When You Rise: Interview with Jim Cavan

Column: De Otra Parte

Albert-Charles Tissandier, drawing for an illustration in "Yoyages du Flandre," graphite and brush and wash, n.d., The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1960, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Conversation with recovering sportswriter and emerging memoirist, Jim Cavan, about the industry, the craft, and how a rare cancer has affected his family.

“To approach the other in conversation is to welcome his expression, in which at each instant he overflows the idea a thought would carry away from it. It is therefore to receive from the Other beyond the capacity of the I, which means exactly: to have the idea of infinity.”
Emmanuel LevinasTotality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority –

JIM CAVAN is a recovering sportswriter whose work has appeared at Catapult, ESPN.com, SI.com, The Cauldron, Grantland, SB Nation, Narratively, Eeephus, and the New York Times, among others. He’s currently working on a book, tentatively titled When You Rise: A Memoir of Love and Loss.

He lives in Maine with his wife and two-year-old daughter.

The last time Jim and I encountered each other face to face was 2014. We stood on the grounds of a centuries-old Portsmouth cemetery chewing on bite-sized pieces of hermeneutics, existentialism, and what tasted like left-over Marxism when we discussed work, as philosophy grads tend to do even a decade after leaving their alma mater. We reminisced about one of our former professor’s favorite expressions—”That’s galloping bullshit!”—and how another loved to speak about himself in the third person, especially when discussing his own mortality.

The cemetery wasn’t our destination. We just kind of stumbled upon it. According to my wife, it appeared we didn’t even know we were there. That’s how entranced we were: lost (maybe found?) in the infinite. We weren’t following a map, just the thread of the conversation as we walked the seaside fields, cobblestone streets, and brick sidewalks of this quaint New Hampshire town.

“How about that time Prof. S- had us stare into a classmate’s eyes for like five-minutes-straight to better understand Totality and Infinity by Levinas…”

“..so we could better grasp the idea that all ethics derives from a confrontation with the Other. How could I forget!”

“Which class was that?”

“I think it was our Philosophy of Money course.”

“I think you’re right.”

“Are you still writing these days?”

“You bet. Finally decided to dive in head first. And you? Still writing poetry?”

And so the conversation went, sprinkled with several jump shots and layups about what X had been up to and “Did you hear that Y is now living in Brooklyn” kind of catching up, and I vaguely remember being teased about my acquired Canadian slang or slight accent after having made the big move to British Columbia from New Hampshire. In this manner, we made our way from the café to the cemetery near the park, recounting stories and reopening the wounds of adult friendship—not of lingering fights, but of distance.

“I forgot how much I miss my old group of friends. I miss having face-to-face relationships with them,” I told my wife that evening at our Airbnb a few blocks from the café, a few blocks from the cemetery, a few blocks from my past, a few blocks from what-my-life-may-have-been-like-if-I’d-remained.

Fortunately nostalgia is no longer looked upon as a mental disorder. If it was, I would have been committed long ago; kicking and thrashing my arms as if attacked by a great white off the California coast, but kicking and thrashing nonetheless.

But no recounting or philosophizing—no matter how many minutes one could stare them in the face or how many Others were confronted—could prepare a human for what was to engulf Jim’s family in a few weeks’ time.

“I have to get going. Deana and Rett are expecting me.”

As Jim rose from his chair, I saw on his face the sort of smile only the father of a newborn can make when he’s still getting used to saying his son’s name out loud.

With our goodbyes, however, the last shades of summer waned, waiting to give birth to a heartbreaking autumn.

It has now been four years since that face-to-face stroll through Portsmouth. Many seasons have passed.

Below is a follow-up conversation with my friend, which fills in the gaps of those four years—years of love and loss, but also of rising resilience.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Julián Esteban Torres López: You consider yourself a recovering sportswriter. Why recovering?

