Monday, April 29, 2013

Nice sports stories - by Posnanski, Culpepper & Vitez

Three different sports stories I've come across in the past few weeks stood out as being well-written pieces about stories that are just darn... nice.

Joe Posnanski is a writer who often produces work in this category of nice (and being incredibly prolific, he also produces lots of other great work) and he wrote "Ankiel: A Rare Player Reinvented" for NBC Sports. About former Cardinals pitcher and now Astros outfield Rick Ankiel, it's a fascinating look at someone who reinvented himself to maintain a career playing baseball.

Another recent story that brought a smile was by Chuck Culpepper for Sports on Earth. "Uniquely Memorable" was about Frosty Westering, the longtime Pacific Lutheran University football coach who died earlier this month at 85. It was an excellent piece from Culpepper on someone whose teams performed well on the field and were led by a coach that treated his players as people rather than just cogs in a football machine.

The last piece of writing to mention here was for the Philadelphia Enquirer by Michael Vitez. "Wilmington man, 88, got a late start and kept on running" was about Hugh Campbell and a very cool story of someone's achievements.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

"Out in the Great Alone" on the Iditarod by Brian Phillips

There was really a remarkable story published today on Grantland. "Out in the Great Alone" was written by Brian Phillips and is close to 20,000 words about several weeks that Phillips spent following via small plane  the 2013 Iditarod sled dog race in Alaska.

I've previously linked to excellent pieces from Phillips on tennis and his writing in this Iditarod feature is interesting in that it seems a blend of colloquial first-person and what felt to be at times brilliant phrasing and scene building. It's certainly true that I'm interested in reading about Alaska having grown up there (and have posted on solid books I've read on Alaska), but the writing from Phillips very much helped make this a memorable piece.

Along with the aforementioned writing itself, the other noteworthy thing about this piece was the construction of it by Grantland editors. In addition to allotting an enormous word count to Phillips, they built the story into an interactive feature with lots of embedded images/video and a different way of scrolling through the story than would typically be found online. In terms of how it was built for the web, the feature was highly reminiscent of "Snow Fall" from the New York Times featuring the writing of John Branch and which I wrote about in a December 2012 post

Not to just keep throwing out links, but the other thing that this Iditarod feature made me think of was "Bleacher Report vs. Grantland: The Spectrum of Online Sports Media" by Clay Travis for his site Outkick the Coverage. In this October 2012 piece, Travis writes of how a site like Grantland is well suited to produce thorough journalism (which the features by Phillips certainly qualify as) because as part of the much larger organization that is ESPN it's not wholly reliant on revenue from said journalism to maintain a viable company. It's an interesting idea from Travis and seems to ring even more true to me after seeing what must have gone into producing something as expansive and well done as "Out in the Great Alone".

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Writing on Boston & on Guns - by Charlie Pierce & Gabrielle Giffords

It's somewhat remarkable to me that conversation around the Boston Marathon bombing would be completely separate from the larger question of weapons (i.e. guns) and the ease in which people can get them, but that certainly seems to be the case over the past week. While many people (myself included) closely followed the aftermath of the bombing and manhunt yesterday for apparent co-perpetrator Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the U.S. Senate voted Wednesday to block legislation strengthening background checks on gun sales.

On the subject of the Sentate actions (or inactions) were two great pieces of writing, with one from former U.S. Congresswomen Gabrille Giffords and one from Esquire writer Charlie Pierce, with Pierce more recently writing another piece that felt very much related.

The writing by Giffords was "A Senate in the Gun Lobby’s Grip" published in the New York Times and an extremely direct and well written op-ed piece from someone in a position to write about gun violence.

From Pierce for the Esquire website the morning after the Senate inaction around background checks was "The Violence We Live With". It's a powerful essay that opines how we as American people seem to deplore horrific violence while at the same time accept that it's going to happen sometimes and not take steps that could curb it. It was a tremendously interesting idea put forth by Pierce and another Esquire piece of his published this morning had a similar notion in it to me.

