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Monday, January 24, 2011

Journalism is Literature in a Hurry

Photo: Katie Tegtmeyer
My dad had a small printing business. He wanted me to become a classical musician. My mother wanted me to be a novelist. They were 0-for-2. So I became a reporter. Not quite a novelist, but as we all know, journalism is literature in a hurry.

The quote is from the movie, Runaway Bride. Ike, a reporter who is doing a story about a woman named Maggie who keeps leaving grooms at the altar, is driving in a car with Maggie shortly after she had to rescue her alcoholic father again. She asks him not to write about her father, saying his drinking got worse after her mother died.

Ike, it seems, has a different sort of parental problem – he isn’t living up to his parent’s expectations, as he described in the quote above. I love the line he uses at the end, “but as we all know, journalism is literature in a hurry,” which is a quote attributed to Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), a British poet.

I don’t know the context of Arnold’s quote, but the context of Ike’s usage of it shows our natural inclination to want to live up to the expectations of our parents. Even when we don’t, we try to convince ourselves that we have in a different sort of way. Of course, just because Ike’s parents wanted him to pursue certain professions, it doesn’t mean either path was right for him. Even so, he felt the weight of their expectations.

My parents never tried to point me toward any one profession. They divorced when I was young and maybe that had something to do with them going easier on my sister and me, but I doubt it. Our family was broken and we experienced all the hardship that comes from brokenness, but both of my parents were supportive of my interests and I’m grateful for that.

With that said, I still think I know how Ike felt. A while back, I wrote a post about one of my earliest memories of wanting my dad’s approval. I was around 10 at the time and my parents had split by then. Here’s a portion of the post:
My grandmother pokes her head out of her front door asking me if I want anything to drink. I tell her not yet. I’m in the middle of game.

With sweat dripping down the sides of my face, I tap the tennis ball into my baseball glove in my grandparent’s front yard and throw my next pitch toward the steps leading up to the side door their garage. When you don’t have anybody to play baseball with, you make up your own players and you make up your own rules. In this case, the steps served as hitters. After throwing a pitch, the steps would shoot the ball back in my direction – sometimes on the ground, sometimes over the front porch awning.

If I fielded the ball cleanly and could throw and hit a nearby tree, the runner was out. If I caught the ball on the fly, the runner was out. If the ball got past me on the ground, it was a hit. If it got away from me it was a double or triple. If it went over the awning, it was a home run. I was always aware of how many ghost-runners were on base and my goal was to keep as many of them as possible from scoring.

I didn’t feel sorry for myself. I was having the time of my life. But negative thoughts can creep up on you when you play baseball by yourself. Was I good enough to play against other kids without them making fun of me? I was athletic, but overweight. Would Dad be proud of the way I could throw and catch the ball if he could see me? Was I missing out on something by not having my dad out there with me?

I had no idea.
Fast forward some 35 years. If I were in the car with Maggie and shared that story with her, I think I would have told her I never became a baseball player, but as we all know, sports writers are former athletes who know how to capture the thrill of the game.

And I envision her nodding her head and saying, “You know, your dad really would have been proud of the way you could throw and catch a ball when you were a kid. And he’d be proud of the way you write about the way other people do it now.”


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