JEFF PEARLMAN

Coming October 2022: "The Last Folk Hero: The Life and Myth of Bo Jackson"

A Tale of Two Columns

Back in 1994, when I was a 22-year-old rookie writer, the staff of The Tennessean took a white water rafting trip to a river in Atlanta.

I’d never been rafting before, and—along with my mild discomfort with water—was extremely nervous. Plus, it’d rained for two or three days, making the river exceptionally rough. When I boarded the boat, I gulped, held tight and hoped for the best. Instead, about six minutes in, we hit a huge rapid and all eight of us went overboard. I can still recall the fear of soaring down the river backward, legs slamming—Bam! Thud! Bam! Thud!—into every other rock. I thought I was destined to die and, when I finally reached the shore, thanked God for mercy.

Then—it happened. “What the fuck was that!” I screamed at the guide. “How the hell does that happen!? What is wrong with you people? Do you not know what you’re doing! Jesus fucking fucking fucking Christ!” He urged us all to return to the boat. I, alone, refused. No way. No how. I walked back up to the base, steam oozing from my ears. I was mad. Furious. Pissed. Livid.

Then I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Two hours later, the rest of the folks returned. They’d had a great time—and Linda Moore, one of the paper’s veteran writers, made it clear that my behavior was, well, pathetic. “You need to think before you act,” she said. “Outbursts don’t happen as much when you have some perspective behind them.”

That was nearly 20 years ago. When I think of the incident, I’m still mortified.

Put simply, I lacked the perspective of someone with, well, life’s perspective.

I bring this up because, earlier today, I read two columns from sports writers that made me question their perspectives. The first, by Jason Whitlock, was a piece for (oddly) Ball State’s student newspaper. Jason’s an alum of the school, and the article was, I guess, his argument for why he deserves the Pulitzer Prize. The second, by Rob Parker, appeared on the website, The Shadow League, for which he now writes. It was, following his embarrassingly public dismissal from ESPN.com for making some insanely dumb comments about RGIII, an effort for us (the readers) to learn about, eh, Rob Parker.

Yawn.

Back when I was 22, and writing for The Tennessean, I presumed readers cared about me. I inserted myself in as many pieces as possible because—Hey!–look at me! I’m interesting! And fascinating! And, surely, my life will rivet you! So let me tell you why I’m a great writer! Why life as a Jewish man in the South is so tough! Why my transition from New York to Dixie has been so rocky! Let! Me! Tell! You! All! About! Me!

Like Whitlock, I made it clear to everyone that I was the best fucking writer on the planet. Oh, I didn’t use such language—Whitlock doesn’t, either. I concealed my arrogance in lace-thin code wording; I pretended I was trying to measure up to my heroes (Mike Freeman, Bill Fleischman, Dave Anderson) when, in truth, I just wanted to be fucking famous. That’s what me-first writing is about, whether the journalists want to admit such or not. It’s about being recognized in airports; referred to in bars; cited in studies; mentioned in a Bob Costas monologue; invited to appear on really embarrassing shows where a bunch of writers scream at one another.

Believe me—I’ve been down this path before. I’ve certainly paid my dues as a guy whose ego got in the way of good work. Just Google my name and Nashville Scene. Fuck, I’ll do it for you. Or travel over to sportsjournalists.com, where I once (long ago, for the record) used a fake ID to praise a piece I’d written (or something like that—couldn’t find the link. But, trust me, it was plenty pathetic). Truth is, writer fame is alluring. We’re normally pretty unattractive people. Fat. Lumpy. Gangly. Unsightly. When someone asks us to appear on their radio or TV program, it’s flattering. Beyond flattering. It’s a form of validation. However, fame is also a writer’s Kryptonite. It provides us with a false sense of what’s valuable; it convinces us that we are as important and valued as our words; that people want to know about us; understand us; relate to us.

Bullshit.

Some of the best writing I’ve ever done has come over the past 10 years, when I’ve been—for 98 percent of the time—invisible. I live in my own little Starbucks/Panera/Cosi cave, anonymous to the world, and write my happy books. I drink a cup of hot chocolate, slip on some baggy basketball shorts and a ripped T-shirt and write away. Notoriety matters not. Fame matters not. I get recognized, on average, two times a year. For a moment, it’s flattering. Then, just as quickly, it’s awkward. I don’t want that.

The greatest writers I’ve known revel in documenting the lives of others. Steve Rushin, the finest wordsmith I’ve worked with, never hyped himself for an award and, I promise you, never will. Neither did Jack McCallum. Or Jon Wertheim. Or Chris Ballard. Or Phil Taylor. Or Chuck Culpepper. Or Howard Bryant. Or Jonathan Eig. Or Leigh Montville. Or Mark Kriegel. Or Lee Jenkins. The best writers long to be invisible; to appear simply as a byline atop a story. Can anyone reading this imagine Joe Posnanski penning a piece titled ALLOW ME TO INTRODUCE MYSELF? Can anyone reading this imagine Kriegel calling himself Pulitzer worthy?

Hell, no.

You know why I write? Honestly? Because I love trying to understand someone’s life and put it into words. I love having 400 pages to tell a story—without typing the words “me” or “I” once. I love the intensity of deadline pressure; the search for the perfect sentence; the elusive feeling (which comes, oh, once every 80 stories) when you’ve really nailed it.

I didn’t have the pleasure of knowing Mike Royko. I’m certainly not in his class. But I’ll take a guess he probably felt the same way.