Podcasts are my new obsession.
I have always been an avid radio listener. But a lot of the talk radio anymore has deteriorated because there is so much of it. Podcasts, however, are mostly done for niche audiences, which makes their content focused and rich.
I subscribe to half a dozen of various kinds. One of my can’t-misses is “Two Writers Slinging Yang,” hosted by Jeff Pearlman, a former Sports Illustrated writer and an author of several books. I heard Jeff speak several years ago at the yearly College Media Association convention in New York. I was impressed then with his insights on writing and reporting.
In one of his recent podcasts, Pearlman interviewed J.A. Adande, another accomplished sports writer. Both of them also teach. Pearlman talked about how difficult it is to teach narrative and to teach someone how to guide a story. The question writers often have about narrative is how to do it without putting yourself in the story. Adande said he was never taught that either. He figured it out be reading great writers, which is really the first great piece of advice here.
Pearlman cited an example of a story that Adande wrote in 1990 as an intern for the L.A. Times about basketball player Leon Wood.
Here’s the opening of the story:
Leon Wood sat high in the bleachers at Gersten Pavilion at Loyola Marymount University. He had to wait an hour before he could do his favorite thing, play basketball.
Wood is playing in the Summer Pro League, as he has every summer since he finished his first NBA season in 1985.
But this time Wood is not merely honing his skills.
“I’m trying to make a team, trying to get a job,” he said.
“My first three or four years (as a pro), I was on a team already,” Wood said. “I was pretty much trying to work on certain things. Now it’s kind of hard to just work on certain things when you don’t have a job. You have to do everything and showcase yourself. I’m trying to go out here and play an overall game.”
It’s a strange situation in which to find a player with Wood’s credentials.
It’s that last line that Pearlman wanted to talk about. Adande called it observation without opinion. That’s exactly what it is. The observant reporter can pull this off. The entire story is about why is Wood in this situation. What Adande did was first describe the situation, then tell you what it is. It is a judgment in a sense of the situation, but the thorough reporting gives the writer the authority to say it. When you read the story, you know Adande is right. You can’t argue the point. As we say now, it is what it is.
I know that in my career I have done something similar a few times, but I couldn’t put words to it of why and how like Adande did when he said observation without opinion. The most recent piece I could recall was about a high school tournament soccer match. Here’s the excerpt:
After four years, it’s hard to walk away. Especially after that final loss and hugs and tears with longtime teammates and coaches.
So there was Greeneview boys soccer captain and leading scorer Jaden Baise walking along the bench at Lebanon Junior High picking up empty cups off the turf and throwing them away. Most of his teammates were already across the field heading for the bus.
“Well, it looks like the freshmen didn’t want to pick it up,” he said. “So I said, ‘Hey, I’ll pick it up. That’s all right.’ ”
The freshmen and their older teammates will have a lot to pick up next season. They just said goodbye to 10 seniors who played in four district finals and finally a regional semifinal Wednesday night. The result, while somewhat predictable, wasn’t what they wanted.
The observation without opinion part was: The freshmen and their older teammates will have a lot to pick up next season.
That’s not the greatest example, but it does show that if you are paying enough attention and thinking about the big picture of a story it’s possible to do on a deadline game story.
In another episode, Pearlman interviewed Jack McCallum, a longtime and accomplished NBA writer for Sports Illustrated. McCallum had lots of good things to say and fun stories about his days on the NBA beat. But on the subject of how do you start a narrative when you don’t know where to start, he said he thinks “Once upon a time ….” and the answer comes. I tried this recently with a sports story I was trying to write, and it worked.
So use these two great ideas when writing narrative. And subscribe to Pearlman’s podcast.