Thursday, July 19, 2007

Writing is a competition

I arrived in Davis in the summer of 1984, driving the wrong way down a one-way street. I began as a backup writer on Giants and A’s baseball, then Sacramento State football and, because I had covered big-time basketball in Chapel Hill, landed the beat covering the newly arrived Sacramento Kings. I was, as everybody there can attest, an instant master—at overwriting, at missing deadlines, at trying to invest my stories with an importance they didn’t deserve. But with another daily paper in town, I had to hustle or lose, and fear of humiliation was only one reason I got better. The fact is, battling on a beat is one of life’s few, clear-cut, post-athletic competitive venues. Each morning, readers open up a newspaper to see who won the game. Each morning, sportswriters open up a newspaper to see which writers won the battle for the best lead, best quotes, best information, best kicker, best assessment of that game. I lost often and won some, too, and spent a bit of each day wondering if I’d be fired.

There’s a reason sportswriters get fat. The work occurs at night, the deadlines are crushing, the editors have no idea what it takes to jam that eighteen inches of copy into a misbehaving computer, not to mention the fact that you’ve got twenty minutes to juggle words because the locker-room guy didn’t open the doors on time and the players took long showers and said nothing and now the desk is saying hurry up and, Christ!, how do you say anything interesting about a twenty-four-point blowout in February? By the time you filed for the 11:15 p.m. deadline, your stomach so twisted, your hair standing on end, you knew you couldn’t sleep for hours unless you drank and, well, why not some nachos, too? Why not an entire meal? I did that for a while until I was twice pulled over and tested for drunk driving, and then began hopping the fence at the Cal-Davis field at 12:30 in the morning, running laps until I’d sweated out most of the tension—the rest simmered, though, until I could compare the two papers in the morning. Then it started over again.

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