Groundbreaking sports journalist Christine Brennan spoke to a standing-room-only crowd of students, faculty, alumni and parents in The Hill School Memorial Room on the evening of Thursday, Sept. 24.
Brennan kicked off the new “Writers at Work” series sponsored by Hill’s Writing Center under its director, Tony Reid, Hill ’75, a former editor at The Washington Post and the editor of Brennan’s book, Best Seat in The House. As part of Brennan’s talk, Hill’s student “writing fellows” read excerpts from her book.
In introducing his former colleague and the Writers series, Reid acknowledged Brennan’s prominent role as a television sports broadcaster and familiar voice on National Public Radio, but emphasized her primary role as a writer.
“Christine Brennan can be seen and heard only because she can be read; Christine Brennan is a writer,” Reid said.
Keeping an eye on her goals
Brennan shared personal stories that humbly yet poignantly revealed the impact of her rise to success in what generally has been considered a “man’s” profession.
“Growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, I was told ‘women do not do this’ and ‘girls do not play sports or become sports journalists,’ ” she noted, adding that her father helped to nurture her self-confidence and encouraged her to pursue her career dreams. It was her father to whom she turned the first time she was given the chance to enter a men’s locker room for post-game interviews.
His advice? “Maintain eye contact at all times,” she said.
Although opportunities for competition on girls’ sports teams were extremely limited during her childhood and adolescence, Brennan said she has no regrets because she redirected her passion for sports in a useful manner.
“Because I couldn’t play, I became a keener observer,” Brennan explained. She “interviewed” her brother after his Little League games and kept a journal that employed a journalist’s mandate for leading off a story with “who, what, where, when, and how.”
Brennan also came of age during a time when imaginations were fed by listening to games on the radio and forming images of the action in one’s mind -- a time when, she said, rushing home from school or her job to watch the Olympics on television was “magical.”
“Follow your dreams,” Brennan tells students
Brennan said she never thinks of her profession as a “job.”
“I am living my dreams,” she said. “I always had a nose for news…. I care so deeply about what I’m writing about, and I care so much about getting it right.”
Brennan reassured students that writing is, indeed, hard work, even for a professional writer. She recalled how she and Reid spent many hours refining one paragraph of text in her book, often revisiting that particular passage time and again.
“That is what the writing process is like – but, when you find perfection, there is no substitute for how that feels,” she said. Brennan self-deprecatingly remarked that she is “pathological” about checking and rechecking her columns for accuracy, and she recalled a journalism class in which she and her fellow students received automatic Fs for misspelled names.
Brennan dispensed some “old school” advice about writing, urging students to put pen to paper and write thank-you notes whenever appropriate, rather than dashing off an e-mail or text message.
“When someone receives a hand-written thank you note on a piece of stationery – perhaps after an interview, or after they’ve written a recommendation for you – it will surprise and impress them, and it may help take you where you want to go,” she said.
The reporter responds to questioning
During a brief question-and-answer period, Brennan acknowledged that today’s sports journalists must cover sports figures’ legal troubles and related issues, as sports no longer merely are an escape or pastime, but a mirror of our society. Brennan also boldly predicted that Chicago will be granted the honor of hosting the next Olympics and, during a post-talk reception with Hill students, she said the Eagles’ controversial Michael Vick should be allowed to play – that he has been punished, and he’s now seriously trying to make amends by volunteering with animal rights organizations.
She shared an audience member’s dismay about typographical errors frequently found in newspapers -- but observed that the downsizing occurring at most papers means experienced writers and reporters either are leaving the staffs or being asked to cram more into the course of a day, whether it’s covering a greater number of beats or posting stories on-line as well as writing for the hard copy edition.
“The typos you see may be a symptom of our culture, where we’re always rushing to get it all in,” she said.
Brennan spoke from the heart about her friend, Reid, and how fortunate The Hill School is to have such an experienced, skilled writer in its midst as a resource for its students.
“He is the best editor I ever had,” she said. “You also should know that he always has spoken of his alma mater, The Hill, in the most reverential terms. He truly loves this school.”