“When you’re a journalist, you learn pretty quickly how the world works.”
George Mason’s nonfiction MFA students recently had a unique opportunity to meet visiting writer and professor Dick Reavis on the university’s campus in Fairfax, Virginia. A journalist for five decades, his most recent book is entitled Catching Out: The Secret World of Day Laborers, about his experience working various manual-labor jobs through a labor hall with other unemployed Americans. He tends to gravitate towards places and assignments that are gritty, dangerous, and occasionally lawless, resulting in articles that “aren’t quite what orthodox journalism would print.” He’s not afraid of anything. He’s been to jail. He’s been willing to break the law. And, he can approach people that other journalists can’t.
Reavis is truly an investigative reporter, through and through. But he didn’t start out that way, and didn’t really want to write books; rather, he just “fell into it.” In fact, it was the Civil Rights movement that pushed him to write for change. I found the nonchalance in which he began his career to be fascinating. While in college, he didn’t want to be a journalist; he wanted to be in the American Revolution. “I read pamphlets and Marx in college,” he noted. “Not Esquire.” In both his writing and lifestyle, Reavis is a bit of a daredevil, willing to risk his life for an assignment. But there have been many sacrifices he’s made along the way, he warned. “You can’t have a family and do the kind of reporting I do.”
Listening to him speak, I wondered if there was anything Dick Reavis hasn’t done. He traveled with guerrillas in Mexico. He implanted himself with a motorcycle gang. In 1985 he drove all of the roads in Texas for a Texas Monthly assignment. He speaks Spanish fluently and can summon a passage from the Bible to suit any occasion. (“The Bible is the best edited work on earth,” he told us.) In fact, he feels comfortable talking about any kind of journalism—with the exception of sports. “For me, it’s about writing. So it didn’t really matter what [editors] wanted me to do.”
While I enjoyed reading Reavis’ work, hearing him speak really brought out his storytelling abilities. I was enamored by his anecdotes, by his audacity and willingness to go into something wholeheartedly without knowing what the outcome will be. When he was only sixteen years old he studied abroad in Mexico, determined to learn Spanish fluently—a necessity in a journalism career, he says. He grew up near the Mexico/Texas border and noticed as a youth that there were two completely different worlds separated by the Del Rio River. “I had to know that other world,” he said. “I guess I have a little anthropologist in me.” To voraciously desire the knowledge of another world’s inner workings, to immerse yourself in a community that is not yours, to risk your life and the possibility of a family and the comfort of an air conditioned home or cushy office—these are the qualities that set Reavis apart, and made a small part of me feel that I wasn’t doing something right.
I envy Reavis’ career. He’s tapped into populations and places that no one else has dared to before, while many nonfiction writers today tend to gravitate more towards the “me-moir” genre. His prose—rarely ever about himself—was refreshing. He claims that it’s not just inspiration that creates good writing, contrary to what many aspiring writers believe. That’s only what gets you started. It’s all hard work and stamina after that. “You don’t get inspiration by sitting at your desk—you have to get out of your house.”
Do you find that you write best, or are more inspired, when placed in situations out of your comfort zone? How much should a writer sacrifice (a future family, for instance) for craft or career today? How many rules or expectations must be challenged–both personally and professionally–to get “the scoop” or the “real” story?
Traci Cox is the Assistant Nonfiction Editor of Phoebe