Monday
Jul022012

Just one question for Lee Jenkins

Here's his cover story on LeBron and the Heat in this week's SI:

Jamie Epstein and Shaun Kolnick were married last Saturday night at the Ritz Carlton in Coconut Grove, Fla., and when the young couple arrived at the grand ballroom, they spotted an uninvited guest on the terrace. LeBron James sat among the swaying palm trees, his two sons climbing over him like help defenders, seven-year-old LeBron Jr. on his lap and five-year-old Bryce Maximus on his knee. The boys nibbled chicken fingers and dipped them in maple syrup, to their father's playful disgust. Members of the wedding party, about 20 deep in tuxedos and gowns, fought to press their noses to the window.

Doesn't it feel like Lee has a story like this in pretty much every issue? How does he do it? I wanted to know. So I asked him: How do you write so well ... so FAST? And he said:

Thanks. Like most of us, I came up through newspapers, on beats where you get 20 minutes to turn around a game story and less if there are extra innings. At SI, I usually get weeks to craft a feature, which should be a tremendous advantage. But time induces a different kind of madness, endless rough drafts and self edits, a hundred word changes and transition tweaks. When I look at the final version, it’s a lot cleaner than what I used to do in 20 minutes, but often more mechanical.

At SI, the equivalent of the newspaper gamers are the event stories we turn around in one night, most common in the playoffs. The night starts after your final interview -- usually in front of a blank screen at a cluttered desk in a downtown Marriott -- and ends 2,500 words later, at 8 a.m. EST, when the editors are filing off the subway in New York. There is no time to craft, to second-guess a lead, to worry about repeated words. You just write. I consider a structure, but typically, I flash back to my newspaper upbringing and just go with the best stuff first. I find freedom in deadlines. They lower expectations somewhat -- maybe that’s bad to admit -- and push me out of my own head.

A lot of writers at our magazine, and your site, can riff on deadline. Unfortunately, I’m not one of them. My greatest fear is a screen that’s still blank at sunrise. I’ll spend a week collecting material, arranging it in a way that’s easy to access quickly, highlighting parts I expect to be relevant. Personal comforts matter, too, when you’re sitting in the same chair for eight hours with an anvil over your head. I need my Bose headphones, my Vanderbilt basketball shorts, a row of granola bars and water bottles. If the notebook is full and the reporting is good, the writing can be exhilarating, like a purge.

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