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My lunch with a “Realist”

06/13/2010

 

I was supposed to meet Mike Sager noon Friday at The Café, a restaurant inside the La Jolla Museum. I had some idea of what Sager looked like; I’d seen his picture on his website. But our lives had never crossed face to face. All our conversations had been through emails or in phone calls.

Until now.

“Jarred,” Sager called out. I turned around, and there he was. He sported some black sunglasses. He was in charcoal grey shorts with a black sweatshirt and had on black shoes, and he looked European, the embodiment of cultured man: confident, erudite and well mannered.

A few minutes into my talking to Sager I discovered he was a leader, too.

“I’m real,” he told me. “That’s the only way I know how to be.”

He had agreed to meet me after I emailed him and told him how much I admired his work. His invitation, however, took me by surprise. I wasn’t about to say no. Not to him, not to a writer with Mike Sager’s reputation.

After exchanging hellos, he and I sat down for lunch. The first thing we discussed was how to transcribe interviews, a topic I didn’t understand well. He urged me to tape everything, and when I do tape, transcribe everything and not bits and pieces of what I record, he said. A transcriber can help. Use it with a digital or tape recorder, he said.

The information that comes my reporting should be used to flush out the detail of what came out of the interview. I had not heard reporting put quite the way Sager put it. What he told me made sense. The information proved useful, and I’m always looking for information that can help me improve at the craft.

Realizing my inexperience, Sager said improvement comes with experience. The more experience a journalist has the better he should become – better as a writer, reporter and an interviewer.

“Your agenda is not the agenda,” Sager said.

The best writers, he said, feel what their subjects feel. His advice complemented what he said about experience, at least in my eyes. What a writer has to go through helps can put emotion into his writing and give the prose substance. That’s why it’s important for a journalist or a nonfiction writer to have the six senses in his writing.

Once he gets past this and start reporting, he should keep his mouth shut and his eyes open. He should listen to what the subject has to say, which is what I was trying to do during my lunch with Sager. But I’ve always known is that if I listen to people and let them be themselves, I can learn a lot from them. I don’t have to say anything; just pay attention.

“Be a human first,” he said.

Also, establish a connection. When Sager is interviewing someone, he looks at them as if he is on a date. He stares them in the eyes, and he tries to connect with them. If successful with this, the writer can establish an intimacy that gives his story a flow and conversational tone that he would not be able to achieve in reporting that lacked intimacy.

During our lunch, Sager covered a lot of topics, all of it useful to me. He ended our discussion of writing by talking about using myself to wonder what other people are feeling and write to try and understand other people.

All these things can help a writer bring out the best in his writing, and I plan to take all of his advice and use it. I was thankful for his willingness to take time to counsel me on writing. I appreciated every minute he gave me. It was a generous gesture on Sager’s part.

Just as generous was his giving me an autographed copy of the book Wounded Warriors, a collection of his writing. I didn’t expect so much from Sager – not the book, not the advice and not his time.

I gambled when I emailed him, just hoping for a reply. He gave me a lot more, including a free lunch. I had nothing to lose in meeting Mike Sager. I had plenty to gain in trying to tap his wealth of knowledge. I didn’t leave our lunch disappointed.

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