People with Passion: Rick Telander

People with Passion: Rick Telander
Rick Telander, Chicago Sun-Times.

A People with Passion series

Chicago journalism

August 18, 2011: Rick Telander

If you know Chicago sports and Chicago sportswriting, chances are great you know Rick Telander. After a four-year football career at Northwestern University, Telander became one of the nation's best-known, most-respected sportswriters in 1976 following the publication of his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Heaven Is a Playground, a book that began in 1973 as a feature for Sports Illustrated. He rejoined the Chicago scene in 1985 as a member of the wonderful Sportswriters on TV program, and then came to the Sun-Times as a columnist in 1995.

In this People with Passion interview from August 18, 2011, Rick talks with Jack M Silverstein about the effects of reading Dr. Seuss as a boy, his love of adventures, and the fusing of travel and writing.

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As I was learning to read, Dr. Seuss blew my mind. It was the first time that I felt an adult understood what a kid might like. Nobody else did. You’re reading Dick and Jane, “See Spot go,” this boring shit that would make anybody fall asleep in school, and then you read Dr. Seuss and it’s like, “This is so cool, man. Give me another book!”

This guy was awesome. Yertle the Turtle, The Cat in the Hat, Bartholomew Cubbins and the Oobleck. I wish I could name all the ones I had, but I had to get them out of the library because we didn’t own very many books then. If you got one, it would be a big present. I’d go to the library quite often and get a lot of Dr. Seuss books. The idea that adults understood kids – some adults, one adult – made me realize that there was a possibility of understanding what other people might like outside yourself. And if you wrote about what you liked, maybe somebody else would like that too, and you’d get that moment, that greatest moment that any reader feels, that little smile on your face as you say, “Yeah, that writer said something exactly the way I would have said it if I could have just thought of it.” I feel this bonding, this connection that is so cool that we’ve all felt. It’s wonderful.

One of the big lessons you learn as a writer is how to keep your audience in mind. It seems like whenever you start to slip away from that, there’s somebody in life – either it’s a reader, an editor, one of your buddies – who says, “Who are you writing for?”

Mm-hmm. (Laughs.)

Did reading Dr. Seuss and knowing “This is an adult writing for kids,” did that influence your perspective on how to reach your audience and how to keep your readers in mind?

You know, it might have. I’ve never put that much thought into that part of it, but I think it’s probably true. I also thought that if this is an adult writing this stuff, he’s got to be writing it for himself too. It was the first time I realized that an adult could think like a kid, and maybe there’s nothing wrong with continuing to think like a kid. Not childishly, but childlike. I think that has to do with the delight that he took in words…

I don’t want to write and not have somebody read it. I just don’t. Emily Dickinson didn’t mind. I find that fascinating. And I can understand it. You want to express yourself so deeply that you don’t care if other people are reading because you need to get that out. Where that creative process merges with journalism is the key area to me. If you can find that place where you’re expressing yourself and you’re really getting out what you have inside of you, whatever that animal is, and you’re doing it with facts, and you’re doing it with the ability to have other people come along and enjoy it, that to me is the epitome, the glory of good journalism.

Plus the adventure of it. I was always an adventure guy. I love adventures. I wanted adventures. I went on adventures. I climbed trees. I read The Wind and the Willows. Toad and his buddies getting in their motorcar and taking off across the countryside was fascinating to me. The adventure. The travel. The journey.

There can be great adventure in journalism. Just as there can be great adventure in sitting alone in a chair and writing, letting your mind travel. I wanted my body to travel too. Being able to write about adventures, you have everything. You had the adventure, and then you had the ability to communicate it. What could be better? That was the genesis – that’s how it started.

Jack M Silverstein is an oral historian working in Chicago. His non-fiction novella Our President about Barack Obama's inauguration is available at Amazon. Say hey on Twitter @ReadJack.

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Enjoy this interview? Click here to read more, as Rick talks about how technology has changed sports and sportswriting, how not to be a cynic, and why he loves sports.

Check back every Wednesday at Eye on Chi for more of Jack M Silverstein's People with Passion interviews with Chicago journalists. Coming up next week: freelance photographer Clayton Hauck.

PREVIOUSLY IN THE SERIES:

August 15, 2011: Mick Dumke, Chicago Reader

December 12, 2008: Alex Kotlowitz (re-edited August 15, 2011)

August 10, 2011: Mary Schmich, Chicago Tribune

August 4, 2011: Rick Kogan, Chicago Tribune

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  • Great work. It's cool to hear what attracted people to writing before they were well-known writers.

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