Jim Cavan

Jim Cavan: The bottom has fallen out of the business in a precipitous way, and I personally know dozens of people who suffered jarring landings because of it. When people are willing to create stuff for free, earning a living wage in pursuit of that craft becomes profoundly difficult. My leaving the industry had less to do with broader economic factors—apparent though they were—and more to do with panicky politics and poor decision-making. Not sure I can say much more without violating the terms of my NDA. Which is frankly a sentence I never thought I’d say. It’s a long story that’s still being written, weird as that sounds. I don’t think I’ll be back in any significant capacity. I achieved much of what I set out to do and wrote things of which I remain beamingly proud. And I only hold one or two grudges.

I suppose there’s a writer’s rehab element to the whole “recovering” thing. For years sportswriting was like a nightly fix, a way to ransack the blood with something other than PR copy, a drug that was edgy and fun. In the end, I just ended up chasing way too big a dragon, and the fucking thing charred and swallowed me whole. That’s probably a touch dramatic. Anyway, getting axed the way I did forced me back to basics. Clarity. Concision. Finding a thread and letting it weave. I can’t categorically say I’d never go back to sportswriting, but if and when I do it’ll be with tempered expectations.

JETL:      Did you always want to be a sportswriter?

JC:      I was about nine or 10 when I first talked about writing for Sports Illustrated. I used to devour the morning paper’s sports section and believed that, should my dreams of playing in the NBA not pan out, sportswriting was a sound parachute. I spent my pre-literature formative years devouring books about basketball, which was and remains a true passion.

By 16 or so I’d become a bit more ambitious in my designs. I was getting heavy into Kerouac, Kesey, Vonnegut—typical counterculture fodder. I knew I wanted to write, but sports suddenly seemed too low a bar. Which just goes to show how bad I was about seeking out great sportswriters. I don’t think I discovered Halberstam or DeFord until college. But my worldview was broadening, relative to my staid suburban station, anyway, and sports kind of got filed to the periphery.

It wasn’t until I started writing posts for Knickerblogger, around 2010, that I really gave the form a go. I’d found an outlet that let me do basically anything I wanted: game recaps written “on hallucinogens” (it was probably three beers, tops); player profiles that strained the boundaries of good taste; gonzo recounting of attending the NBA draft with an ESPN press pass. I realized pretty early on that, if I had any “beat” at all, it was writing things with the express purpose of not taking sports seriously. Unless they warranted serious takes, in which case I afforded it the appropriate treatment. But mostly I just wanted people to laugh.

JETL:      What’s your favorite sports piece you’ve written?

JC:      During my time with The Cauldron I wrote a five-part series about football called “Heart of Darkness” (HOD). A lame-ass title, I know. It’s absurdist fiction, with each piece tackling a different aspect of our depraved national pastime—college, pro, Pop Warner. Totally batshit stuff, and I’m still amazed they let me run it. But I think there’s a point to it all, beyond just bending the limits of what sportswriting can be. Part of me wants to package the whole thing in a proposal and see if there are any takers. I think it would make a good book. But I also start the coffee maker without a pot at least once a week.

Football’s at a kind of crisis inflection point, between the naked militarism and fascist approach to player politics, to say nothing of the fact that the game is literally causing bereaved wives and children to cut the brains out of their dead loved ones to determine how much damage the game inflicted on them. The whole thing is a sprawling, tragic cartoon, and HOD was written with the express intent of amplifying that feeling. It’s the one thing I’ve written that, whenever I re-read one or another installment, makes me laugh out loud. That’s not something I do. Quite frankly, I loathe a lot of the shit I’ve written. But I’ll always love HOD. It was my last and best attempt at infusing strains of truth into something otherwise irretrievably absurd.

JETL:      You have a degree in philosophy, which I would think is out of the ordinary for a sportswriter (maybe I’m way off here). How does philosophy infuse your writing?

JC:      I wouldn’t say philosophy infused my writing so much as informed how I approach writing. Philosophy taught me how to think; how to form an argument; how to ask the right questions. It’s a discipline that requires a completely different tone and tenor of writing, one I’ve all but lost—or lost interest in. That said, you can’t write without thinking, and so there’s a foundational way in which reading and discussing that material made me a better writer.

