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Go There: Lessons In Writing From Dear Old Dad

BY ANDREW MARANISS

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People assume that when your father is a Pulitzer Prize–winning, bestselling author, he must have helped you a lot with your first book.

For a while, I thought he might, too.

I’d email first drafts of my chapters for “Strong Inside” to my mom and dad, and I soon discovered why the messages I’d get back only contained suggestions from my mother: my father understood from the very beginning that I’d feel a whole lot better about my book if I knew I did it without major input from him.

Which isn’t to say that he had no influence. His fingerprints are all over it, but more in the sense of lifelong lessons on reporting and writing: avoid clichés and unnecessary words; find the universal in the particular; do the reporting.

Growing up, the people who came to visit our house for dinner or picnics were mostly journalists—I’d sit around on the periphery of the conversations and listen to the joy everyone took in describing great lead paragraphs, or scooping the competition. (I also remember the time Bob Woodward brought my sister and I some 45-RPM records, including “Safety Dance,” and the time Sarah and I tried to trick John Feinstein into eating a dog biscuit). Growing up in the home of a Washington Post journalist meant reading a great newspaper every morning—and reading great writing is the best way to learn to write. (Another childhood memory: Each morning, I’d spread the Post out on the dining room table, read the sports section first, and our family sheepdog, Maggie, would hop up on the table, park her body on top of the rest of the paper, and then lap up the milk from my cereal bowl when I was nearly done. Wow.)

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My father did not become a published author until after I graduated from college, but one of the lessons I’ve picked up from him in this later stage of his writing career is the concept of “go there.” For him, that meant traveling to Vietnam for one book, moving to Green Bay, Wisconsin, for the winter for another, and flying to Kenya, Indonesia, Hawaii and Kansas for his bio of Barack Obama.

In my case, going there meant two things: seeing my adopted hometown of Nashville through the eyes of my subject, Perry Wallace, and trying to travel back in time to the 1960s in as many ways as possible. On the time-travel side, I set my satellite radio to the 1960s channel and spent my 45-minute commutes to my “day job” listening to the songs Wallace and his contemporaries would have heard while he was making history as the first African American basketball player in the Southeastern Conference. I watched movies from the period, and read books about the Sixties that had nothing to do with Wallace’s story but shed light on the culture of the times in interesting ways (in addition to my dad’s many books that are set in the decade, one of my favorites was Mark Harris’ book, Pictures at a Revolution, on the five movies nominated for Oscars in 1967).

It was seeing Nashville through Perry Wallace’s eyes that produced the most valuable anecdotes for the book. I’ll forever remember the afternoon we spent driving around the town he left 44 years ago. He showed me the houses he grew up in, the parks he played in, the schools he attended. Driving past one house, he saw an old friend sitting on the front porch and jumped out of the car to say hello. Driving past a street corner in a now-fashionable part of town, he explained that in 1955, standing on that same corner, he had been stunned by a carload of white teenagers who pointed a gun out their window at him, pointing it, pointing it, pointing it, as the car slowly made its way around the corner. And as we drove past a baseball field, he asked me to stop the car. We got out, and he pointed to a thicket of rocks and trees behind the outfield fence. “See that rock?” he asked. “That’s where I sat and meditated over my decision whether to go to Vanderbilt.”

Suddenly I was standing next to Perry Wallace in the present, but also sitting next to him on that rock in 1966.

“Go there” indeed. Thank you, Dad.

Andrew Maraniss is the author of the new biography, Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South. His father, David Maraniss, is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist for Washington Post and the author of 10 books.

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Follow Andrew Maraniss on Twitter @trublu24 and at his website, andrewmaraniss.com.

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