"Guns Along The River: A Late Night In Watertown" was about the manhunt for Tsarnaev yesterday and exceptional writing.The thing that got me more than any other from his more recent piece was the repeated phrase "cops being cops" and Pierce writing of how capture of Tsarnaev means he can (and as he should) go to trial in our U.S. court system like any other criminal.

My thought out of this was that while the violence was much more high profile than that done by a "typical criminal with weapons", it's still violence resulting in the death of innocent people, just like the violence perpetrated by Jared Loughner in Tucson, James Holmes in Aurora or Adam Lanza in Newtown. It's a great thing that Tsarnaev will be tried for his crimes, but what will be interesting to see is whether the crimes committed have any impact on U.S. perception of violence or lawmakers reactions around violence through various means.

Would be a shame if the response is for Congressional leaders and other decision makers to either (A) accept that these things can happen and not try to look at additional ways to prevent it (basically what Pierce wrote in his essay about gun violence) or (B) put the Boston bombing in a specific bucket and try to stop that (i.e. make pressure cookers illegal). While this hypothetical option B may seem absurd, anyone that's had to pour out water or take off their shoes in an airport security line may recognize it as an approach that we've taken before.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Writing on the Boston Marathon Bombing

Not to simply list out great writing (well, actually, exactly to simply list out great writing) since the Boston Marathon bombing, there's been some amazing work done, both poignant and well reported with the pieces below being those that have stood out to me the most.

In the poignant essay category were pieces by Patton Oswalt and Joe Posnanski with Oswalt doing a Facebook post about good people and Posnanski's essay on his personal blog containing the same notion with his last sentence of "There are exponentially more good people than bad."

The piece of writing reported from the scene that I found most memorable was "In Grisly Image, a Father Sees His Son" by Tim Rohan for the New York Times. Recounted is the story of Jeff Bauman, a marathon spectator who lost both his legs at the scene. While the piece certainly contains a graphic image and some difficult to read text, it's also an inspiring depiction of helping others with Rohan's description of Carlos Arredondo (the subject of NYT piece from 2007 that Rohan links to) coming to Bauman's aide. Incredibly, there's a story that's come out just this evening on Bauman with "Boston Bombing Victim in Iconic Photo Helped Identify Attackers" by Asjylyn LoderEsmé E. Deprez for Bloomberg.

The final pieces to note here contained details about the response of emergency personnel to the bombing and injuries with a New Yorker essay "Why Boston's Hospital's Were Ready" by noted author and Boston area surgeon Atul Gawande and "First responders to Boston bombings get relief, postgame beers from grateful Bruins" by Les Carpenter for Yahoo Sports.

Finally, it's of course not a piece of writing, but here was footage from the Boston Garden two nights after the bombing...


Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Writers on writing - wisdom, education and producing it for free

There's been a lot of pieces I've come across over the last 4-6 weeks on the subject of writing (which I love to link to pieces on) that I found interesting and which fell into a few different areas... writing wisdom, writing education and writing for free.

In the area of writing wisdom I've seen lately were pieces from quite a few different sources...

Starting things off was a string of tweets about a month ago by ESPN writer Kevin Van Valkenburg. In the first he linked to a Gawker piece titled "Billy Joel Stuns Vanderbilt with Once-In-A-Lifetime Answer to Student’s Question" on freshman Michael Pollack asking the singer if he could accompany him on piano for a song and subsequent tweets had Van Valkenburg's thoughts on the subject.

I was just talking to a journalism class last about why it's important in life just to ask. Sometimes people say yes. And you know what? If they say no, you've lost nothing. The world belongs to people bold enough to ask: Can I? Would you? Why not? The other thing I love about that Joel thing is that student was obviously talented, but also ready when his moment arrived. I spent several years thinking I was somehow unworthy of asking to write for ESPN. How silly was that? Be bold, be ready, and take a shot. Fear of rejection is a silly pair of handcuffs to wear in any field. If you obsess about your craft & work hard, maybe you ARE good enough.

