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:
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.
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.