The Good Stuff

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One of the first pieces of writing advice I ever received remains one of the best, and I’ve practiced it daily ever since I was told it as a junior in high school: “You read the good stuff to write the good stuff.”

I practice it daily by trying not to start my writing day until I’ve read something good. Good might seem a bit of a nebulous goal, but I know it when I read it. The good stuff originally came from Sports Illustrated and mainstream print but has now migrated to blogs and websites I have in my reading rotation, which still largely consists of sportswriting.

Annually, the good stuff arrives in The Best American Sports Writing anthology, a compilation that, as the title says, consists of the best work from the previous year. Having your work included is like winning the Heisman or an Emmy for a sportswriter.

This series started the year I graduated high school – 1991 – and I’ve literally grown up with it as a writer. I just picked up the most recent edition as plane reading for my upcoming trip to Hawaii. Past volumes have been my travel books for years. I’d simply grab a few years at random and toss them in my bag and then later re-discover a great read and get engrossed all over again.

And that’s what these books do for writers: they suck you in. They always arrive before Christmas and are always my most anticipated read of the year. My ritual used to find the book at the bookstore, thumb through to see how many selected stories were familiar to me and then immediately rush home to retire to the couch and fall in love with writing all over again. It was always a great escape from the start of winter.

I read ever story and every page, but I never read the book cover to cover. I hop around looking for treasure buried in subjects where I don’t usually tread as a reader: mountain climbing, bowling, chess, etc. These in fact are the stories I usually learn the most from because they’re making me going somewhere I really don’t want to go as a reader, but the storytelling is so compelling, I have to finish.

And I just used the word “learn” and that’s the other things you do with these books a writer. You learn what works, the tricks of the trade and, perhaps mostly important, where the bar is, i.e., what the good stuff really looks like. You know because you’ve just been handed 300-some pages of it.

I could go on and on about favorite stories from these volumes over the years, which would be a fun list to do, but instead I’d like to focus on the other great read you can count on from these books – the foreword.

The foreword is written by the series editor, Glenn Stout, and I liken it to a coach’s pep talk before the big game. Glenn annually uses this space to pontificate on the state of the craft or offer some industry insight before commenting on the compilation of this year’s volume.

His letter gets you excited about writing and even more stoked to read that year’s volume than you already are. Mostly they make you want to get your stuff in next year’s volume.

His foreword this year is particularly great because it reflects on the history of the series. He talks about his experiences with it over the years and how it has now influenced an entire generation of writers – including me and mostly certainly many of my colleagues.

Before his annual solicitation for submissions, he closes with an anecdote that kind of says it all about what this series means to writers. He talks about a sportswriter reading the book on the bus and an aspiring writer noticing and inquiring how to get started in sportswriting. The writer hanfs his him the book and says, “Just read this.” Yep.

In his foreword this year, Glenn also acknowledges the words of appreciation he has received from writers about the series over the years. Mr. Stout, consider this the letter or email I’ve always been meaning to write and have never sent. Probably the highlight of my Twitter experience was finding you on there and being able to follow my unmet mentor in my chosen craft.

I try not to tell people things they already know, but, Glenn, you truly have a dream job, and thanks for fostering the dreams of us writers over the years and reminding us annually what the good stuff really looks like.

Editor’s note: My post-script to this post is that my current collection of these books regrettably stands at one. When I moved to California, I left the majority of my collection behind. I looked at my books and limited myself to one box given that otherwise I moved out here with only my clothes, a TV, my golf clubs and my car.

Parting with those books was tough. They really are your textbooks and you come to cherish them like children. My only solace was I figured they were retrievable in a Kindle world or via a used book store. But while I’ve made the leap to digital with books, I have a feeling I’ll always prefer this book in print. There’s just something about that ability to pick it up, open it at random and be carried away in the dreamy way I wish all writing worked.