In My Shoes

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I was asked by NPR to write something up for a section of its website titled In Your Shoes. The piece was  supposed to delve into my life as a 20-something back in the day. This is the link to the site, which has some interesting stuff. And here’s what I wrote:

I was the hot shot.

Really, I was.  Twenty-two years old, straight out of the University of Delaware, hired by a major metropolitan newspaper to cover food and fashion for its features section.  “I’ll be out of there in two years,” I told people.  “It’s just a stop on the route toward greatness.”

Yes, as pathetic as it now seems, I uttered those words—“A stop on the route toward greatness.”  Why?  Primarily because I believed that some literal world of greatness actually existed (Welcome to Greatness! Would you like ice cream or Jell-O to accompany your spectacular aura?), but also because I was the world’s biggest tool; a kid who genuinely thought my relatively mediocre writing ability made me something … special.

Hence, when I arrived for my first day of work at The (Nashville) Tennessean on June 5, 1994, I came with a New Yorker’s swagger and a fool’s ignorance.  I took advice from nobody.  I complained aloud about my editors’ incompetence.  When I was assigned what I believed to be lame stories, I’d moan … gripe … ask if, perhaps, some other writer could do it.  Hell, as a senior at my college paper I had been The Man—editor, columnist, dated the hottie.  Who were these Tennessean yokels to treat me any differently?

Then—BAM.

Reality.

My first mistake was a big one.  While reporting a story about a chef who cooked exotic meats, I asked—jokingly—whether he’d ever prepared human flesh (my sense of humor wasn’t exactly developed).  He was not amused, calling my editor and demanding an explanation.  Shortly thereafter, I wrote a three-page profile of a local band, Dreaming In English, and identified the lead singer, Tyrone Banks, as Tyrone Brooks.  Over.  And over.  And over.  Again.  The next week, I misspelled the winner of a local road race.  I was asked to cover a Sheryl Crow concert and said she sang “Viva Las Vegas”—not “Leaving Las Vegas.”  In an effort to stir up controversy, I penned an inane opinion piece calling Christian schools “stupid” for reciting prayers that included Jesus Christ’s name before basketball games.  When a news editor asked me to cover a murder, I went to the scene of the crime and, in an effort to get a good look at the damage, ignored the police tape and entered the apartment.  When my editor wanted a piece on condoms, my lede was a graphic (and self-congratulatory!) description of my girlfriend and I having sex.  On and on and on the mistakes went, one bigger than the other.

In the February 15, 1996 edition of the Nashville Scene, the city’s alternative weekly, a media critic named Henry Walker wrote, “If there’s one cow-pie in the field, The Tennessean’s Jeff Pearlman will manage to step in it.”

He was 100 percent correct.

So what happened?  I hit rock bottom.  Fed up by the dizzying buffet of boneheaders, Catherine Mayhew, one of the paper’s managing editors, had me switched to the police beat.  “For a month,” she said, “all we want you to do is focus on getting everything right.  Names, dates, numbers, addresses.  Don’t worry about writing–worry about reporting.  Get the facts down, and everything else will follow.”

It was the worst month of my life.

It was the best month of my life.

For most of those 20 or so days, the majority of my time was spent listening to a police scanner, then rushing out to crimes.  There was nothing sexy or glamorous about being a cop writer.  I interviewed police officers, took detailed notes, wrote straight leads leading into unoriginal formats.  It could be long, dry, dull, agonizing, yet it was exactly what I needed.  I found myself surrounded by news writers, men and women who valued reporting chops significantly more than style and creativity.  “If you get the nuts and bolts right,” I heard more than once, “the writing takes care of itself.”

Fast forward to 2009.  I’m sitting here in New York, working on my fifth book, about to interview my 207th subject.  If I do it well, the 300 or so pages I write will be jam packed with facts, figures and indisputable details.

The writing will take care of itself.

Jeff Pearlman is the author of four books, including the New York Times best-sellers The Bad Guys Won! and Boys Will Be Boys.  He can be read at http://www.jeffpearlman.com.

3 thoughts on “In My Shoes”

  1. you just described every trophy kid Ron Alsop warned us about. check that book out…worth a glance (at least). i recently lent my copy to a new junior staff member.

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