Additionally, two fairly small stories with writing wisdom had the first from the website 22 words with "Writing advice from writers handwritten on writers’ hands [14 pictures]" and then "The Ultimate Guide to Writing Better Than You Normally Do" by Colin Nissan for the website of McSweeney's, the San Francisco based  publishing house started by Dave Eggers.

Two longer piece of writing wisdom of late came from authors Neal Pollack and Peter Richmond. Pollack wrote the book Alternadad (which apparently didn't sell well, but I enjoyed) and he did an interview for the website AV Club that resulted in "Neal Pollack on rebounding from massive hype and six-figure deals to online publishing". Some very interesting stuff put forth from Pollack, especially around him noting the importance of focusing on the writing rather than empire building around writing. Richmond is the author of Badasses: The Legend of Snake, Foo, Dr. Death, and John Madden's Oakland Raiders and he recently did an interview for the website TV Fury was "The Fury Files: Peter Richmond". There was some excellent material from Richmond and just yesterday I saw from him "Fit to Print?" for the site Alex Belth's Bronx Banter and about the need for journalists to responsibly cover tragedy as while they're trying to get the story, the subjects are actually living with the pain of the event. His words made a lot of sense and brought to mind similar thoughts by Michael Schaer in his piece "Interviews With The Survivors" for The Awl last month.

It very much could be included in the writing wisdom category as well, but around writing education last month was "Missouri School of Journalism Alumni Give Insights into Long-Form Stories and Reporting". The writeup on the J School website featured notes from a March 4th on-campus workshop with Mike Sager and Missouri alums Justin Heckert, Tony Rehagen, Robert Sanchez and Wright Thompson. A couple of shorter things I've seen recently within the writing education topic were the schedule for the July 2013 Mayborn Conference in Dallas, TX and "Ashland University Professor Launches Audio Podcast" about a writing podcast with Matt Tullis. Also, it's not necessarily anything I've seen new, but something additional around writing education is the UC Berkeley School of Journalism day-long workshop East Meets West: A Gathering of Literary Journalists last held in November 2012.

In terms of writing for free, heavily discussed and written about was the Nate Thayer blog post "A Day in the Life of a Freelance Journalist-2013" on him being asked to provide free writing for The Atlantic's website. It was definitely an interesting read and of the follow-up pieces I've seen by others on it, the one I found most of note was from Jason Fry who wrote "On Writing for Free" to his personal blog.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Outdoor writing for Outside & GQ - by McMahon, Fedarko & Grant

There's been three pieces of outdoor related writing I'm seen recently that I found particularly good and each from a writer I hadn't been familiar with.

I tend to link to and write about posts from a fairly small group of writers (as they're people who write for magazines I subscribe to, have twitter feeds I follow and whose writing I particularly like) so I enjoy reading something excellent from a writer who's new to me.

From the April issue of GQ was a feature by Bucky McMahon with "Heart of Sharkness" on surfers and sharks in the waters of Reunion Island off the coast of Africa. It was a solid piece that made me think of John Jeremiah Sullivan and his 2008 GQ story "Violence of the Lambs" (which was also included in his excellent book Pulphead that I wrote about here).

Two pieces from the May issue of Outside Magazine also stood out with one being a book excerpt about a 1983 whitewater rafting adventure and one a first person account of long-distance horse racing in Mongolia. The excerpt was by Kevin Fedarko with "Rocketing Into the Grand Canyon's Great Unknown" from his book The Emerald Mile and it struck me as compelling story of a near-death trip. The horse racing feature was an interesting one by Will Grant with "All the Jittery Horses: Racing the Mongol Derby" about Grant participating in a 9 day race across 1,000 kilometers of the land traveled by Genghis Khan.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Excellent sports stories - by Jones, Assael, Wertheim, Wahl & Mooney

There's been a few different pieces of sports writing I've seen lately that stood out as excellent with those to note here being from ESPN, Sports Illustrated and BuzzFeed (first time I've linked to and written on anything from BuzzFeed).

