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Episode 18: The After Show: The Story That Nearly Broke Me

Transcripts are created using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

PAUL KIX: Hello and welcome to the After Show for Now That's a Great Story. On Monday we talked with Wright Thompson about his Ted Williams piece.I wanted to talk today about the story that immediately followed that one and my time working with Mr. Wright Thompson. 


It was a story on the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. It was nominally about football but really about how Katrina still affected everyone's lives. And some of it was kind of remarkable about this story was the fact that it was going to take up the entire feature well. Meaning it would be one single story that would be all that magazine readers would get from that issue of ESPN the magazine. Magazines have rarely done this in the past. John Hersey with his story of the Hiroshima attack in the New Yorker in 1946. John Sack with the story about the M company which is a company of soldiers that he followed from their time in basic training through the war in Vietnam, that was another example. There was one in Bloomberg businessweek, but the point is, look, magazines is rarely dedicated an entire issue to a single story and this time we thought we should do it. Wright wanted to try it. I have long wanted to try something like this. The editor-in-chief the time Chad Millman signed off on the idea. And we thought that the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and all that the people New Orleans were still going through would be a great way to try to pull this off.


So the story was... of all the stories are right and I worked on, the New Orleans story was the one that was perhaps the absolute least affiliated with sports. Wright they made a little bit of that because one of the central characters was Steve Gleason, who was a former player for the Saints.  A few other Saints figure fairly prominently into the story, including the Saint’s ownership but the story is really about New Orleans and it's really about the ways in which the water had never really received even ten years after the flood. The water was still there and everyone's memories. It was a challenge to everyone's day-to-day lives. The water has evaporated and yet it was still ubiquitous. So I went down to visit Wright while he was reporting. This was the first time… this the only time I've ever done...that is the only time that anybody that I know who worked at ESPN the magazine had ever been asked as an editor writer on assignment. And part of that was just the gravity of the exercise itself, right? The fact that we were going to get to tell just a single story, so my bosses wanted to make sure that Wright was staying on track.


So our ostensible purpose was to try to map out the structure of the story while we were down there but Wright was still reporting the piece and when we’d actually tried to sit down and figure out, all right, what exactly is this? How do we begin telling a story that will end up being 25, 30, 25 thousand words? What’s the sequence of it? The enormity of it just sort of overwhelmed us and we reazlied we really couldn’t go through and map out all of it together. That some  of it was just going to be with Wright wrestling with it. Especially given the fact that he was only still reporting the thing. So the only thing that I came back from New Orleans with was this idea that the water had never really receeded. And I’m not so sure that my bosses were all that pleased with me for the fact that I spent your two or three days down in New Orleans and I came back with a single line. But that's the way it happened. In I want to say July, late June early, July of 2015, that’s when Wright actually sits down to right the story. Maybe the key to understanding this is that Wright and I had to work backwards from the date of the anniversary in August. And so that set every deadline before it, meaning that I had to talk to the design department to figure out how much time they would need to  build a story for both the magazine out online that would be as big as this. I had to talk with the photo department to make sure they had enough time to make sure they had the right photos everywhere. I had to talk with a copy editing department and figure out how many hours or days they would need to try to just read through all of this and copy edit it. 


And then I had to talk with my own bosses, the editor and chief, the top editor, other people who are going to be giving this story a read. Because it wasn't going to be simply a positive story, we also had to involve the legal department in some way. And how long would they need to review it? How long would our bosses’ bosses’ bosses because we work for a multinational corporation. How long would they need to sit with this story, right? Would the president of the company himself read it, and would he offer comments? And how long would that take, and so you begin to get the idea, right? So we were working backwards and basically what we realized was Wright would have 16 days to write this thing and then Wright and I would have 14 days to edit this. So Wright goes off in early July of 2015 to go write it, and 16 days later, he filed a first draft. It was 37,000 words long. There’s this old Mark Twain adage that I would’ve written you a shorter letter, but I didn’t have the time. And one of the things that happens when you write fast if you end up writing way more than you need. That was certainly the case here right was the first to admit it. I got the draft on a Saturday morning and just to read that first draft took 6 hours. Just to read it once. I remember that Saturday because I took the kids to the pool in the afternoon and they were all in the pool while I just had my phone out and was reading the story a second time on my phone, going over it and then in a separate document we need to make notes on what I thought was working what I thought wasn't working. Read it, I believe, a third time on Sunday and so by Monday morning I had a pretty clear sense on at least the direction I wanted to take it. And I presented that to the bevy of top editors and majordomos at ESPN around me, and then Wright and I began the work of trying to fashion this into something that we liked. 