I also think studying philosophy helped calcify what was kind of a scattershot worldview, affirming some beliefs while throwing others through a pretty humbling ringer. Which is what a good college education should do, right? My dad would always quip to friends and family that “Jim turned left out of the driveway and never looked back,” and, yeah, pretty much. I like to think philosophy tempered my romanticism a bit. I used to think nihilists were just lazy misanthropes who discovered heavy metal way too early in life. Now I kinda get it. I rail against it with every neuron I can muster. But I get it.

JETL:      What’s your writing process like?

JC:      I work on my non-9-to-5 things mostly at night, though the room or venue often changes. During the summer months, I’ve taken to writing in an air three-season porch at the back of the house. Strange as it sounds, I’m at my most productive on nights when the day’s humidity creates a kind of sweatbox feel. I turn the fans as high as they’ll go and my shirt still sticks to my skin. Whether it’s full of water or booze the glass sweats a pool around the coaster. I imagine this is what all the writers bound to southern climes must’ve felt every day—Faulkner, Marquez, McCarthy. I can’t explain it, but it works.

As for process, I do a majority of my editing in real time: writing a sentence; deleting half of it; writing the next sentence; swapping out one clause in the first for the second in the other. I’m more concerned with precision and sound of words than any kind of economy, and so any tweaks done to the “final” copy tend to be more cosmetic than structural. Some people are built for stream-of-conscious sprints, but I’ve never been one of them.

And that’s okay; I enjoy the rigor of scrutinizing every word, though I try not to lean too heavily on a thesaurus. I think writing that is complex in both structure and substance risks a unique kind of alienation, so I try to stick to the former if I can. People can maneuver through idiosyncrasies of structure; after a few pages, they’ll get the flow you’re after. Use too many five-dollar words, however, you’re liable to lose more people than you keep.

JETL:      What advice would you give budding or aspiring sportswriters?

JC:      Uh, run away.

Jokes aside, if you really want to earn anything in this industry beyond a byline and Facebook thumbs, you have to be willing to do it for free—for years, even. This isn’t something you can mail in once a week and hope to get noticed. Pitch, pitch, and pitch some more. Work the contacts you have to open whatever doors you can find, even if it seems like you can’t even fit a finger in the crack, and even if you come across as obnoxiously ambitious. Also: find a niche. Even if you love statistics, which even for a kid who got a D in pre-calculus offers an endlessly fascinating rabbit hole, give those numbers a voice.

More broadly, understand from the onset what you’re getting into. People have spent the last 20 years figuring out how to effectively monetize sportswriting—and online content writ large, for that matter—and I’m not sure they’re any closer now than they were back when GeoCities was a thing. Frankly, it’s amazing to me that companies continue to shell out millions to advertise on platforms where people go out of their way to, you know, avoid advertising. So you’re essentially relying on the continued stupidity of these six-figure marketing suits whose job it is to spend money the company doesn’t know what else to do with.

Patreon is an interesting model, letting writers solicit donations directly, but finding 1,000 people to chip in $3 a month isn’t as easy as it sounds. Plus you can’t rely on a giant outlet like ESPN or Bleacher Report or whatever to disseminate your work and garner you a greater audience. So it’s tough, but if you’re willing to scratch and claw for every gig and follower, or you’re content with it being nothing more than a passion project with the occasional five seconds of sports internet fame, I say go for it.

But seriously, don’t.

JETL:      You’ve worked with some important organizations in your industry. What stands out the most for you from these experiences?

JC:      I think it’s the creative latitude I was able to negotiate. Obviously, I couldn’t write anything like HOD for the Times, but I was always looking for ways to talk about sports in unique and interesting ways—to stake out some slice of turf that didn’t already have 15 tents pitched across it. I think I was able to do it, in large part because my editors gave me such a long leash. I’ll forever be grateful for that.

More importantly, I met some incredible people, many of whom are friends to this day. And what we all had in common was this experience of having kind of stumbled on the medium by accident—a hobby we quickly realized we wanted to make a career. Robert Silverman, my colleague at Knickerblogger: he was a professional stage actor. Steve McPherson was—and is—an incredible musician. Jamie O’Grady is a lawyer. I could name dozens more. Hyper-talented people who came to sportswriting at a time when, if you were willing to work for little to no money, the business gave you room to write and say what you wanted without reprisal. Even if most of our interactions were through Twitter, we felt part of something—something profoundly weird and ephemeral, but a community through and through.

