical level, I’ve been on my own, completely independent as a writer, mostly working on projects that I think have real value, for almost twenty years. I’m not on the faculty somewhere, on the staff of some publication, or living off a trust fund. For every second of the last twenty-one years I’ve always had book contracts to fulfill and deadlines to hit and either I take that seriously or I’m done, out of work.
Serving as Series Editor for BASW is like a part-time job at minimum wage, and is only a small part of what I do. People assume I’m incredibly disciplined, and in their terms, maybe I am, but I’ve never understood writers who say that they write 2,000 words a day, like punching a clock. I mean, good for them, but I don’t work that way, I can’t be that rigid. I think every writer has to discover that what works for others might not work for you. For me it’s like the old Earl Weaver line: “This ain’t football; we do this every day.” A significant part of doing anything stems from getting up early and putting your ass in the chair every day, and I do that. The rest is experience—learning how not to sabotage yourself.
It helps that I’m always working on multiple projects, often in different genres, so if I don’t feel confined, I can always work on something else. Believe me, after spending months on a project like Nine Months at Ground Zero, about digging up bodies in the World Trade Center, reading sports writing was a welcome experience. Every day is different. Today, for instance, I planned on working on one of my Good Sports juvenile titles, but I got distracted early so I turned my attention to this. One week last month I was simultaneously finishing up a memoir with another writer about his decades-long struggle with war-induced PTSD, doing the final copy edits on Fenway 1912, the manuscript edits on a juvenile book, making the final cuts for BASW, sketching out a book proposal, and in the middle of it all I made a school visit and spent half a day talking reading and writing to a bunch of twelve year olds. Not that having that university writer-in-residence gig wouldn’t be a nice change, but I like plowing around words.
5. Because I can’t contain myself to five questions, I’d like to use my fifth question as a multi-part lighting round. I hope that’s okay. I promise they’ll be short.
A. Now that you’ve become a master of all things Fenway: How did the architects decide how high to build the Green Monster?
I love that kind of question because it usually assumes that there is an easy answer, but there isn’t, and that’s the logic behind many of my books: I take on subjects everyone thinks they know and find something new. In Fenway 1912 I actually go on for some pages about the first incarnation of the wall, an excursion that takes me into all sorts of interesting alleys off the main road, such as local geology. But the short answer is the only concern was to make the wall high enough to keep people from seeing into Fenway Park from the roofs of the buildings on the other side of Lansdowne Street. The wall had nothing to do with keeping the ball in the ballpark—they never thought anyone would ever be able to hit it that far.
B. I believe you’re a lover of poetry. What’s your favorite line of verse?
I studied poetry in college, have a Creative Writing degree and a million poems sitting in a drawer, so I am. Ask me in five seconds and I’d give another answer, probably from Sappho, James Wright, Rilke or George Trakl or someone, and this isn’t a line, but a couple from Lew Welch, who as a copywriter came up with the phrase “Raid kills bugs dead.”
From Chicago Poem:
“You can’t fix it. You can’t make it go away.
I don’t know what you’re going to do about it,
But I know what I’m going to do about it. I’m just
going to walk away from it. Maybe
A small part of it will die if I’m not around
feeding it anymore.”
That probably explains why I quit my job and later moved to Vermont. I just keep drifting northeast, like an iceberg. Maybe I’ll end up in Newfoundland.
C. Apart from my Ricky Williams story—which clearly got lost in the mail on its way to Vermont—what story do you most regret not seeing in the pages of Best American Sports Writing? What’s the one that got away?
There are usually a couple each year. I really only make recommendations to the Guest Editor. He or she is free to make their own choices. If they wish, they don’t have to use any story I send them and could fill the book with recipes written by their friends… I think that explains what happened to that Ricky Williams story.
That being said, they usually do make their picks from my selections, occasionally adding their own. The Guest Editor and I usually overlap about 70 percent of the time. What bothers me more is when I discover that there was a great story after the book is done, one that I didn’t find and that no one pointed out to me, that neither the writer, the editor, one of his or her friends or a reader submitted.
Although I’m not really comfortable picking out a particular story, you asked, so I’ll answer, both from The Best American Sports Writing of the Century. The one that got away would have to be either Bill Heinz’s “Death of a Racehorse”—I remember discussing it with David Halberstam and he preferred the longer pieces—or one of any of three or four pieces from A.J. Liebling, who should have been in that book.
D. What’s your favorite piece of sports writing, ever? If you had to pick just one of the thousands and thousands you’ve read—if you had to—what would it be? And I mean it, Glenn. Only one.
One? You’re a mean bastard, Jones…
Sentimental pick: Red Smith’s “Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff.” I remember reading it for the first time in one of the old Armchair books when I was a kid and thinking “This is literature.”
E. And last… You were one of the people most responsible for W.C. Heinz—for whom this blog is indirectly named—receiving his belated recognition as one of the all-time greats. Please tell us a story about Mr. Heinz, either the man or his words.
Jeff MacGregor, who wrote about him in that great SI story, and Bill Littlefield, who profiled Heinz on “Only A Game,” and the late David Halberstam, with whom I worked on The Best American Sports Writing of the Century, deserve much of the credit for that. But I still have a story, actually two—one about the words, one about the man.
First the words: When you look at a writer like Heinz, what I think is most impressive is that he didn’t just do the same thing over and over. He wrote columns, magazine features, profiles, short stories, non-fiction books, novels. He didn’t just write about sports and he didn’t just stay where he was comfortable. In short, he wasn’t afraid, and I think there’s a lesson there. The giants—and he is one of them—have a fearless curiosity.
Now the man: After The Best American Sports Writing of the Century was published, Heinz sent me a note. At that point in his life he couldn’t see very well, and writing was a chore, yet he took the time to write me a little hand written note in this squiggly, blocky print. Apart from thanking me for putting him in the book, he added, “I think you’re a damn fine writer.” When I have a bad day, or the self-doubt that keeps us up at night creeps in, I like to think of that.