Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Three inspiring (and instructive) books

Over lunch, a colleague of mine tried to explain what he taught over in English, something that both intrigued and scared me. He called it creative non-fiction. I’d read uncreative fiction and creative journalism, but this seemed more like an excuse for a journalist to make up information and publish it as fact. He promised that was not the case. Rather, the genre is a combination of many approaches that cross over several subject areas, like Gonzo and Literary Journalism.

I learned I had, in fact, read several examples of creative non-fiction that included Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus To Our House, an investigation of modern architecture, and The Painted Word, a book that similarly comments on modern art, among other things. I’d also read many essayists he cited, among them Montaigne, Bacon, Hazlitt, Thoreau, and E.B. White. I was intrigued, but not yet compelled to take on the form itself.

I read a few more essays but soon lost interest. I returned to my comfort zone by writing several journalism pieces, a couple of book reviews, and drafts of short stories. A year later, I read a book another colleague had recommended, Madeleine Blais’s In These Girls, Hope Is a Muscle, a book that sent shivers down my spine.

As I read the story of a high school girls basketball team, I learned a great deal about something I thought knew a great deal about (high school athletics) and even more about young women (even though I have two daughters). Sports books can expand beyond the finite boundaries of the playing fields and courts, something that can also be applied to newspaper and magazine coverage. Sports journalists can also examine social issues and probe political events. Writes Blais: “Girls’ basketball is not boys’ basketball being played by girls. It’s a whole new game.” This book proved a whole new game of writing for me.

Blais reveals to this 40-something father how girls think. I learned, for example: “When teenagers communicate on the phone, it’s not always the content of the conversation but the fact of its having occurred that carries the deepest meaning.” I further realized that “pimple = apocalypse,” and that young women struggle with more complex issues than how to set a pick-and-roll on the court. Which of her divorced parents should a young girl hug first after a game?

Blais is also a poet, a sociologist and a solid reporter. She addresses the emptiness that gnaws at these girls when they feel “as if you have let everybody down,” as well as the silliness of young girls, particularly regarding a player who calls herself the “goddess of giddiness.”

By the end of the book, my perspective on sports writing had changed. Reporting could yield so much more than inverted pyramid structures or witty little features, something I had always suspected. But, in this book, I learned how it could be done. So I decided to immerse myself in a project where I could do the same type of reporting. Six months later, I started a project that I foolishly believed would take a few months to report and a few months to write. At the end, I realized I had not spent enough time so I spent another full season with this team, during which I compiled three binders filled with notes and 12 cassettes filled with individual interviews of these college players.

After writing drafts of several chapters, I realized I needed more guidance so I read several other books, including The Miracle of St. Anthony and Friday Night Lights.

In The Miracle of St. Anthony’s, Adrian Wojnarowski follows a Jersey City, N.J., high school basketball team coach by Bobby Hurley’s dad. The neighborhood is rough, like the coach and some of the players. Wojnarowski is at his best when he captures the dialogue of the story’s main characters and when he describes what he sees. You can learn a lot by just hanging out. Too often, reporters rush through their stories, asking a few quick questions, recording a few stats, and leaving. Often, the best stories can be found by hanging out at gyms, fields, hallways and coach’s offices. Slow down and let some stories come to you.

In Friday Night Lights, which earned a Pulitzer Prize when it was published more than a decade ago, H.G. Bissinger branches out beyond the sidelines of this Texas high school football team to cover politics, legal matters and social issues. Like Wojnarowski, Bissinger chronicles a season of a high school sports team.

The town is a character in this book. (When you’re out on a feature, jot down some details about the places you visit.) Setting is key in most feature writing. That’s the case with Odessa, which was a sports-crazed, conservative, small town in the 1980s. Many of the school’s supporters fought against black athletes playing on their team, preferring that they remain across the proverbial railway tracks. (Odessa had desegregated less than a decade earlier, but more than 25 years after the landmark Brown v Board of Education decision.) Some parents and a few players were angry these black students had taken away coveted positions on the team. Bissinger shows how racism affects local politics, educational policies, and the football team.

While the town is central to the team’s psyche, the games do not always propel the story. Bissinger sometimes describes a game in a few paragraphs, spending more time telling stories about current and former players, explaining political battles among parents and school board members, and offering history of the oil industry.

Bissinger’s ability to weave these other narratives into the story, and his subtle commentary, are a strength of this book. These three books can teach sports reporters a great deal about writing and reporting. Check them out.