Wednesday, July 25, 2012


Yesterday I had a brief but memorable exchange with a writer. Over the past few weeks I’ve been recruiting stories for the Cool But As Yet Unnamed Project for SBNation. I’ve spent nearly every day talking writing, writing about writing, batting ideas back and forth, sharing ideas and all that stuff that we, as writers, do when we get together. Talking craft to each other is one way many of us prepare to enter the mines of our work, taking the last deep breaths at the surface before going down. The experience has been exhilarating.

In this instance, almost without thinking I ended my exchange “Thanks for being a writer.” I meant it, because writing is my life and has shaped my world, utterly and entirely. As someone who decided to become a writer nearly forty years ago and has done that exclusively for two decades, I understand what being a writer entails. People who do not write don’t.

Most writers I know realize that although many people imagine they would like to write, few have any idea what that reality of that is like, that 99% of writing is ambiguous and often done alone even when surrounded by others. I am talking about all the repeat trips down to the metaphorical basement, closing the door and spending hours listening to your own words in the dark, trying to find the ones that matter and make a difference, the few that let you look yourself in the mirror when you are done and know you’ve gotten to something that somehow didn’t exist before. Only those of us who really do it know what that requires, and I’m not even going to get into the real life issues of trying to write for a living. Just ask our friends and families about that.

Now there are many difficult jobs in this world - some of which I’ve done - and not to overstate the fact, but even when it looks as if it is, writing is not easy. That is why there are so many more people who “want to write” than those that do.

I think this explains why I was so affected when the writer responded to my expression of gratitude by writing, “That’s the nicest thing anyone has ever emailed me,” which was about the nicest thing anyone has ever e-mailed me. We might be praised us for a particular story or a book or a line or a phrase or a poem, or criticized for the same - or, worst of all, ignored – but rarely are we extended an appreciation for the vocation itself, for simply devotion to the craft we cannot do without.

So thanks for being a writer.

[Writers: for more about the SB Nation project see my previous blog post "Help Wanted," or "About the SB Nation Project" page on my website,]/

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Mess of History

When writing history – even of baseball - the challenge is to stay true and authentic. That means refusing to place into the historical record anything known to be false or inauthentic, for any reason. Every writer of history must find in their research enough information to recreate the experience, and then present that information in a way that engages the reader.

The guidelines for this are pretty clear; don’t make stuff up or intentionally misrepresent the facts. While it is not always possible to uncover every piece of information that might be pertinent and the veracity of each piece of information may never be completely known, the research process demands that one makes a concerted effort to do so anyway and never succumb to the temptation to fill in the blanks with fiction. While historians may differ in their conclusions historical disagreement is far different from making things up to account for gaps of research or to make a re-telling more colorful and lively.

Unfortunately in recent years the clear line between was is acceptable and what is not has become blurred, and many of book titles that have most egregiously blurred that line have been commercial and critical successes. Increasingly, I read historical accounts of baseball and other sports history that I view with the same suspicions I do the achievements of a hitter on steroids. Too often I encounter books that create dialogue that did not exist and invent entire scenes that never took place. Readers, unfortunately, are usually oblivious to the use of these methods. Over time they learn to expect a certain level of detail that, even though it is false, makes work that adheres to a higher standard somehow seem lacking.

This kind of historical abuse is becoming more and more and more commonplace. I am aware of one current title’s success that is due in part to the author’s ability to put thoughts and words into the minds and mouths of his subjects, something I only know because my own research has covered the same ground. I wish this experience was uncommon, or confined to the genre of sports. Unfortunately it is not. Many of the most successful books of history recently published – including some best sellers now considered classics – make use of these same techniques.

The damage done by this approach is profound. Not only does the true historical record become murky as subsequent accounts repeat spurious information, but the commercial success of such titles places ever more pressure on the writer of history to indulge in these same practices.

I know this is true from my own experience. Several years ago, while writing about a non-sports topic, an editor strongly suggested I include scenes and impressions and dialogue the editor knew did not exist. The clear implication was if did so my work would be more successful and make more money. When I refused the editor was shocked and made it clear other writers had not resisted similar requests.

Real history does not often unfold like scenes from a movie script, all crisp dialogue and clarity. It is more often a mess, a mass of often confusing and apparently contradictory evidence. The task for the writer of history is to guide the reader through the unkempt rooms of the past, finding order and logic and truth in chaos, anticipating questions and providing answers before they are even formed, so at the end of the experience the reader sees clearly what was previously obscure.

As I have embarked on historical projects like the history of a team, a biography of an athlete, or even the story of a ballpark, I try to keep this in mind, believing that the truth always tells the best story, and that if I do my job well and completely it needs no embellishment or added drama. Fortunately, so far my experiences like the one I described above have been the exception, and readers have generally responded with a generosity I find refreshing.

That was why it was particularly gratifying earlier this spring when Fenway 1912 was awarded the Seymour Medal, named after Harold and Dorothy Seymour, baseball’s pre-eminent historians, by the Society of American Baseball Research as the best book of biography or history for 2011. That experience was repeated again last week when SABR also awarded Fenway 1912 the Larry Ritter Award, named after the author of the seminal oral history The Glory of Their Times, as the best book of the Deadball Era, making Fenway 1912 the only title ever to win both such awards.

It’s nice to know someone is still paying attention.

The column originally appears in Boston Baseball July 2012. For more information see Glenn’s website at