Its Delicate Marriage Of Order And Violence

KVV: On a hot summer evening, when you drive the stretch of highway that snakes its way through water tower towns and the green and golden fields of farmland that make up the landscape between Northeast Indiana and Western Ohio, it’s easy to get lost inside your own head.

There are vast stretches of Middle America where the ground is so flat, if you stare out at the horizon line long enough, you can almost make out the gentle curve of the earth. Large white clouds loom overhead, casting shadows that give shelter to livestock and cool the steady string of rusting grain silos that dot the topography. But when the road is straight and the sky feels infinite, the mind wanders.

Especially when you’re chasing a dead man.

13 thoughts on “Its Delicate Marriage Of Order And Violence

  1. Thanks for posting this, Tom.

    I sort of wonder what people think of the first person stuff. I struggled with whether I should put it in there or not. I had an old Sun editor send me kind of a backhanded compliment about the story this morning, saying he didn’t think the first person stuff was necessary. And not to group him in with the Sun editor at all, but Saslow and I talked for a long time about the story too, and he politely tried to explain that putting myself in there was a big risk.

    I felt like — and I had a good talk with Jones about this when we happened to cross paths in Missoula — that it was not only a way to convey the conflicted feelings I have about football, but that it also allowed me and the guy I hit serve as stand-ins for the guy who can’t talk (because he’s dead) and the guy who won’t talk (because he’s consumed by guilt). Chris obviously uses first person very rarely, but he was like “I think you have to do it.”

    I just figured it was worth raising a craft discussion. Could it have been written without the first person stuff? Should I have camped out in front of the guy’s house who threw the fatal block until he was willing to talk?

  2. I don’t use the first person very much in my features, and it’s actively discouraged at Esquire, but I think in a story like this one, it really served a purpose. I think here, Kevin had a real role to play, as a proxy for both the dead man and the guilt-sick man.

    When you’re writing a story like this one for a place like ESPN, too, I think it helps that readers know that Kevin loves football—that he’s not writing this as some academic, looking down his nose. He’s writing this as a man who loves and played the game. I think that gives it more weight.

    Again, I’m still of the school that you use the first person only if there’s a real purpose to it, not as a default. But I’ve heard plenty of arguments contrary to that recently that have made me wonder. Maybe it’s not interruptive, the way I sometimes worry that it is. Maybe it’s the more natural form of writing, and twisting yourself to get out of a story is ultimately the bigger distraction. I don’t know.

  3. A lot of the first person stuff that I read and I like, I feel like it’s an instance where the writer is showing a little vulnerability. For whatever reason, I think it makes it feel less you’re trying to draw attention to yourself somehow. It makes it feel like a little bit of a confession, and reader is disarmed a bit. But I also think Wright does an excellent job when he uses first person of essentially saying, “I’m going on this journey, and you’re coming with me” and it doesn’t have to feel like a personal reveal to get me to care.

    Seth made a great point once about Rick Reilly’s “Heaven Help Marge Schott” which is that it doesn’t have any first person in it, but you can still feel Reilly’s presence in the story, following around Marge, and it reveals a little something about her in the way she can’t even remember what the name of his magazine is. It’s a clinic on how to write transitions.

    I think sometimes, at least for me, it’s easier to write transitions when you can use first person. I’m not sure why exactly, but it’s just an easier way to get out of a scene. It’s something I think I need to work on, because as Chris pointed out, there needs to be a purpose for it. It shouldn’t be a default.

  4. I can’t pay this story any higher compliment than to note that I shared it with my Facebook feed and my close friends, which is almost entirely a sports-free world. I thought this was beautiful hybrid of well-reported narrative, social criticism and personal rumination. That mother’s honesty about her sorta-no-good son will haunt me for some time.

    And the only way a writer will ever know if first-person works in this or that case is to TRY IT. I have this sneaking suspicion that too many of my favorite present-day journalists (and editors) have an allergy to first person and just rule it out. Perhaps the use of “I” makes them feel somehow less of a reporter, or maybe their idols never did it and therefore neither will they. It’s a mistake in this day and age for our best writers and editors to forbid it. Eventually comes the day that they will want to publish a personal piece (in the vein of “my child’s struggle with X” or “I put my mother in a nursing home”) and it will read like someone is knitting a sweater without ever having touched knitting needles before.

    I think I’m biased the opposite way. I love stories with personal narration. Most of the time it’s not even memoir or self-absorption or those things we officially claim to reject. Just great stories with a strong point of view and clear sense of the way, which sometimes manifests itself with an “I.” Sometimes that “I” isn’t about the writer at all, personally. It’s just an “I” who takes your hand and acts as a guide through the cave. I’ve lost track of how many times I wished the writer would inject herself or himself into the writing. (Which is different than injecting yourself into the narrative and the reporting of what happened.)

