Journalist Scott Raab reflects on time at CSU
April 19, 2012
Scott Raab has built a successful career as a writer from scratch with help from his time at Cleveland State University, the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop and a little something called passion.
He was cranky and sleep deprived when I spoke with him over the phone two months ago. He was jetlagged from his recent trip to Cleveland, where he was born and raised, and was in the midst of preparing for a big interview with William Shatner the next day. I was just happy he picked up my phone call.
The reason I wanted to speak with him was because, from one journalist to another, I wanted to know how he achieved a successful career. So I began the quest of pummeling him with questions about his past.
“Well, I grew up in Cleveland. I can always remember writing when I was a little kid. It was nonsense at first, most of it poetry. I majored in English at Cleveland State University” Raab said, pausing for reflection, “I have vivid memories of the campus. It looks different now. I have my own sentimental attachments to the Cage. I can see it so clearly in my mind.”
It was only ten minutes into our interview and I could tell I was losing him and boring him. He would rather sleep and my interviewing skills were sucking. I stuck to my quest, though, determined to form a bond and get him to open up.
“Since you didn’t major in journalism, how did that become your passion?” I said.
“I wasn’t interested or even aware of journalism until after my time at CSU. I knew I wanted to be a journalist when I got the opportunity to write op-ed columns for the Daily Iowan. It was amazing when I found out people were reading what I wrote and reacting to it” Raab said.
I understood exactly what he was saying. Not too long ago, I saw a CSU basketball player walking in the halls of the Communication building reading a sports article I wrote for the Stater.
Raab’s first big journalism achievement came when he wrote a national magazine feature, profiling wrestling legend Dan Gable, which ran in Sport in 1988.
Soon after he moved to Philadelphia he began writing for GQ in 1992. He then joined Esquire in 1997, where he works fulltime to this day.
The Whore of Akron (One man’s search for the soul of Lebron James), Raab’s first book, was published in 2011. Who better to write about the turbulent relationship between Cleveland fans and the athletes we so heavily regard? Only a Cleveland native and sports fan, like Raab, could understand the emotional roller coaster of highs and lows the city experienced during the reign and fall of King James.
“I still live with the Browns, the Indians, the Cavaliers, and I will die with them. They were a solace and source of hope when I had no other reason to wake up, and now that I am a man- the father of a twelve-year-old, the husband of a leggy shiksa, a sober alcoholic and drug-free addict- those teams remain a psychic rock, and anchor for my wobbling, fretful soul” Raab said in the first chapter of The Whore of Akron.
This sort of passion for Cleveland and Cleveland sports begs the question “Then why don’t you still live here?”
Long pause… “I want to explain this right, because it will come out all wrong if I don’t” Raab began.
“I’ve thought about moving back to Cleveland. When the book came out, some people called me a hypocrite for criticizing Lebron for leaving Cleveland, when that’s the same thing I did. I left Cleveland in ’84 and I live in Jersey now. No one gave a shit when I left, not even family, but I also didn’t have the hopes and dreams of a city on my back. I always thought I’d come back, but I love my job at Esquire,” Raab continued in his groggy voice,
“Think about it, Cleveland only has one big circulating paper, not a lot of competition. It’s really hard to make a living as a writer in there. Ironically, one of the best writers I know is in Cleveland, his name is John Hyduk. So, it’s not impossible to be a successful writer there, but the odds are against you.”
I let him ramble on. The best advice I ever got, in terms of interviewing, was from Scott Raab in his book.
(I’m paraphrasing here) People are fearful of dead air, it makes them uncomfortable, and they will do anything to fill it. Usually the best answers come from the dead air. If you want someone to talk, don’t fill that space, be patient, and let them fill it.
And filled it he did.
“This is what’s troubling; I’m not sure people in Cleveland have positive attitudes about where they live. Maybe I’m wrong, but the people that I come across seem down on themselves about where they are. I’m not sure the city is as proud as it once was. I wanted my kid to grow up in a positive place” Raab continued nostalgically, “A lot about the good things in Cleveland I remember are only in my mind now. When I first started my book there was such a revitalization of the city. The life and spirit of Cleveland is based a lot around sports, so when the Cavs were doing so well, the city was doing well.”
As a soon to be graduate of Cleveland State University, I am fearful of my job prospects, and the Cleveland atmosphere does nothing to calm my fears. Raab was right. The odds are against me.
It was 35 minutes into our conversation and I pressed on for more information.
He opened up like one of those weird purple flowers on the side of the Cleveland I90 highway.
“What do you dislike about being a journalist?” I asked.
“There’s nothing I hate about my job. I can work out of my house and I don’t have to wear a tie. There’s a lot of flexibility. It pays well if you can find a permanent spot somewhere. I’ve put in many years. I’ve been lucky to have a stable run. Transcribing tapes is the worst part of this job. It’s revolting to listen to myself talk. Interviews can be insincere at times. Or at times it feels like I’m trying to get someone to like me, which is revolting. It feels like I’m showing off sometimes or like I’m too overeager. It can feel really impersonal because I’m trying to get a story, but I want to bond with the person. It makes sense, but it can sound mushy and forced. Just the idea of showing up with a tape recorder just seems rude and inappropriate” Raab said.
I giggled to myself, knowing I would have to transcribe the tape from this interview with Raab, something I was not looking forward to. Sure enough, the sound of my own deep, fat manly-sounding voice is completely revolting.
We were creeping on the one hour mark and Raab turned the tables on me.
“So, do you want to stay in Cleveland and be a writer?” He asked.
I felt like we were two humans having a conversation now, generally interested in one another’s responses.
“I’d like to be able to stay. The majority of people that I love and care about are all here in Cleveland. But I also love to write, and if I can’t find a place for myself in this city as a writer, than I will have no choice but to move” I said in a somewhat depressing tone.
“I understand. You work and go to school fulltime right?” He asked.
“I do. It sucks” I said.
“Well, your work ethic speaks volumes. If you have the passion you’ll be just fine. If there’s ever anything I can do for you or any other questions I can answer, don’t hesitate to call me, okay?” He said.
“I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to speak with me. I really appreciate it” I said.
“It’s no problem, I’m happy to help. Good luck to you, Amanda” Raab said, before hanging up his phone.
Like I suspected and Scott Raab already knows, there’s no big secret to getting a successful career as a writer, only the true standbys for any triumphant quest; work hard, determination, and passion.