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Parting Shot: Seeking Journalism's Empty Spaces

By Juliet Spies-Gans, Crimson Staff Writer

I’ve gotten used to the sounds of a newsroom. The clicking of a dozen keyboards and the quick, clipped footsteps of writers on deadlines. But this was, necessarily, quite different.

This had beeps to go along with the click-clacks of keys, an intercom that replaced the cross-room shouts of the managing editor. My left arm was squeezed—increasingly so—but I kept on typing. I had just 50 words left to jot down, so I went right on clicking as the room around me stayed humming.

I was 17, a freshman in college, and one of the rookie journalists in the throes of The Harvard Crimson’s comp process. I was working on my first-ever assignment—and I was working from a hospital bed.

The spot wasn’t ideal, but the deadline was set. Seven o’clock. It seemed only fitting that I would finish the article right as the machine unclenched my left arm in a final sigh of release—and, to me, in a sign of congratulations.

I walked away from the room, the building, and the hospital elated. I felt that if I could write in that environment, I could certainly write in a newsroom. And, more importantly, I knew that if I loved writing in that environment—heartbeats monitored, hospital dress and all—I would love, and be passionate about, journalism anywhere I went.

Nearly four years, countless Crimson all-nighters, and quite a few heartbeats later, that initial assumption still rings true. Even though the hospital is no longer in sight, my inclination towards journalism hasn’t waned. It has built as the words typed and the pieces edited have built in their own right.

A couple of months ago, I sat in a near-empty terminal in the Philadelphia airport, waiting for my connecting flight to Jacksonville, Fla. I was on my way to the NCAA Tournament to cover the Harvard men’s basketball team as it took on perennial powerhouse North Carolina. As I sat there, I tried to pen a column on what stood out to me as the salient characteristic of Harvard hoops—a team I had spent the majority of my college career watching and writing about, analyzing and interviewing.

The thing about really good players, I wrote, is that they often turn reporters into pretty poor journalists. I noted that it’s easy to fall into clichés, looking down at your notes after a game and seeing a surfeit of platitudes and truisms stuck between play descriptions, and that it’s easy for your hands to hover, frozen, over your notebook, forgetting to jot down what happened at a given moment as you attempt, instead, to mentally calculate how that player made it from the perimeter to the basket in just one seemingly lazy, careless dribble. I said that it’s easy to finish a graf and realize that you’d already written a very similar sentiment—in just as many words—in a previous gamer, about the same group of players.

I wrote that column thinking back on the 2013 NCAA tournament in Spokane, Wash., when, somehow, the Crimson climbed back into a contest that it had no business fighting in. Down 16 in the second half, the team shot and stole, stifled and scrambled its way into contention, and then into the lead, knocking down shots time and time again in front of a Harvard fan section that was giddy with the game.

The Crimson lost that matchup. The opposing squad had responded to Harvard’s rally, and had undercut the underdog even while the crimson-clad crowd had begun its “I Believe” chant, roaring to the tune of their team’s short-lived, big-stage 18-point comeback.

There was plenty to write about when the final buzzer sounded. But, for a moment, my co-writers and I just sat there, facing the court, hands not typing, pens not moving. Just like those tremendous players that transform your articles into an exercise in clichés, games and moments like we had witnessed in Spokane are just kind of inexpressible in their excess of storylines, indescribable in their glut of narratives.

Throughout the long days and the even longer nights as a student reporter these past four years, I’ve realized that, paradoxically, the moments in journalism that are the most special are the ones when you’re not writing—the ones when you don’t know what to say. These are the empty, blank spaces of journalism, the John Cage’s 4’33” of reporting, when, with the pen suspended above your notebook, you just appreciate the moment you’re in and the art of what you’re doing.

I had one of those moments when I finally arrived in Jacksonville back in March. At halftime of the game, my co-writer turned to me and asked if I needed anything while I began to compose the story. I turned to him and said what I needed was a lede, a first sentence; there was just too much to say, and I was desperate to convey the passion of the at-capacity arena within the dispassionate 12-point, Times New Roman typeface of my word document.

Another one of these instances came in December, when I sat down with my co-chair and tried to figure out how we could sum up a year’s worth of games and grafs, highs and lows in a 750-word column that was to be printed that night. Unable to string together a series of words that would adequately describe the wonderful-yet-gut-punching, thrilling-yet-deflating 12 months we had spent on the paper’s masthead, I thought back to that hospital room I had waited in all those months ago, a time when, similarly, I didn’t know how the story could possibly come together, how I could write in that setting.

But the thing about journalism is that it’s the narrative, not you, that crafts the heart of the story. And by just sitting and absorbing those incommunicable, inexpressible moments, you can often begin to envision the pages of your notebook starting to fill up with your loopy scrawl—you can often begin to see those empty spaces of journalism becoming crowded with syntax and sentiments, with words crossed out and clauses underlined as you try to find the right diction to describe the indescribable.

My time in the halls of The Crimson has centered largely on athletics, but, to me, the term sportswriting contains so much more than just game stories. It’s about finding and expressing the passion inherent in the moment that you’re covering, just as I, four years ago this past September, found my passion in a fluorescent-lit, humming hospital room.

—Staff writer Juliet Spies-Gans can be reached at

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