    I think we’re talking about intimacy, which is ooky. You and your bosses can always rein it in — and will. But during that time where the story is yours and yours alone, before you file, why not dabble? I can almost guarantee that something that pops up in the more personal passages — even just a phrase — will be worth saving in the final draft, minus the vertical pronouns.

  5. I’m really happy you’re the new Pollner professor, Hank. Mean that sincerely. I think sometimes I’ve built too many rules for myself and have ended up boxed in as a result—but if there was ever a time to experiment, it’s when you’re young or writing alone or both, and still free. TRY IT is probably worth printing out and sticking to the wall.

  6. I don’t mind first person. I mind lazy first person. And nothing about this story was lazy. You have to take chances to get better, and this story was better because of the chance I took. And it makes me want to take more chances. So thanks, KVV.

  7. While I read this, I was more struck by your use of 2nd person than 1st. The question “How do you love something when you know, deep down, it could kill you?” really goes for the heart, and it helps to explain how Coleman’s brother Anthony can continue playing even after losing Dave.

    As for your decision to use 1st person, you’ve touched on the primary reason to do it: because there’s a person who can’t talk and another who won’t. While the family – especially Allport and Anthony – offer a balanced view of Dave and his life, it’s possible to misunderstand the blocker’s silence as indifference since he won’t be interviewed, even if his teammates swear he’s upset unable to leave home. Furthermore, camping outside the blocker’s house and waiting for an opportunity to talk won’t guarantee the depth of insight you offer by sharing your experience. What if he is so consumed by guilt that, even if he’s willing to talk, he can’t make his thoughts or emotions understood? What if he can only express regret and nothing more complicated or helpful? Worse yet, although it doesn’t seem likely, what if he isn’t remorseful at all?

    Your decision to use the first person point of view and share your experience and your guilt helps me more truly imagine what the blocker is experiencing. Instead of allowing this account to become one about injustice and unnecessary violence, your experience makes the story more clearly about taking risks and coping with accidents and, most of all, trying to heal. Maybe all of this could have happened in your story if you’d had the chance to sit down with the blocker in person, but that didn’t happen, just like the cornerback didn’t make the tackle. In the end, good, helpful words still found their way onto the page.

  8. Well done, Kevin. An important, moving story on a timeless question.

    I’ve quoted it here before, and I’m sure I will again. It makes me think of this passage from Gary Smith’s “Fiesta In The Town Of Ghosts”:

    Now heads were turning, I heard murmurs. The crowd went quiet. I craned my neck. The young stud in the green vest, the one who had coldcocked the armless man the day before and demolished three two-armed opponents of his own size and age today, was adjusting his helmet and shoving up his sleeves. I looked to the Laimes’ side. A well-built man in his 40’s, starting to go soft and gray, stepped forward and took four practice jabs. Something about his eyes—he never blinked.

    A man behind me tapped my shoulder, pointed to him and nodded. I understood. This was their Louis, their Ali, their Frazier—past his prime, coming back to take on the young buck. Is he crazy, I wondered, that young guy is a killer. He’s going to get his head kicked in, and nobody’s even going to pay him. Why does a man who doesn’t have to fight—have to fight? The crowd edged closer. And why do other people let him?

    The fighters circled. The man with the belt forgot all about waving it and stared. The old champ took two cautious steps forward and let go a crisp combination, enough to make the young buck backpedal and think. The people pursed their lips and nodded—yes, yes.

    On they went this way, unlike the other fighters, considering every thrust. And then a right like a rockslide came down on the old champ’s cheek; he buckled to the dirt and it was over.

    The people grew silent. The young man strutted. The old one’s face we still couldn’t see. He stood at last, blood running from his mouth. Our Louis, our Frazier, our Ali…. I let someone’s head block my view.

    When I looked again, he was peering at the blood he had wiped with the back of his hand, hopping on one foot then the other, grinning. Everyone was cheering and laughing and beating him on the back; I heard myself laugh, too. No, people don’t fight for pride or money or ego. People fight, and people watch them fight, to feel. And if being human is to be born, grow strong, level off, then decline, fighting is a thing too much like being human to expect a man to stop and walk away before his ride is over.

  9. Tom, there was a time when I thought I’d read every Gary Smith story that existed. But I somehow missed that one. Holy bleep. Thank you for sharing that.

    When Jay Lovinger and I were talking about this story before I went to Indiana/Ohio for the first time, and we were kicking around themes for the story based on the reporting I’d done over the phone, and he brought up the idea of people doing something like this “just to feel.” I loved that. I think that’s what got the wheels turning on weaving my own thoughts about football into the piece.

    Seth, I think risk is relative. I think just the way you beautifully presented Mike Vick’s humanity was risky — and powerful.

    Thanks for a great discussion, gang, and for the kind words.

  10. I am writing a long piece right now with two narratives, alternating, and I planned on having one of them be in first person but was a tad unsure until I read this thread. I’m going to go for it because it’s the right thing to do for the story. So thanks everyone.

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