One of my favorite writers working today is Joe Posnanski. He’s a sports writer who was with a KC paper for a long time before moving up to Sports Illustrated. He’s now involved with an online collection of writers called Sports on Earth that I think is owned by USA Today and seems like it’s supposed to challenge sites like Grantland and Deadspin. (He’s currently at the Olympics and his prolific posts give you a good sense of his voice.)
Posnanski is a rarity today. He’s an old-school, un-ironic lover of life. His profiles and stories often celebrate family (serious, read this post) and honor and courage and hard-work and a lot of the more, dare-we-say, schmaltzy side of things. He’s funny and insightful. He loves baseball and Springsteen. He’s rarely mean. (One of my favorite Posnanski moments was when he tweeted a question about who the worse actress was: Andie MacDowell or Darryl Hannah? It was a dumb tweet, meant to be off-the-cuff. The kind of thing you chat about over a beer. Except, this being the 21st century, the actual Andie MacDowell somehow got involved, defended both Darryl and herself, and Posnanski had to offer his sincere apologies.)
Joe Posnanski, if you’ve not heard, was also given a reported $750,000 to write a biography about Joe Paterno to be released Father’s Day 2013. He announced it on his site March 22 of last year which means the negotiations and discussions had likely been going on for a long time prior.
I cannot begin to describe how excited I am about this project. I am, as you could probably tell from my previous stories on the man, a huge fan and admirer of Joe’s. But even more than that I am endlessly fascinated by him and his lifelong quest to do something large, to impact America, through football. So writing about Joe, his triumphs, his struggles, his journey, well, it really is everything I’ve ever wanted to do as a writer.
The quote above just about breaks my heart.
As you probably know, literally, hell broke loose on Happy Valley eight months after his announcement. And at the heart of it, stood Joe Paterno.
Sometimes a subject and it’s writer are so perfectly matched that the results can be breathtaking. David Foster Wallace on Roger Federer. David Simon on a year within Baltimore’s Homicide division. Krakauer, especially in his uncovering of Chris McCandless’ story in Into the Wild. The sensibility, the understanding, the connection and perspective that the writer brings to the story opens up the subject in ways, simply put, other writers couldn’t. It’s a story that writer owns.
This is the exact opposite.
I am jumping the gun in proclaiming that Posnanski is not the right author for this story, but certainly things seem to be going badly. First, he spoke out in “defense” of Paterno at a class at PSU, forgetting that Twitter would make make his opinion global within seconds. It did not come off as the words of a man ready to write an incisive and penetrating look into the life of a fallen Titan. And now, things have just gotten worse. His publisher decided to change the title from The Grand Experiment: the Life and Meaning of Joe Paterno to simply Paterno and also move up the release date to August 2012. But with the Freeh report releasing just weeks ago, again it appears (right or wrong) that the book is going to gloss over the controversy. And so Simon and Schuster has begun cutting access to Posnanski and is limiting his exposure. Right now, the world is not interested in even a balanced view of Joe Paterno and asking Posnanski to turn bladesman and skewer the man he once revered is not something that can be done. So we’re stuck with the worst of all worlds, a broken-hearted writer forced to recast a story nobody wants to hear.
You’re writing fiction, so it’s unlikely that your story will ever spiral out of control. (Although we do see our own nonfiction have issues. Ted Haggard anyone?)
But is there a story you’re uniquely positioned to tell, a topic you own? And with fiction, how do you make that come alive in narrative without diving too deeply back into nonfiction? Ginny Yttrup, at the Christy awards, hinted that her acclaimed novel Words emerged in such a way. I know most of our authors fuel the conflict of stories and characters’ with scenes and struggles from their own lives. It’s not a requirement–and sometimes we can’t see past our own pain to make it relatable in a story–but when it occurs, it can burn with realism and emotion.