Now I should say that there were parts of it there were absolutely brilliant. And then there were parts of it that I just didn't like at all. And Wright and I our relationship at that point it got to the point where we could be just had this implicit trust of each other, and we also had a sort of shorthand language so I can flag something and just be, like, all of this needed. Or he would say something about trying to transmit something that was about the human condition, right? And I would intrinsically understand what the point was he was trying to make even if necessarily… even if that was it reflected in the draft. So all of this great working relationship aside, the workself was just overwhelming. I mean I... my routine was from that Monday morning on was get in the office somewhere between 8 and 9 a.m., and edit the story all day through the night, leave the office sometime around... somewhere between 9 p.m. and 1 a.m., get up the next day and began to address revisions Wright is making in more or less real time. I mean, what I would try to do is wait a full day to get something back from him but it just so work that I remember like it was sort of a constant workflow because if I wasn't talking with right about the story I was talking with a fact checker about something we we need to double-check or I was talking with the art department, or I was talking with the photo department or I talking with the editor-in-chief, or I was talking with somebody and publicity, or somebody on the TV side about how this would all roll out.


Iit was just basically constant interactions with a story for two weeks, 8 a.m. to 1 a.m., sleep a few hours, get up the next day if I have a new draft from Wright, I'm editing that. And here's the thing: It got really good. We cut -- Wright had organized it in terms of chapters -- and we cut an entire chapter out of it and then it was a matter of just accentuating --- it wasn't just a matter, there were so many things to do with that to make it to the standard to both Wright and I had for it. I hesitate to talk about editing a piece years after because unless you're really in that moment and unless you see the piece yourself it's not going to really translate to a medium like the podcast but just suffice to say that we spent all of our waking hours thinking about, arguing about, improving upon this story. It wasn't as though it was always a peaceful process. The stress of it just began to eat at the both of us, and I remember screaming matches with Wright. I remember him yelling at me about something, I remember yelling at him I remember of calling each other names. it was…. we always had a sort of jokey back and forth with each other but there was some sort of, like, pain beneath that and frustration and anger beneath that. And I remember at one point near the end Wright got upset. He was upset because he hadn't had a chance to just rest and take a moment to clear his head and then read the story through one more time. And I was arguing that you know if we were going to stick to the schedule we didn't necessarily have the time for him to rest and luxuriate. And luxuriate is a pretty unnecessary word but I'm pretty sure I said it in the moment because I'm trying to stick it to him a little bit and he's, like, that's the way you feel that I just won't run it. I just won't submit this draft we can just screw the whole thing. 


And so that was another yelling match and I want to stress that Wright and I, we're really good friends. We get along, we understand each other really well, and I really think that more than anything it was just the lack of sleep and the just relentless schedule. We were we were trying to fashion something that was basically the length of a novella or a small book in two weeks. So by the end of that we are absolutely raw. And finally I was... I said the Wright, look, go ahead then take the time to read it through one more time but just know that I'm going to then go through and edit the story one more time. And this was the sort of the agreement we made.


If memory serves, it was a Friday night that I got that story back from Wright, and I’m really proud of it by this point and I was really proud of all that Wright -- really proud of right because you pulled off was something that was close to Impossible. The story was by this point was down to like 26,000 words. And the word link isn't necessarily important but it's just sort of a mark to show how much progress we had made you know when trimming it back, but also we had added a lot to it. And I think it's it was just as really robust read that involved five or six major characters and all of them wove around this idea of how they were still affected by the flood. Some of these characters knew each other, all of them were fiercely loyal to the city of New Orleans. There were some through lines here that connected everybody but you could also look at each of these characters stories and just be captivated by them. So I thought that Wright and pulled off something here that was damn near impossible, and it was my job to give it just that one last polish and be really happy with it before I send it along to my top editor who would then spend the day with it before he passed along to on, and on, and on, right? 

