Part 37: Shooting the Rapids
A Memphis-to-Arbutus adventure serial.
Aside from the emergency health services classes, I’d also registered for an independent study in order to reach full-time status and remain eligible for financial aid at UMBC.
Twice a week, I met one-on-one with legendary feature writer Tom Nugent, who had recently left the Baltimore Sun.
I didn’t know anything about Nugent at the time, nor much about Baltimore and its newspapers.
Known as the “Wild Man of Calvert Street,” Nugent recently told one journalism class that he did little else but write and drink from 1978 to 1983.
According to former Sun feature writer (and Arbutus Patch contributor) Rafael Alvarez, during this time Nugent nearly singlehandedly built the paper’s “women’s pages” into the closest thing the Sun ever had for a features section.
Nugent was a practitioner of “new journalism” along the lines of Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson—vivified, electrified, full-barreled and fearless—often immersing himself in his subjects.
In 1978, Nugent spent a week at the Congress Hotel, a once grand façade that in later years became a haven for lost-soul drunks, the unemployable and other assorted lowlife.
My meetings with Nugent felt like therapy sessions, just the two of us talking in a small conference room in UMBC’s English department. There was no syllabus, no outline, just Nugent and having rambling hour-long conversations on story-telling and the craft of writing.
The first time we met, I brought along two or three things that had been published in The Retriever and an article or two that I had written in Memphis. At the time, my entire portfolio of published work was about a half-dozen amateurishly written clips.
Nugent asked me why I wanted to do an independent study. I explained that I’d published a few things, and thought it would be fun to write as a freelance. But I had no idea how to go about writing and selling an article.
I didn’t know how to come up with a story idea worth selling, or how to write a story worth reading. I love language and I love to read non-fiction. I told Nugent that I’d been browsing The Writer’s Market, the freelancing bible, looking for tips.
“You won’t learn how to write by reading Writer’s Market,” he said. “You learn how to write by writing.”
Writing involved finding your voice, and learning how to use that voice to tell a story, Nugent said.
He took a sheet of paper and drew a series of sharp peaks, like the tips of waves.
“Real life is like white water rafting,” he said. “You can’t possibly describe every wave, every splash and swirl of water. That would be overwhelming.”
Then he took his pen and sliced the tip of each wave on the paper.
“As a writer, you take the reader on a voyage,” he said. “You have a starting point, and you know where you want to end up. In between are these high points of intensity. The craft in writing is in finding and talking about those emotional peaks, using your writing to carry the reader from peak to peak to peak and on down the line to your destination.”
While we talked Nugent also looked over my clips, making notations in pen to point out mistakes such as slipping from present to past tense. He handed the papers back to me and explained his notations, a practice he continued week after week. I’d show him what I’d written lately, and he’d tell me what was wrong with it.
Toward the end of our semester together, Nugent suggested that I might benefit from an internship in a newsroom, to get some real-life experience in working news environment. He said that he could get me an internship with his current employer, the Washington Times.
I knew I didn’t want to be associated with the conservative, Moonie-owned paper in Washington, DC. That wasn’t something I wanted on my record.
“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll see if I can find an internship a little closer to home.”