JETL:      What other literary genres do you enjoy writing?

JC:      I’ve sort of gotten away from poetry the last year, but it’s something I’ve been returning to intermittently since I was 15 or so. I’m currently working on a memoir about our family’s experience with cancer and all that’s happened since, so most of my reading and writing lately has been in the creative nonfiction space. That said, as I talked about earlier, the writing style is purposefully poetical, in a way that ancient songs or laments could be poetic without having a discernable rhyme or meter. I really should be spending more time on actual poetry, but it’s one of those things that tend to resurface unpredictably and in broad waves. I learned long ago not to try and force the issue.

I have a few ideas in mind for a novel, but I want to hunker down and give the memoir its loving due before I turn my attention to something else. Years ago I wrote the first few chapters of what I thought would be the first—a novel about the modern kitchen, which I imagined being a stylistic and thematic homage to Upton Sinclair—so maybe I’ll regather the reins on that one.

JETL:      Writing memoirs is a very intimate experience. Your piece “When We Knew Our Boy Was Slipping Away” tackles probably one of the most difficult experiences any parent would have to go through: the loss of a child. What do you find is the most difficult thing about writing memoirs than other kinds of writing?

JC:      I would say the challenge of balancing accuracy and narrative impact. While my wife and I were pretty diligent about writing Facebook posts and journal entries during our son’s cancer journey, the granularity of memory is a bit lacking. Trauma tends to have that effect. Filling in those gaps requires one to take a bit of creative liberty. At the same time, you owe your audience an earnest attempt at authenticity. No memoir is ever completely tethered to fact, but the allowances you afford need to be carefully considered.

As far as the subject matter itself, you quickly find yourself confronting a rather absurd dilemma, which is, “How can I make this unique and better than all the other grief memoirs that are out there?” As if suffering is some sort of writerly competition. It’s true that the genre is ascendant right now, and there’s really only a set amount of bandwidth people are willing to spend on sad stories, but you have to make a concerted effort to not get caught up in that kind of calculus. I don’t want the structure and style and voice to be affectations for the sake of being different; I want them to stand as the right structure and style and voice for this book. That is, I want people to read it because it speaks to them or tells them something, not because it’s different qua different.

JETL:      You said you’re currently writing a book-length memoir about your family’s experience. What made you decide to write the book?

JC:      I think it’s a natural part of the grieving process to want to have something that helps you keep your loved one’s memory alive. When I’m writing the book, every other thought is about Rett; I see his face and hear his cries and remember what it was like watching him endure that hellish four months. Calling it cathartic might be a bit cliché, but that’s definitely part of it. It’s as much about setting aside that time to commune with him as it is crossing some far-off finish line. At the risk of speaking for her, I think Deana approaches running Rett’s Roost from a similarly nurturing perspective. They’re our ways of trying to bridge the cosmic gap by saying, “You’ll always be our son, and even though we can’t physically raise you, we can nurture your memory—and that memory can grow and evolve.”

And yet, the structure of the book, with chapters that jump around in both time and emotional pitch, is such that achieving the closure one might find in a more temporally straightforward delivery becomes all but impossible. I want it to mimic the sense of time-suspension one often experiences after trauma, where something that happened a month ago feels far more distant than a particularly jarring episode in the hospital.

That’s not to say it doesn’t or shouldn’t end on a hopeful note; it does, which is me coming by my optimism honestly. But I want the experience of reading it to be as jarring as possible, because that’s what watching your child die of cancer feels like: you’re defeated, you’re hopeful, you’re terrified, you’re grateful, you’re sick with fear, you’re utterly convinced he’s going to beat it. And that could be in the course of a single day. I felt it was just as important to capture that feeling—to give the reader the most authentic window possible into the experience—as it was to tell Rett’s story. If all you can handle in a sitting is a single chapter, or even one section of a single chapter, in a weird way I think I’ve done my job. I want this to be a book people put down but keep returning to. Because that’s a huge part of what the grieving process is.