I went to go eat dinner that Friday night and I came back, and I thought well I'm going to put on some music to soft of celebrate and I can't listen to too much music while I worked at one of the things I was able to listen to and still can listen to is Beethoven. So I put on Beethoven's 9th and I plugged in my laptop to my monitor and for some reason as I plugged it in, something just went a little bit haywire, and couldn't locate the story on the monitor. So I unplugged it from the from the computer monitor and just looked at it on my laptop and suddenly I couldn't see it on my laptop either. Again, I had to get it to my… to the next in the chain by the following morning and now I can't find the story at all. Meaning that if I can't find a story at all and if I have to work off a previous version, it was by that point actually like two iterations prior because I had sent something to Wright, Wright polished it. He and I had been debating it a little bit that afternoon revision and I had begun to work on it, so it was like a revision and prior that I was going to be losing. 


This was fairly actually fairly substitution stuff, so began to freak out because I can't find it. I know that just reading this story one last time is going to take somewhere get fiber four to five to six hours, somewhere around that, right? And for me to read it closely. I'm going to have to be be spending extra time with it and anything that I want to any change I want to make it to see if it's in any way substantive, the thing that I always try to do with Wright with make sure that he was aware of it so I would need to be calling him or texting him or emailing him real time and saying, hey I want to do this at this part that's fine whatever the case may be so that's going to prolong process. The point of it being that I realize that you do everything that I needed to do on that Friday night would last somewhere between six and eight hours. And if I couldn't find that story I would lose not only those six and 8 hours but I would probably have to add another 8 to 12 hours onto my work because I would then be working off the previous draft. And if I had to work off the previous track that mean that the story wouldn't get to anybody until noon or some later point on Saturday, and then it would be kinder seriously affect the production cycle. 


And everything again had to be so very regimented, I just lost I just lost my shit. I was like what the hell is going on! So I called the IT department and I was just like you've got to help me find the story. I don't know where it went. I don't know where it went! And I got on the phone with this guy and we were on the phone for probably an hour, and we couldn't find it we tried everything we just couldn't find a story anywhere. Then we had this idea. He said if we shut down this computer one of two things are going to happen the computer will either shut down entirely and you'll lose everything that you were working. Or there’s a chance that the computer will give you a prompt and Microsoft Word will give you a prompt and say, hey you may want to consider saving this draft? We debated whether or not we should do this and we finally decided, I don't think I really had any other choice, okay, let's do it? and I'm thinking the entire time is... he's actually in my computer doing it himself because I can't even touch the keyboard anymore. I'm just so nervous and frustrated and sleep deprived by the whole process. And he said okay I'm going to shut down the computer now. And a prompt shows up and it says would you like to save this document. I was like I read OOOOOH! And I said oh, Jesus, yes, save that, and he did. 


And basically what had happened was that it had gone behind a second-screen. I had some way drifted to another screen on my computer that I couldn't view on my existenced... you know what? I'm not even going to try to explain it. All I know is the thing was safe. It was lost, it was found it, it was safe. I was I was just, like, tell me the name of your supervisor. Tell me the name of that supervisor’s supervisor. I got the guy's name. I immediately wrote his bosses. He helped me so much, this is unbelievable what he just did for me. Then I went into the conference room and I just sat down and just bawled. And all of the stress of the last two weeks and of that night in particular just poured out. I have never had anything like that happen to me before. It was probably somewhat akin to, like, I don't know what what you were clinically call it? I don't know if that was a nervous breakdown or what, but I had a real moment right there. And then I called my wife and I told her everything that happened, and we talked about it. 


And then I work till probably 2 or 3 in the morning and I got it to a point where I was really pleased with it, and I sent write an email saying as much and telling him what a wonderful job he had done with the story and I pass it on. And the president of the company was so satisfied with the story that he actually demanded that it be reprinted in a separate magazine that would appear the New Orleans Times-Picayune so that everybody in New Orleans could have access to it too. And aside from the piece on Ted Williams, I think that the story of New Orleans is one of Wright’s Thompson's absolute signature pieces. 


Now That's a Great Story is produced by Jeff Willet. If you like this podcast or any other podcast please, rate and review it wherever it is it to listen to podcast if you'd like a short newsletter from me the details what I'm learning from other writers, the wisdom that inspires me and might inspire you, head over to to sign up for my newsletter. I'll be back next week with more episodes. Until then, have a good one everybody.

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