Gary Smith, the best

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to meet Gary Smith at a writers’ weekend in south Georgia. Some of the country’s best journalists were there. At night, after talking stories, we sat around and drank beer and sang. Several of the writers were good guitar players, too. Gary was … just OK. I watched him a little while and decided I was about as good as he was. The difference was, he was playing and I wasn’t.

That made me realize one of the many, many differences between me and Gary Smith. I was too embarrassed to get out a guitar and see what happened. Gary was willing to try.

***

If you want to write for a living, you really don’t need journalism school or writing workshops or books on storytelling. It would be enough to just sit down and study the best of Gary Smith. I don’t mean “write like Gary Smith,” because you need your own style, and anyway, nobody writes like Gary Smith — all those question marks, all those commas, all that speaking to you directly like he’s trying to close the deal on a condo. He’s the only one who knows how to steer a story that way. If you try to copy it, you wind up in the ditch. Trust me, I know.

He started working for Sports Illustrated 32 years ago. I was 18 then, and just starting to connect the stories I liked with the bylines on top of them. I don’t remember the first Gary Smith story I read, or the first one that really cut deep. I just remember realizing, at some point, that he wrote stories that made me feel like the books and movies and music I loved. He took me somewhere new and made me forget where I was. I didn’t know, before then, that a journalist could do that.

When he wrote about sports stars like Carl Lewis or Mike Tyson or Mia Hamm — people I’d read about hundreds of times — he turned them from TV characters into human beings with quirks and fears and secrets. And when he found lesser-known stories, like the one about the black basketball coach in Ohio Amish country, his words dug so deep they hit the waterline.

We call somebody who produces those kinds of stories “gifted,” and I’m sure Gary has writing skills that come more naturally to him than they do to others. But his real gift is work. So many people who know him talk about how he interviews dozens of people, sometimes hundreds, for every big story. He goes back again and again to doublecheck a fact, a detail, a mood. He writes and rewrites and rewrites until every word matters. Ask enough questions about how great artists and craftspeople do what they do and you find out the same thing over and over. Creative fire rarely hits like a lightning strike. It comes from rubbing sticks together day after day until one finally kicks out a spark.

That’s what you should study when you study Gary Smith. Pull out every amazing scene in one of his stories, every secret somebody told him, every revelation no one else found out, and think about it this way: How did he get that?

It ain’t luck.

***

We all steal a little from the ones we admire. I’ve stolen lots from Gary over the years. He wrote an amazing story in 1999 about a photograph of the TCU locker room from the 1957 Cotton Bowl. For years after that, I looked for that type of story to write. I finally found it in 2007, and the photo turned out to be from the same year as the photo in Gary’s story. I tried to make the story my own, but it ended up sounding like Gary, or at least my pale imitation of him. The key to it was the original idea, and that was all his. It was one of the best stories I’ve ever done.

***

There has never been so much great sportswriting in the world. I’m can’t even pretend to list all the fantastic sportswriters working today, but if you go track down Wright Thompson and Spencer Hall and Brian Phillips and Louisa Thomas and Jon Bois and Chuck Culpepper and my old friend Joe Posnanski, you’ll be lost for months in a sea of incredible stories.

I hope you learn, as you read the stories, that the best sportswriting isn’t really sportswriting. It’s just writing. The best sports stories are about the same universal things every storyteller tries to understand: Love and loss, violence and peace, the search for some higher meaning to our lives. Gary Smith isn’t just one of the all-time great sportswriters. He’s one of the all-time great writers. He’s retiring from Sports Illustrated, but not from writing. There are lots of other stories to tell.

***

A couple years ago a story took me down to Charleston, where Gary lives, and we had breakfast. I had just written my first big national magazine story, and it happened to be for Sports Illustrated. He hadn’t read it yet, but he promised he’d let me know what he thought.

A few days later he sent an email:

Read the Toomers Oaks piece and really liked it. It flowed start to finish. Except for one paragraph in the second section:
 
Updyke hurt his neck in a crash that occurred as he was rushing to help another officer, and things got tough after that. He retired in 1988 on disability. In 1996 he was arrested in Texas and charged with criminal mischief. (Updyke says it was a family quarrel; he spent three days in jail, and the case was eventually dismissed.) He was also charged twice for theft, in 2003 and ’06, for passing hot checks. (Both charges were dismissed after he paid the money back.) He had two bulging disks in his neck as a result of the crash and money problems. He and Wayne Barnes had drifted apart after high school but renewed their friendship after a high school class reunion in 1997. Updyke knew Barnes had a house in Alabama, a little cinder-block place on Lake Martin near Dadeville. Barnes offered to rent it to him for $300 a month. Harvey and Elva moved into the lake house in the winter of 2009. He lived just 130 miles from Tuscaloosa and the Alabama campus. He also lived just 30 miles from Auburn.

That paragraph, I lost the flow of fine storytelling and suddenly felt like I was reading newspaper journalism. Packing information in grocery bags and shoving them into the reader’s shopping cart — that’s how those kind of sentences, especially when you resort to doing it in parentheses, come across.
 
It takes extra time and sweat to find ways to convey pertinent background information in sentences that keep the piece feeling like a short story, but that time and sweat is always worth it

 

That’s a gracious, accurate, and beautifully written critique, in two paragraphs. It states the goal of the best nonfiction journalism — that it should read like a great short story. That’s how Gary Smith’s stories read. And you should go read them, and study them if you want to learn to write, but really, the secret to the miraculous career of Gary Smith is the last branch of that last sentence above.

That time and sweat is always worth it.

 

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Gary Smith, the best

  1. Once again, you have proven yourself to be The Carolina’s version of Lewis Grizzard. Thank you for introducing me to Mr. Smith. When is your book coming out? I still want an autographed copy when it comes out. And when are you teaching more classes?

  2. Thanks for this. Have been re-reading Smith all week, and it was nice to be reminded of the inconvenient, but ultimately comforting, truth about what’s really behind most “brilliance.”

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