From ESPN The Magazine recently was an excellent column out of the April 15 issue and then feature story from the April 29 edition. The column was "Photo resolution" by Chris Jones and it looks at retired NFL player Ricky Williams working for ESPN as as a sideline photographer at the Super Bowl in New Orleans. I've previously posted on stories about Williams by Jones and he's definitely one of my favorite athletes.

The April 29 ESPN piece was by Shaun Assael with "Coming Down" about the impact of synthetic (and not necessarily illegal) marijuana on the Auburn football team and it's players. It was a fascinating read that reminded me of a 2011 Businessweek cover story "The Big Business of Synthetic Highs" by Ben Paynter.

From Sports Illustrated recently were two tremendously interesting pieces, one in the magazine and one posted to the SI website today. The Mar 25 issue of Sports Illustrated had "Seen Benny? Have Him Give Me A Call" with the writer, Jon Wertheim, chronicling his search for Benny Anders who 30 years ago played along with Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon on the University of Houston basketball team. Fascinating piece by Wertheim on the search for search for someone who appears to have willfully disappeared.

The piece from the the SI website was "One man's journey from Los Angeles to Real Madrid good-luck charm" by Grant Wahl. It's just a very nice story about L.A. city employee Abel Rodríguez and his whirlwind travel with and working for the Real Madrid football team in Europe.

The final piece of stellar sports writing to note here was "Lying Around With Brandon McCarthy" by Michael Mooney for BuzzFeed. I two weeks ago posted on writing by Mooney for D Magazine and this story is one of those cases of an excellent writer on a subject who's easy to like.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

"Plan B" by David Kord Murray

Plan B: How to Hatch a Second Plan That's Always Better Than Your First by David Kord Murray may have taken a long time between purchase and reading for me, but was a solid business book.

I previously read and reviewed his Borrowing Brilliance and Plan B was an interesting follow up that lays out Murray's 11 "Principles of Adaptive Management." The principles themselves can be found in a book synopsis by Harvey Schachter for the Toronto newspaper Global and Mail and the ones that struck me as most interesting are the following...

Principle of Problems - The idea behind this was that an owner or employee should figure out what problem their business trying to solve. This very much reminded me of the book How Will You Measure Your Life? by Clayton Christensen, James Allworth and Karen Dillon with the idea expressed there (which I noted in a review of the book) being to consider what job a product or service fills. On the same topic of writing by Christensen, Murray refers to him the end of Plan B to  in a chapter on evolving plans and strategic evolution vs tactical alternations.

Principle of Solutions - This as described by Murray was about the the importance of tactics, especially as they align with strategy. Concept from the book is that too often tactics are overlooked in importance, and it's an examination of tactics that can reveal what will work in an endeavor... with the example given of finding the tactics that would be used to successfully return to Earth the Apollo 13 crew after an equipment failure.

Principle of Force - This was one of those situations where an idea from someone made me think of a similar concept I've seen elsewhere previously. Specifically, what I took from Murray in this chapter was the notion of being expert at the most niche thing possible. I may have seen other writers expound on this as well, but the person I recall who covered it was Tim Ferriss is his book The 4-Hour Workweek (which I reviewed here).

Principle of paper plans - Concept simplified was that the important thing isn't the plan itself, but the thinking through of the business idea that's required to actually write the plan.

Principle of Multiple Futures - This somewhat ties into the idea of paper plans and them not being the end-all, be-all, but the idea I took from Murray in this section was the best way to make predictions is to make a lot of them and best way to plan for outcomes is to consider a lot of them. Basically, things won't often turn out exactly like we expect so multiple outcomes should be considered along with potential reactions to them.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Writing on & by Roger Ebert

Such a shame, the passing of Roger Ebert a few days ago. There's been a number of great remembrances written (and I'm sure still to be written) and below are the ones that touched me the most... along with some of the great Ebert writing I've come across in the past.

