Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Sports

March 1, 2010

Eliminating the 'Stench of Journalism'

ESPN senior writer Wright Thompson tells his friend, colleague, and former classmate, Seth Wickersham why he wants his articles to read like short stories.

Michael Gluckstadt

Wright Thompson first met Seth Wickersham in the newsroom of the Columbia Missourian, the newspaper run by the University of Missouri's esteemed journalism school. Wickersham had just returned from an internship with the Washington Post; Thompson had been following the southern-rock jam band Widespread Panic around the country. It was 1999 and both were covering the university's football team. "I was intimidated," Thompson recalls.

Over a decade later, the two are senior writers at ESPN and good friends. While they share a title, the Mizzou graduates cover their shared field from vastly different angles. "I've been fascinated by Seth's stories about the Cover 2 or Peyton Manning, but it's just not what I'm into," say Thompson. "That's not how I interact with sports, as a fan or as a journalist. And, let me be honest, I don't think I'm that good at it."

Seth Wickersham (left) and Wright Thompson at Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville, Florida
"I'm not as good in a locker room. I don't feel like I'm learning; I feel like I'm filling a predetermined hole in a story."

Seth Wickersham (left) and Wright Thompson at Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville, Florida

Instead, Thompson's strength lies in writing about the people and personal relationships behind sports stories. "I like to write about family," he says. "I like to write stories that are about a larger human condition." And he does. He's written about the bond between a small Texas town and its girls' basketball team. He's written about an unjustly imprisoned former high school football player. He's written about his father.

Gelf has previously interviewed the 33-year-old Thompson on two separate occasions. This time, we left the questions to someone who knows him a little better. In the following interview, which was conducted via email and edited for length and clarity, Thompson answers the questions of his friend and colleague Seth Wickersham. (Thompson, in turn, contributed to Gelf's interview with Wickersham.)

Seth Wickersham: Where do you find your story ideas?

Wright Thompson: I read a lot. I try to always be reading regional newspapers and papers in really small towns. You'd be amazed how often a newspaper will write a great story and not realize it, because it's coming out 10 inches at a time, in a trickle, and everyone is too busy to see how it all fits together.
The ideas I pick are also a reflection of whatever my current interests are. Power in Washington. Civil War in Africa. Katrina. Capitalist China. For a while now, I've been into this idea of Disappearing America, and I think that's a recurring theme, in stories as dissimilar as "Nazareth Texas" and "Sweet Jimmy". Sometimes, I'm fascinated by a person (Jack Nicklaus). Sometimes, I start with a huge topic (global food crisis) and find a specific story to address that issue (the Ghana soccer story).
I pitch dozens of stories a month to my editor—usually an email with a sentence or two—and most of them we throw away.
Here are a few examples of where some recent stories have come from:
"The Soul of New Orleans" piece was dreamed up by John A. Walsh. He and I went to a Saints game together earlier this season and he sent me an email before the Saints played the Cowboys and described a story he wanted to read.
I've been chasing Billy Cannon for a few years now; I'm drawn to iconoclastic old guys. They have miles. They have scars. With Cannon, since I lived in Louisiana, I had a real sense of what an icon he was down there. It's hard to imagine how people view that punt return, and I wanted to see what happened after.
The "Yankees Tickets" idea also came from Walsh. He wanted a story about the Tale of The Ticket, and that conversation spaghetti'ed into a bigger discussion of the economy, and Main Street's relationship to Wall Street, and I went out and did research and came back with this specific idea.

Seth Wickersham: How has the loss of your father affected your approach to stories?

Wright Thompson: I write a lot about fathers and sons. I'm writing this email in the parking lot of a Shoney's in Lafayette, Louisiana, about to meet with a father and son I'm interested in writing about.
It really clarified what kinds of stories I wanted to tell, clarified what sorts of things were important to me. I like to write about family. I like to write stories that are about a larger human condition and it really helped me understand what sports meant to me; my relationship to games and teams was really a conduit to my relationship with my dad, and so I write about the sports world in a way that reflects that, I think.
I want to say this carefully, but it also made me want to write stories that are, at their heart, grounded in something universal. I don't like the circus stories: person with disability TK overcomes obstacle TK. They sometimes feel like Mad Libs: insert "blind" and "prison" or "one-armed" and "Maoist rebels" or whatever. I really shy away from those.
We were very, very close. I miss my dad a lot. That's why you asked that question; you know. I still tear up when I'm reminded of him. I wish he'd have gotten to see my work for ESPN.

Seth Wickersham: What story is your favorite and why?

Wright Thompson:The one I wrote about my dad.

Seth Wickersham: When you're doing a story where you know you won't get the subject (Elvis Grbac, Mark McGwire, Ernie Adams) and will essentially be stalking them, what's your process?

Wright Thompson: It depends. If I'm on deadline, like a newspaper story I did on Bill Snyder's last game at Kansas State (before he came back), and I'm not getting special access, I try to figure out where someone will be and just put myself there. With Snyder, I went super-early to the parking lot of the football office that morning and was there when he pulled in. Lots of work for just a little scene, but scenes are the engine of a story, and you've got to get them however you can get them.
Since I've done a lot of investigative stuff, I really know my way around public documents, so I can turn someone inside out on Nexis, which helps with the backgrounding.
With McGwire or Adams, it's easy. You just call every single human being you can find a number for who's ever known them. You make hundreds of calls; if 10 of them talk to you, you've got something to write. If 20 talk, you've got something good. If the right 20 talk, you're set. People's connections are a web, and if you get someone who understands what you're doing, then they can help.

