Sometime around my sophomore year of high school, I decided I wanted to make a career out of writing sports. I was an athlete who loved sports and liked, but not quite (at the time) loved, writing. My parents always told my sister and me, who was a year older than me in school and starting to think about college and majors and those sorts of things that may or may not shape the rest of your life, to pursue a subject in school that simply interests us. The subject itself is irrelevant. If it’s a topic that makes the creative juices in your mind crackle and pop like firecrackers, well, that’s what you’re looking for.
When it comes to a career, they said, don’t worry about money. Worry about a passion. “Money comes with being great at what you do,” they said. For a kid who had a passion for sports and writing, marrying the two seemed like a logical thing to do. Luckily, I had my parents’ advice rooted deep in the soil of my soul when I started talking to people about writing for a living and they said, “Journalism? Ha! Have fun eating cat food and living in a cardboard box. You can’t make money in that.” Those words didn’t faze me because my concern wasn’t money. My concern was love. Loving what I do.
I quickly began to read everything I possibly could on the Internet. I devoured sports content. Early on, I didn’t read much outside of sports. I was so consumed by athletics and competition. I’m still trying hard to widen my reading scope. Anyway, I developed a habit where I would often read everything twice. Once for fun because I was a sports fan, and then once more to learn because I wanted to be a writer. I literally became a lion tearing at the carcass of a Michael Wilbon column, or a Joe Posnanski feature, whatever it may be.
I examined the lead, the structure, the organization, the use of quotes, the ending, the number and types of sources, the voice, transitions, scenes, descriptions … the list really didn’t end. I always wanted to know HOW these guys — meaning those I admired who wrote sports — went about their work, how they brewed up this magic that captivated my eyes every morning at the breakfast table. Why did he do that? Why is this quote here? Why did he choose that lead? Oh, that’s a cool way to get from 13th graph to the 14th. Wow, I didn’t expect that at the end! It was active reading on five tons of granulated sugar. That’s how I taught myself how to write.
So when I ran across Son of Bold Venture, the blog of fabulous Esquire and (soon-to-be) Grantland.com writer Chris Jones, and the “Five For Writing” feature Chris brilliantly began, I was mesmerized. I had always scoured the Internet for interviews like these with writers, and now a magazine writer I admire is starting a feature on his blog DEDICATED to revealing the secrets of great writing? My gosh. Eureka! Chris provided exactly what I had always longed for. I knew I wanted to follow Chris’ lead and do something like that here, but I didn’t want to completely hijack his idea. That’s not cool.
So with respect to Chris, I decided to take his idea and add a small wrinkle. Chris picks out writers he likes and asks them questions about the craft of writing, how they do it, and other general gems like that. They are unbelievable interviews and absolutely required reading for young writers. What I decided to do was narrow the focus, and instead of asking general writing questions, I wanted to pick one specific piece and ask a writer to talk only about the process of putting that one piece together.
It’s with great pleasure that Wright Thompson of ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine is batting leadoff for Western Sideline. Wright was generous enough to answer a few questions about Daufuskie Island, his story about a beautiful place off the coast of South Carolina and the wish of a man to save a dying golf course, not to mention his livelihood. The story ran this past week on ESPN.com.
As luck or irony would have it, I asked Wright only five questions and Wright has also done a Five For Writing segment. I don’t plan on limiting questions to five — it may be more or it may be less — and I don’t plan on simply copying the writers Chris has already interviewed. No, really, I swear.
If you’re looking for one interview about writing only, you need to go to Son of Bold Venture. That’s where the brilliance sleeps. Here, I’m just trying to complement what Chris does and scratch my own curious itch. I’ll never replace what Chris does at SOBV. He’s out of my league. But I couldn’t pass on Wright. He’s a mentor of mine, and when the Daufuskie story ran, I tweeted, “I have no more words for Wright Thompson’s work. I’ll just post the link, and if you don’t click, you’re a fool.” Today, I can’t speak truer words. Wright publishes, you read. Or else you’re a fool.
Folks, Mr. Wright Thompson is on the tee:
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Q: The story starts off 10 months ago, August 2010. When did the idea to do this story come about, and how long did you spend on it from start to finish?
Wright Thompson: I first heard of Daufuskie in a bar in St. Andrews, Scotland, during the British Open in July 2010. Actually, it may have been a restaurant. Anyway, we’d finished work for the day and a group of golf writers went out and I went with them. They started talking about this island, and how amazing it was that people took boats over to play. I remember thinking, right then, that I wanted to know how in the hell it was still open. I cold called Patrick when I got home and invited myself over. I went in August and September of 2010, spend five or so days there, then went home and kept reporting. I talked to all of them regularly through the rest of that year and into the next one, waiting to see how it would shake out. I talked to Laura enough that I got my own Springsteen ring tone on her phone. I’m Atlantic City: Everything dies, that’s a fact, but maybe everything that dies, someday comes back. In March, when it became clear what the ending would be, I went back to Daufuskie and also went to Destin, Fla., to see Patrick again. I’d been working on a draft the entire time, sending it back and forth with my editor, Jay Lovinger, whittling, editing, rewriting, so once I made my last trips, I wrote the ending and then started the editing process in earnest. I filed the final version in early April, then we edited it and waited for the best time to run it.