JETL:      Does writing such a book cause an emotional or psychological toll? If so, how do you manage the experience?

JC:      That’s unavoidable, I think. Either you recall a moment with utter clarity, where you’re experiencing that intensity all over again, or you struggle mightily to cobble the memory together, which is painful in a different way; there’s scant chance you’re suddenly going to conjure it anew, so all you have are educated guesses. All in addition to the standard-issue existential skirmishes one might expect. Why was Rett the one-in-a-million? Is this some sort of cosmic retribution?

I’m no nihilist, but I’d be lying if I said I haven’t let my mind wade in those waters a bit. But I’ve somehow managed to reel myself back to some or another comforting story. Which isn’t to say I believe—in the biblical sense—whatever story I happen to be telling myself. That the number of cardinal squares in his chart proves this was the last of his earthly lives and as such he wasn’t meant to be here long, or whatever. But the idea that this or any one of a hundred other stories could be the right one—it legit helps me sleep at night.

Honestly, it helps not having a defined timetable, but regardless of how long the project takes, there are certain events and episodes I know will be a draining plod. There are few things more jarring and life shredding than watching an infant suffer. In a situation like that, their only communicative recourse is to cry, to scream, to wail. They can’t articulate their thoughts or feelings in a way conducive to easy communication. Revisiting that is torture, but doing so is necessary in order to process it faithfully.

JETL:      What is Rett’s Roost?

JC:      We started Rett’s Roost a few months after Everett passed, just after what would’ve been his first birthday. We’d been incredibly fortunate to not incur any medical expenses, and so we wound up with this massive GoFundMe that was started on our behalf and sort of took on a life of its own. We knew we wanted to do something with it, something in his name and honor, whether he survived or not. The idea of hosting retreats for cancer families emerged over time, but I think it was partly the product of an inherent desire to be around others who’ve suffered what you have. Which is about as deep-seatedly human as it gets, I think.

We hosted our first retreat in June of 2015, for five families whose children were either in remission or off treatment. We chose a retreat center in Western Massachusetts just south of the Vermont border: Angel’s REST. It’s an absolutely stunning property, with three house-sized living quarters set upon this small but sheer hill with woodlands below and a commanding view from above. There were a few hitches here and there, but all told the weekend went remarkably well; we quickly realized we were on the right path.

We’re now in our fourth year of running retreats for cancer families—survivors as well as those who’ve lost a child. The retreats run a long weekend and include everything from grief counseling to art therapy to beers around a campfire. Rett’s Roost for everything: the food, the space, the activities, the counseling, and in some cases travel expenses. Relaxing isn’t the right word, given how difficult it is to share your trauma with a group of strangers, but we wanted our retreats to be as stress-free as possible. Don’t worry about cooking or cleaning. Try not to think about work or bills. Connect with others on your own terms, but come with the implicit understanding that you will be welcome and that you’re allowed to feel human again.

JETL:      What kind of impact has Rett’s Roost had for you, your family, and the community?

JC:      As I broached a bit earlier, it’s one of the ways in which we’re keeping Rett’s spirit alive, and we hope to continue the work for many years to come. Deana has worked incredibly hard to put the organization on a sustainable footing, and I couldn’t be prouder of her. It’s given us both a tangible, commanding sense of purpose, and brought us into a special circle of people we’ll treasure always.

The feedback from participants has been overwhelmingly positive, though more importantly, we’ve earned their trust enough for them to give us honest and earnest feedback. I think what’s most rewarding to us is watching these families bond over the course of a weekend. Every dynamic is different, but there’s a general trajectory that takes place—a unique human blossoming I’m not sure you’d find under other, more milquetoast circumstances.

A year ago Deana and I—together with her parents—pooled our resources together and bought a house in Ogunquit, Maine, where we’re now hosting most of our retreats. We’ve had three so far this summer, all of which were heart rendering and raw and went remarkably well. Part of the reason we chose Ogunquit was to be close to our community on the New Hampshire-Southern Maine Seacoast. We rely pretty heavily on volunteers, whether friend, family, or stranger, so being part of the town fabric here is something we take very seriously. The organization is bound to change and evolve, in ways picayune and profound, but the space and the town are both conducive to that. We truly feel this is where we’re meant to be, insofar as that story still rings true.

