Sunday, November 03, 2013

Compelling sports writing - by Ballard, Layden & Sneed

There's been three different pieces of sports writing I've seen lately (each of which covered well an interesting subject) that between them had a connecting thread about storytelling, what a piece could be, what it actually is and writing narratives that don't lend themselves to being tidy.

Two of the features were for the new Sports Illustrated Longform site with "Lost Soul" by Chris Ballard on former NBA player Bison Dele and "Out of the Darkness" by Tim Layden on Jeff Lukas, son of legendary horse trainer D. Wayne Lukas.

The Ballard feature examined the life of Dele: born with the name Brian Williams, retired young from basketball, and then died in Tahiti, most likely at the hands of his brother, Miles Dabord. The feature struck me as a fascinating one that covered big-picture type themes around life, death and identity, and did all of that without absolutely knowing the details of Dele's passing or the two others that died along with him.

One thing to note about the Dele feature is, just as with the one on Lukas, it was published in the magazine as well as on the SI Longform site, and that on Dele was trimmed by I believe several thousand words for the print version. I'm sure this cutting was to fit within the magazine space allotted, and probably done about as it could have been, but the unfortunate thing is it took out much of the Tahiti narrative. That portion was fascinating to me and also made the web feature have much more of a storytelling feel to it, and different than most other pieces I've read.

Another tremendous work, the piece by Layden on Jeff Lukas was about his life before and since a horrific accident two decades ago. The parallel I found to the Dele feature is that both pieces written about something that not everything known about. In the case of Dele, there's the unknown details of his death and with Lukas, there's the question of how his life changed with the accident. The narrative of Lukas' life doesn't seem as simple as him "having great life circumstances which were cruelly taken away," nor that he's "taken the lemons life handed him and made lemonade," but rather that he had a moment in life that had to, and will continue to have to, be dealt with and the best made out of. Layden definitely introduces positives that came out of the accident for Lukas along with the obvious negatives, but what I loved from the writing was how he laid out everything without trying to fit it all into a tightly answered and conventional narrative arc.

Really excellent writing in both SI Longform pieces and hopefully the site continues to develop. There's of course a lot of things that could be done with it, but one thing that comes to mind is as they continue to post new features (and some or all of the time also publish them in print), it would be cool to see some of the past great Sport Illustrated longform writing added to the site. The ability as a reader to for instance select Gary Smith as a writer, baseball as a topic and then the 1980s as a time-period would be a nice functionality.


The other piece to mention here that was fascinating to me was by Brandon Sneed for SB Nation Longform. "Andre Dawkins Has A Story" was about the Duke basketball player who went through tragedy with his 21-year-old sister passing away in 2009 after a car accident. The story on Dawkins and his struggle to deal with the death of his sister while being a a major-sport college athlete was interesting in it's own right, but what was further interesting to me was how Sneed wrote the piece as being partially about Dawkins and partially about the idea of writing a feature on a young athlete who would rather not be profiled, especially when the reason for the profile is his working to overcome such a tragedy.

To this end, there were a number of comments about the piece and writing approach both below the story and in a thread to the writing site Gangrey. My opinion is that I follow what Sneed ran into with the story and his difficulty, but find myself conflicted about whether it made sense to write such a lengthy "inside baseball" portion about the writing process. This story wasn't written for a general interest sports print magazine, but rather for a great site devoted to sports writing... and to have it include a piece of sports writing that was in part about... sports writing, makes sense. Just it seems that the story could have still had all the narrative about Dawkins and also included Sneed's deliberations as a writer, but done so in a shorter fashion with less in the sections on Sneed and the alternate endings (below being what I saw to be word-count math)...

roughly 6,000 words total
first 100 about Sneed
next 2,000 about Dawkins
next 2,500 about Sneed
next 400 about time with Dawkins
next 1,000 about different alternate endings to the story... with two of the three based on time with Dawkins

It's not that I know I could have written a better story and feel like I understand what Sneed wrote about with his internal struggle in writing on Dawkins, but (without my actually working in the field) also imagine it part of the job. It seems to me a non-fiction writer should seek out the truth, but also do so in a manner that's as fair and compassionate as it should be to the subjects. Granted, this allows for a great deal of latitude, but I'd think that comes with the job to figure it out and act appropriately. Dawkins as a college kid may well warrant a different threshold than perhaps a professional entertainer in terms of how dogged someone should be in writing about him, but regardless, he warrants a threshold that should be met when writing for the public about a private individual (which of course, everyone is). Basically, we're all characters in narratives and there's nothing wrong with those of us in the public eye being written about, as long as the authors write honestly and as appropriately (in both the writing and reporting) as should be done about them.

Sneed wrote very interesting stuff about Dawkins and also raised very valid questions about the writing of a feature on him, just I wonder both if it's part of the job to be report and write appropriately and if whether a shorter piece would have kept the story more about Dawkins rather than what felt to be a feature first about Dawkins and then about the writing on him. Related to this, I found interesting the long-sought interview with Dawkins which then led to the alternate endings written to the story. The time with Dawkins wasn't profound, but it didn't have to be. I don't think there any evidence that Sneed as a writer wanted to force this to be so, but Dawkins as a subject of course not required to be profound nor fit into a convention or have a particularly tidy narrative to have a solid story written about him, which even with my quibbling about the writing dilemma portion, I think was delivered by Sneed.