Q: Like all stories, this one has a historical aspect to it and you obviously did some research on the history of the island. How much of this research and reporting did you do before visiting the island? How did you go about getting an understanding of the history of Daufuskie Island?
Wright Thompson: I did what I usually do. I spoke a time or two to a reporter at the Hilton Head paper. I read everything that had been written. I read the lawsuits, and the various legal documents I found. Then, once I got there, I began hearing stories and searching for more detail. I think that place is about the most important part of a story, so I had always planned to really dig into the history and ethos of the island once I got there. I knew the island was going to be a character. For a while, in my mind, it was going to be the main character, but, ultimately, I was really struck by Patrick’s desire to change his life.
Q: Your stories tend to be multi-faceted with many themes and storylines. How did you go about organizing your reporting on Daufuskie Island and the characters in the story — like Patrick Ford — so that when you sat down to write, you were able to craft a coherent narrative?
Wright Thompson: Again, I have a system. I printed all my notes and put them in a big binder. I had, I don’t know, three hundred or so pages of typed notes. Maybe more. I read through them with a pen and highlighter. Then I put scenes and ideas on notecards and laid them all out and started trying to see it as a whole. Look at all of it and figure out what I needed to use and where it needed to go. I cut a lot out from the first draft. I knew, basically, what the big themes would be — nature, destiny, etc — and so that helped shape the arc and the outline. I outlined it and then wrote. Once you know what you’re trying to do, then a story, even a long and complicated one, becomes a ball rolling down hill. And all people and places are complicated and layered, so if you picture them wholly and honestly, your stories will have the same characteristics.
Q: What is your writing process like on these OTL features? There is so much that goes into them, do you ever find yourself completely overwhelmed with how much you have gathered? How do you go about writing a story of this length and detail? Do you write one section at a time, or do you do all of your reporting and then sit down and go for it?
Wright Thompson: I’m currently a bit overwhelmed with a story. I have more than a thousand pages of notes and am not done reporting. I’m already starting to think about how hard its gonna be to read page one of the first binder. But, once I get going, I find that the story emerges from the chaos. You begin to see the patterns and the entrances and exits from scenes, and the cinematic way in which it will all fit together. You’ve spent so much time thinking about something that all those thoughts are internalized. I often write myself longish notes on the backs of pages of notes in the binders, just ideas I’m having and potential connections. I almost always do all my reporting and then write. I tend to think of a story as having three phases: thinking, reporting, writing. I like to do them in order. In the case of Daufuskie, I wrote it in two chunks. I don’t really know why that happened. I think it was a function of the time between trips. I wanted to get ahead, and I also wanted to have a very, very clear picture of the arc and the needed reveals at the end so I got the right detail when I went back. I write in the morning. I try to start early. 6. 6:30. I write until about 2. Sometimes I stop earlier. Sometimes, if I’m rolling, I go longer. But I divide an outline up before I begin and give myself attainable daily goals so that I feel progress. It’s easy to feel hopeless early in something like that. My wife loves to laugh at me because, inevitably, around day two, I’ll freak out and mope around the house and complain that it isn’t working, and she’ll laugh and say, “Oh, we’re here again?”
Q: Lastly, I can only imagine the details, stories, and reporting “nuggets” that you have to leave out of your stories for one reason or another. How difficult is it for you to cut material — and decide WHAT to cut — on a story like Daufuskie Island, when you have spent so much time and put so much care into making it the best it can be?
Wright Thompson: This will seem funny since I write so many long stories, but I like to cut. Cutting helps. Jay says I sometimes step on my endings — of sentences, paragraphs, sections and stories. I know he’ll catch them, so it allows me to always swing hard. And there are plenty of great details that would be awesome in some story, just not the one I’m currently writing. You have to be brutal about making sure a story is a ball rolling downhill. I trust Jay. If he says cut it, I cut it. That said, I don’t believe that cutting is always good. You reach a point where cutting damages the layering of ideas. 6000 isn’t always better at 4500. Sometimes it is. Sometimes — maybe even often — it isn’t. It’s about making the arc work and do what you want it to do.
A monumental thanks to Wright Thompson. You can find his ESPN archive here.
Follow Teddy Mitrosilis on Twitter here. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.