Monday, July 20, 2009

Forest fires


Sports writing, really writing in general these days, is a lost art. ESPN pumps out stories like a postpartum mother hooked up to a breast pump, and we, the child, seeking nourishment and care, find nothing but the powdery puffs of a thoughtless caretaker.


Reporters race to break news, regardless of the truth, regardless of the facts, regardless of the long-forgotten responsibility of diligence that reporters held themselves to, because they want to be famous. Paul Silvi, a local television sports anchor in Seattle, Wash., cares more about his image and narcissistic self-adoration than he does providing people with accurate information or thoughtful analysis. He's been in confrontations with other local sports media members because they weren't giving him enough publicity for "breaking a story."


Breaking a story? People want to be famous for breaking stories?


I want to be famous for breaking wind. I want to be famous for breaking the sound barrier with a car in Grand Theft Auto. I don’t want to be famous for breaking stories, because it’s irrational and changes the dynamic of writing from thoughtful prose into a stumbling race down a steep hill.


And so I tried to distance myself from that world. I spent years honing my writing like a blacksmith crafting a fine sword. I saw my words as that sword. The product of the work and skill of the people who helped me, of the mistakes I’ve made and the lessons I’ve learned, of the joy I’ve felt when words pour from my fingertips. I covered all of the major sports teams in Chicago. I wrote about the playoffs, about crazed fans, about worrisome injuries. But I always got the same response back from my editors: “This is too long. Our readers don’t want to spend this much time reading a story. Can you shorten this? Can you take out all the difficult words? I don’t get that joke.”


Frustration is often inevitable.


I tried to distance myself from the bullshit of that frustration, of sports writing itself, where quality was sacrificed for brevity, where word counts sliced articles in half, where the daily survival against the fictitious competition editors saw prowling through the forest tormented the work itself. Writing is supposed to be fun. People are supposed to want to read good stories, regardless of the length, regardless of the global timeliness, because they’re interested, captivated, and curious. And, sometimes, because the writing itself is beautiful.


We’ve lost our curiosity and replaced it with a zombie-like affinity for MORE BRAINS. We don’t take the time to understand what we’re reading, we don’t take time to analyze and contextualize, we simply want more. More more more.


But in our sprawling quest for more, we actually get less. The articles are shorter. The time a writer spends on an article is shorter. The thought and analysis a writer puts into a story disappears and is replaced by a persistent vomit of smelly chunks of information forced out of the stomach too early by an eager editor’s index finger.


Information is good, but unfiltered information, or information filtered through the mouth of a drunk idiot with a sports blog, detracts from the quality of our perspective.


I saw any independent effort on my part to rejoin the ranks of smart, outlandish, sarcastic, and analytical sports writers a confounding task. I got offers from some Web sites, I got offers to keep writing for the Tribune from afar, I mentally explored the ideas of starting my own site. But I didn’t want to be restrained by editors still wondering how to keep up with the speed of the digital age, and I didn’t want to pigeonhole myself into being seen as a blogger.


I’m a writer. Where are our Web sites? Where is our community?


The answer isn’t simple. It comes down to perception. If a writer gets sucked into the whirlpool of “majority rules,” a writer becomes a blogger, an editor becomes a celebrity gossip monger, and a newspaper becomes a word dump. But, and this is where the fine line is defined, if a writer finds his way through the clutter, takes time to sift with his thoughts, takes time to contextualize events, takes time to appreciate the humor, and takes time to knead his words, then he can remain above the fray.


Or make fun of the fray.


I love sports. I have since I was 4 years old, sitting in the storm shelter of my parents’ house during a tornado warning, listening to baseball games on the radio as I fell asleep to the drowning hum of sirens. Sports are infused in my blood. I see art in sports, I see philosophy in sports, I see life in sports.


And now, once again, I am kindling sparks in the driest corner of the forest. All the other trees look the same, all the other trees sway in the same direction. Their nettles are brown and gathering in piles near the trunk. The soil they’re rooted in is dry and barren.


A fire should do the trick.