It's certainly not an end-all, be-all list, but the remembrance pieces I've found particularly noteworthy (all fairly short and with some including links to longer past writing about Ebert) have been the following: "Will Leitch on Ebert" by Marcus Gilmer (and Leitch) for the Chicago Sun-Times, "I'll Let Roger Do the Talking" by Chris Jones for Esquire, "Million Dollar Movie" by Peter Richmond for Alex Belth's Bronx Banter, "Roger Ebert Hails Human Existence As 'A Triumph'" for The Onion and finally "A statement from Chaz Ebert" on the passing of her husband.

The pieces by Ebert himself that I've been struck by in the past (and linked to and ruminated on in blog posts) included his memoir Life Itself and four different blog posts he wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times"All the Lonely People" on... that, "The Storyteller and the Stallion" on Bill Nack, "Video games 13,823, Huck Finn 8,088" on Huck Finn vs. video games and finally "How do they get to be that way?" on racists and racism.

Just a solid legacy of great writing about and by Ebert.

Writing on the HMS Bounty sinking & Tim Hetherington documentary - from Outside, The Awl & Nieman Storyboard

There were two pieces of writing from the April issue of Outside Magazine that were excellent on their own, and which led me to other interesting work.

The largest feature story from the issue was by Kathryn Miles with "Sunk: The Incredible Truth About a Ship That never Should Have Sailed" on the HMS Bounty. The boat went down during Hurricane Sandy and claimed two lives, that of Captain Robin Walbridge and crewmember Claudene Christian. Related to the feature by Miles on the Bounty were two additional pieces from sources other than Outside. For Nieman Storyboard, there was an interview with Miles about the writing process and from The Awl was a piece by Michael Shaer titled "Interviews With The Survivors" about his process of writing the eBook The Sinking of the Bounty, and seeking out for a feature story people touched by tragedy.

The other piece I found of note from this edition of Outside Magazine was by Matthew Power with "Sebastian Junger Shoots for the Truth" on the documentary Which Way is the Frontline from Here: The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington that premiers April 18th on HBO. Hetherington was the filmmaker and and Junger the writer behind the excellent war documentary Restrepo (which I wrote about here) and the HBO show a tribute to Hetherington, killed along with fellow American photographer Chris Hondros by a motor attack two years ago in Libya.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

April '13 Esquire stories - Jones on Hugh Hefner and Percy on his life

There were two really excellent stories in the latest issue of Esquire that stood out to me. The first was "Gentlemen, Gentlemen, Be of Good Cheer, for They Are Out There, and We Are in Here" by Chris Jones on Hugh Hefner. It's a thorough account that's got some tremendously interesting anecdotes about Hefner... especially around the long-standing relationships he's made with both friends and employees.

The second was "How a Percy Gets Old", an essay by Benjamin Percy on the writer and people from his life. There's great material throughout, but what really struck me was the section below on his neighbor...

"He understands how things work, how to put them together and pull them apart, in a way that I do not. Maybe this has something to do with his job as a family physician at the Allina Medical Clinic in Faribault, Minnesota. The body is just another machine to him. Blood replaces oil, tendons replace wires, joints replace gears. He buys the best brands — and maintains them — because he wants them to last. He eats the best food — and exercises religiously — because he sees every day what happens to people who don't take care of themselves. Dave says there are two types of aging: physical and psychological. Physical aging is what we see, but psychological aging is what we feel. They don't always advance together. Often the mind gives in before the body. Once the indestructibility of youth is gone, people start to feel old even though their body remains quite capable. 'Often this happens to people in their late twenties and early thirties,' Dave says. 'Like you.' And that, he says, is the beginning of the end. People gain weight. They stop conditioning. They prepare their body for the chronic disease that will knock them out years later. 'You are,' he says, 'your own worst enemy.'"