Glenn Stout says read, read, read to become a better writer 2012.03.28
By DAVID GREEN
Want to become a writer? Start by becoming a reader, says Glenn Stout.
“Read, read, read, read. That’s the first and foremost lesson,” Stout told an audience last week at Morenci’s Stair Public Library.
“I think kids freeze at the page because they haven’t read enough,” he said. “Reading is really transformative. It can change your life.”
Stout was responding to a question from an audience member who wondered how to direct a young person interested in writing. Your path to writing was somewhat accidental, she said, but what do you tell kids?
Kids are told to follow their dream, he said, but added that it has to be accompanied by a lot of hard work.
Stout said he was pleased to be speaking in a library because libraries played a key role in his development.
“I think every writer’s journey begins in a library,” he said. “They’re incredibly important places.”
The Ohio native attended college at Bard College in New York state and later got a job with the Boston Public Library system. He chose Boston because he wanted a city with a great old baseball park.
He took the library job because he needed money, but also because that’s where the books were located, and that’s where people who enjoyed books were.
“I was surrounded by people who were interested in books and words, and I could talk about writing all day long,” he said.
Three years had passed and Stout had still never written anything. He read a magazine story about a former Boston Red Sox manager who killed himself supposedly due to the pressure of the job.
Stout was intrigued and suspected there must be more to the story. He read old newspapers and pieced it all together. He discovered the real reason was that after the man married, he got a call from a former girlfriend who said, “We’re having a baby.”
He thought the tale should be written and started looking into work as a free-lance writer. He met with a magazine editor who offered to pay him $300 for the article. As Stout was leaving, the editor said, “By the way, you can write, can’t you?”
Stout lied, telling him it wouldn’t be a problem. The editor liked it and offered him $500 for his next article.
“From that moment on, I’ve never been without an assignment,” he said.
Over the years Stout learned that the path to becoming a writer is varied and many people, like himself, stumble into the career.
A few years later, Stout’s agent heard that a new review of the best American sports writing was in need of an editor. She knew Stout was the man for the job. The next edition of the book will be the 23rd of the series, with Stout still at the helm.
Stout’s first departure from sports was an oral history of the clean-up of the World Trade Center.
Through his baseball research, Stout met the son of a former Red Sox owner who lived close to the World Trade Center. This man, in turn, knew the person in charge of the clean-up effort who was being hounded by journalists who wanted to write about the project.
Stout was suggested as a good person to speak with about the book business, and he learned that construction workers were disappointed that nothing previously written included their perspective. They wanted the families of victims to know they cared about the job they had to do.
Those workers knew the only people capable of cleaning up the debris were those who built the World Trade Center in the first place. Construction workers from throughout the city returned to the scene to begin the massive undertaking.
Stout came from a family involved in the construction business and he became the choice of several workers to create the book.
He spoke to a dozen workers and collected more than 80 hours of recorded conversation—transcribed into about 2 million words.
“Then I had to fit it together like a puzzle to tell a coherent story,” he said.
Stout was working on another book when he saw a reference to Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to swim the English Channel. He had never heard of her and he filed the knowledge away for future research.
Ederle was the sixth person to swim the English Channel and the 20-year-old beat the record by two hours. Her feat was unheard of for a woman in 1926 and Stout considers her the Jackie Robinson of women athletes.
Stout wanted to write a book about her swim, but he faced the challenge of making a very repetitive, 14-hour ordeal into an interesting account.
“I had to get inside Gertrude Ederle’s head,” he said. “I tried to get ahold of every detail she ever mentioned about the swim.”
From the prologue of his book, “Young Woman and the Sea”:
“She has been in the water for nearly twelve hours, tossed up and down, forward and back, upside down and sideways in the froth and spray of the channel between France and England. The white cliffs of Dover loom over the horizon in the fading light only a few miles ahead, and Cape Gris-Nez, the headland where she entered the water in France, is now nearly twenty miles and half a day behind her.
She is exhausted but not tired. She is cold but does not feel cold. How strange is that? Her lips are chapped and cracking, her thighs and armpits chaffed and stinging, her ears inflamed, her tongue swollen by salt water. Her limbs are numb, and her feet and legs kick on of their own accord. But her center is warm, even glowing, the embers protected deep within.
And there is no place in the world she would rather be. She has hours still to go, and she is deliriously, hopelessly happy.”
After the book was published, he heard some gratifying words from a few long distance swimmers who told him, “You’ve got it.”
Stout’s latest book, “Fenway 1912” was written in anticipation of the ball park’s 100th anniversary. For him, it was a matter of coming full circle since Fenway is the reason he moved to Boston.
The story tells many details of the park’s construction and this became a matter of contention with his publisher.
“I had some battles with my editor over just about every part of this book,” he said, but the biggest fights were about the construction details.
But this, he argued, was precisely what was missing from all the other Fenway books. He knew it would appeal to people who have added a deck to their home, for example, or engaged in remodeling. His contention was correct. He’s heard good reports from many readers.
“The editor didn’t think it would be successful and it is, so I won,” he said.
Young writers are always told to write about what they know. Stout loves to play baseball and other sports, and he’s written about that. He’s put many hours into working on construction jobs, and he’s worked that into his writing.
“Even though I don’t really swim very well, I think writing is that same kind of obsessive process,” Stout said. “When you’re doing it, the rest of the world goes away.”
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