Sunday, September 20, 2009

Justin Heckert's response

This is Justin Heckert's response to my post, "Being bold," found below. ~AA

So, first, I went up to Washington with an assignment to write about Jason Campbell. My editor suggested to just write the story in reverse. That is, he had already thought about that as an interesting way to write about the QB before I got the assignment, and I think, actually, that he gave it to me because I like to "break the rules" or "stretch the boundaries", like you said. Which I honestly didn't end up doing very much in either of these stories.

My initial reaction was that this device had already been done a couple months before, in Chris Jones' National Magazine Award-winning story "The Things That Carried Him." But then I thought--okay, that was an uber-serious story, and this would probably be a light-hearted piece, completely different, not ripping him off--so I was cool with the idea. I think my editor had a very good explanation of why they wanted me to do it this way; he said that he could envision the story ending at the very moment Jason picked up a football, which was kind of an important moment to think about, even before I knew anything about him. In my mind, I was like: Yeah, turns out, that was probably a really important moment in his life. I wonder if anyone in his family (though however banal that moment might've been back then) remembers it.

Since it was backwards, I had to pick a point to start from and go in reverse. I had, like, no idea what that would be, even when I was up there for the first couple days. I just started talking to guys in the locker room, asking them about Jason. Couple of the Redskins players mentioned that touchdown pass in the Saints game, and so I went on YouTube and found there was a highlight video of just that moment--so I thought, well, that's a pretty great play, maybe his best in the NFL (according to some of his teammates) so I decided it was a good place to start. So then I asked everyone about that moment. Got it good and vivid in my mind, even if it was only going to be a paragraph. Then, I decided that the story was essentially going to be about a series of "moments" in his life; that it had to be, if I started with a moment, that I had to go back to another, then back to another, almost like hopping backwards across lily pads on the water.

So ... I set about trying to find a bunch of those "moments". Called coaches past, asked them for vivid memories, teammates, his family, friends, then asked him about all this stuff. So, in the end, I could write pretty thoroughly about not so much his actual life, but very specific moments in his life, which wasn't part of the original assignment but it's just how the assignment ("write this backwards") materialized on the page.

For the second story, the only assignment was to "follow coach Curry around all day" on the very first day he was the coach of the program, reporting to his temporary office. The only thing I did was simply try to write down as many details as possible, because I knew immediately that it would be a story about specific and minute detail. Everything he did that morning/afternoon was the first thing anyone ever did in regards to the football program. Like getting a parking space; getting a cup of coffee; using the bathroom (didn't make it into the story); getting a student card; tying his tie, the first one he ever wore as coach; his socks, the first desk he sat in; all the little stuff that I just wore my hand out by scribbling into a notebook. I always do that, never knowing if I'll need it, but always wanting to have it. Colors of the walls, cracks on the walls, is the table polished, is the air conditioning on, do his shoes squeak, the temperature, the little things. I wrote a boxing story once about Evander Holyfield in which I watched the ants crawl from the doorway onto one of the punching bags and wondered where they could possibly be going, and kind of wrote that into the story ... so, I guess, I took a billion little details of his first day, and when I got home I just went back and picked the most interesting ones ("Everything is a first" was the first sentence of one of the sections) and it was almost as simple as just delivering them from the notebook page to the computer page, and then the story was done. Actually, these two pieces--I probably stepped back and got out of the way of myself more than I ever have for two stories. For better or worse. But, I think, they still have a "voice"; like, you can kinda tell I wrote them.

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