Seth Wickersham: How often do you do outlines for your stories? Why?

Wright Thompson: I outline everything. I guess I started because I read Writing for Story, and it really helped me understand how to see a story as something with conflict and resolution. It helps me to figure out what I've got and what should go in and what should stay in the notebooks. It also helps me to be able to look at it on my bulletin board and see it spatially. I can see how it all fits together. I think the hardest part of storytelling is making it be a ball rolling downhill, especially when you're really going for something ambitious. I outline on bar napkins, and on airplane rides home. I never stop.

Seth Wickersham: You've written a lot of first-person stories the past two years. Why?

Wright Thompson: It's not on purpose. Maybe it's because I just don't see first-person as taboo at all, or any different than any other technique—to be used but not overused. There are stories where it should clearly be third-person omniscient. There are stories where I am clearly a character. When I'm involved, I'm not going to cute my way out of it. There is nothing more bullshit to me than "told a reporter" or "told a visitor," etc. If you're there, and you're involved in the scene, write it true.

Seth Wickersham: What are your goals?

Wright Thompson: I want to get better, every story, every year. The most important part of being a good writer is having a great editor. Jay Lovinger has truly changed my life; I cannot imagine doing a story without him. So much of whatever success I've had at ESPN.com is because of his support, advice, and mentoring. I eventually want all my stories to read like short stories. I heard something one time at a writer's conference that really stuck with me; the speaker said to "get the stench of journalism off your story." That seems like a good goal to me.

Seth Wickersham: In college, you wrote a story at the Super Bowl about going to a homeless shelter and tied it to the game. It was one of the first of many of your stories that were loosely related to sports. What was the moment you realized that being in press boxes and locker rooms was not for you?

Wright Thompson: Those moments seem more real to me. Those are the things I remember. I enjoy being out in the real world; having interesting conversations about things I care about; feeling like I'm trying on other people's lives; having front-row seats to this big, diverse place. Locker rooms bore me. I like the spectacle of sports—the game, the crowd, the tailgate—but personally I usually don't give a shit about what defense they're playing; I like sports as a fan. I totally understand that football is complex, and for someone with the knowledge and the interest, there are truly fascinating things to be learned in a locker room. I get that. I've been fascinated by Seth's stories about the Cover 2 or Peyton Manning. But it's just not what I'm into. I never have been. That's not how I interact with sports, as a fan or as a journalist.
And, let me be honest, I don't think I'm that good at it. I'm at my best when I have time to watch people, to hear what they say and how they say it. I'm good at understanding the dynamics of a family, or a person, and getting right to the heart of it. I'm not as good in a locker room. I feel silly only asking a few questions. I don't feel like I'm learning; I feel like I'm filling a predetermined hole in a story.
An example: I went to New Orleans to do an essay on the Saints and the city. From reading, I knew the team saw itself as underdogs. This was an important point to make, and one I needed to report out myself, and so I went out to the locker room needing someone on the team to say that, in as clear and interesting a way as possible. I went around and asked the question and got my answer—got several different answers—and then picked the best one. That wasn't fun for me. I wasn't on a journey of discovery, which is what I love about doing my stories, which is what I loved about the rest of that particular story. The locker room was the only part of reporting that piece that felt like that. I went in, surgical, and because of athletes' attitudes toward reporters, especially unfamiliar ones, and because of the strict time limits on access, I couldn't go hunting. I had to go killing. I don't like that. That's not why I do this.

Seth Wickersham: What current athletes and coaches—not restaurateurs or dead or retired former jocks—have you liked the most and why?

Wright Thompson: I really liked Dale Earnhardt, Jr. I thought Junior was smart, and funny, and confident without being cocky. He's someone I'd want to sit down and drink a couple of bourbons with. He's one of the few pro athletes I've met who I'd say that about. I think Giants kicker Lawrence Tynes is a good dude.

Seth Wickersham: When in your career have you been happiest?

Wright Thompson: I like it when I'm in New York to meet with folks at the magazine, or my agent, or to read at something like this. I feel like a professional writer those days. I feel like I've come a long way from a small town in the Mississippi Delta. I used to work on a cotton farm, and now I'm going to meetings in New York City and then getting drinks at a legendary saloon where the manager knows me and ushers us right to a table? If you can make it here, and all that. Those are my favorite days. I don't smell the roses as much as I should. I rarely take a day to celebrate a success. I'm always about what's next. But the days when I do take a moment, well, I really love those days. I'll love the night after the reading. You and I are gonna hit some old spots, maybe end up at P.J. Clarke's, eating a béarnaise bacon cheeseburger.
In terms of the work, I'm happiest when I'm discussing a story with Jay Lovinger. When we were editing "Sweet Jimmy," one night I went up to his place in the Bronx, and we talked there, and we talked as we walked to his car, and during the drive back into the city. I loved that night. That was probably my best night of actual journalism. It felt like some great machine was running smoothly.

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.







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Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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