JETL:      Where would you like to see Rett’s Roost in 5 years?

JC:      We’d like to run more retreats, maybe five or six a year. We’re also looking into more daylong workshops, as well as inviting previous Rett’s Roost families to come for mini vacations and explore the area more freely. Running retreats a bit farther afield is certainly intriguing—a few of them a year, maybe, in different places throughout the country.

But even that feels like a strange thing to hope for, you know? To keep meeting families who’ve experienced childhood cancer. There are millions of them, and that fact alone is enough to drain your stomach. I’ll save the director’s cut of this for another time or medium, but simply stated I think the lack of funding for pediatric cancer research is callous and criminal. The medicines and methods are poisonous and woefully outdated, and for those and myriad other reasons I know families will continue suffering the same cruel fate. It’s a community no sane person would ever want to be a part of, but it’s one I hope we’ll never leave because the people within it genuinely appreciate one another—their sadness, their suffering, everything. So long as we still live there, Rett and his story and legacy, and his achingly proud parents will have a place in it, I hope.

JETL:      How can people join or support Rett’s Roost?

JC:      Donations through www.rettsroost.org are certainly welcome. If you find yourself in or around Southern Maine, we’re always looking for volunteers to help out on retreat weekends. More immediately, if you know any families that might be interested in what we do, by all means, make that connection.

JETL:      Why do you expose yourself in the name of literature?

JC:      There’s a hope, however naïve, that one’s artistic intention will resonate; that someone somewhere might take your book to bed with them. We all seek acknowledgment, vindication, validation, pats on the back and gushy tweets, but those things seldom come free. We barter emotional freedom that others might bear witness to us, as we are and definitely aren’t. Doomsdayers who stand on a street corner spitting paranoid rants into the sky, batshit as they might sound, just want someone to hear something.

As for the craft of writing, that reach for lyrical prose is something I believe is ripe for renaissance. Much of what I’m doing right now is aimed at having what I write—even the smallest passages—someday read aloud. To me, that possibility alone is worth whatever personal or professional rejection rumbles down the pike. I’d rather have an audiobook of my work shot into space than the printed word itself. If a passing spacecraft retrieved the pod, I’d want them to use what they hear to write their own story, rather try and understand my story by running it through Rosetta Stone.

JETL:      Speaking of stumbling upon the stories of others, what novel changed your life?

JC:      On the Road by Jack Kerouac. I was 15 or 16, which is a pretty ripe age for wanderlust to root itself. The prose blew my mind, and the persona of Sal sent me down a literary path that informed much of my experience thereafter.

JETL:      What are you reading right now?

JC:      Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology. I’ve found it a delightful primer to a canon I’ve long wondered at from a somewhat stuffy distance.

JETL:      What do you think is the greatest invention?

JC:      The Gutenberg press, obvs.

JETL:      What have you changed your mind about?

JC:      I no longer believe that most people are good at heart.

JETL:      What are you optimistic about?

JC:      That people can find it in their hearts to be good.

JETL:      What are you working on right now to get better at or improve?

JC:      Patience. It’s my eternal struggle.

JETL:      What do you regret doing or not doing in terms of your career?

JC:      Not writing more straightforward fiction early on. The whole exercise felt so terrifying for so long; for whatever reason, philosophy and nonfiction felt safer, like being wrong was the worst thing that could happen. The risk of being bad felt—and still feels—somehow worse.

JETL:      What’s your favorite city?

JC:      Lisbon, Portugal. It’s a place that wears its history like a fraying veil, and I fell in love on first sight.

JETL:      What do you believe but cannot prove?

JC:      I’m a bit of deist at heart, but that’s not exactly bold. I believe consciousness infinite. I’ll leave it at that.

Please read Jim Cavan’s piece “When We Knew Our Son Was Slipping Away,” published in Catapult, by clicking on the image below. Follow him on Twitter.

Artwork by Becca Ling.
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