We all age at the same rate, and yet at our own pace.
When one of my closest friends turned 50, he suddenly stopped getting up early for our morning runs because it just seemed pointless to him. My grandmother, meanwhile, drove her Chevette with a vanity license plate letting everyone know she was a “live wire” into her 90s.
Lee Gutkind, the “godfather behind creative nonfiction,” celebrated his 70th birthday by finishing a recently released memoir, “My Last Eight Thousand Days,” that reveals a lot — from him mastering the rope climb in basic training, to flirting with a homosexual tryst the night before his wedding, to realizing late in life that he had worked too hard to isolate himself.
Gutkind, who has written 17 novels, edited 18 anthologies and put Pittsburgh on the map as the home for a type of journalistic writing known as creative nonfiction, still wants to draft that one great book that “might hit a home run rather than just, like most of my other books, getting me to first base.”
Immersing himself in unusual situations — working as a Ringling Brothers clown, spending a baseball season with an umpiring crew, traveling cross-country on a motorcycle and with a truck driver — Gutkind played a key role in developing creative nonfiction into an accepted storytelling style. As a tenured professor in the English Department at the University of Pittsburgh, he started a literary magazine by that name.
The words sound like an oxymoron to many but creative means the writer “may use the tools of fiction, dialogue and description of character and place,” Gutkind explains, while the nonfiction piece requires that “the story is factually accurate and true.” We all recognize this type of long-form journalism now, but in the 1960s and 1970s, it seemed like sacrilege to many writers of fiction and nonfiction to combine the two.
I met Gutkind while working for the Tribune-Review on an investigative piece about liver transplantation more than a decade ago. While working on perhaps his best-known book, “Many Sleepless Nights,” Gutkind spent hours getting to know patients waiting for liver transplants, and flying with Thomas Starzl and his pioneering UPMC transplant team to secure organs.
Gutkind was surprised I had found a copy of the 1988 book, which had been out of circulation for nearly 20 years, and he was gracious with his time and his encouragement for me and my own writing.
His memoir, too, offers insights for people of all ages — inspiration for young journalists to follow their passions, and for older individuals to realize that they still can make meaningful change. To me, still in the middle of my career and life (at least I hope), the book underscores the insecurities we all feel about the choices we have made, the paths taken and those left untrampled.
Recently I talked with an executive who has served as a mentor to me, someone who seems to have figured it all out, and I came away realizing that he too thinks about the choices he made and wonders whether he could have gone further. Apparently, we can all look around wherever we are and see others who have gone a different way and maybe come out ahead by some measurement in our minds.
I look at Gutkind and see a career of successes, a life peppered with unique experiences and interlaced with interesting characters. His memoir reveals that he, instead, has viewed much of his time through insecurities about wanting to do more, to leave a lasting legacy.
Ultimately, now at age 77, Gutkind provides an enduring lesson about working on your passions no matter your age. “I will never give in — and I will never forget how much I might achieve in my life if I continue to try and get better at what I am doing,” he writes. “Not trying, not working to improve, means capitulation.”
Every serious writer dreams of telling one story that will create a spark, elevating the storyteller’s status, cementing their legacy and bringing them untold riches for the many hours of toiling alone.
Gutkind might never have connected for a home run but his life of hitting singles still has run up the score.
Trib calls out racism for what it is
News outlets typically just delete reader comments when they inevitably veer into the vulgar, profane and racist. Not the Tribune-Review.
When faced with reader feedback on a story about Chicago’s mayor, who happens to be Black, it was refreshing to see that the Trib called out the comments as racism publicly, not once but twice.
KDKA reporter leaving
Lisa Washington announced to the New Pittsburgh Courier that she’s leaving the station to work as an evening news anchor in Scranton. At KDKA, she has worked as a reporter with some anchoring duties on weekend mornings, weekday mornings and at noon.
“I was interested in anchoring because it allows me to show more of my personality,” Washington told the Courier. “I think I connect well with people.”
As one of the few Black TV anchors in Pittsburgh, her departure leaves the city again dealing with questions about how it welcomes and retains Black journalists.
Land & Power launches
WESA-FM has launched a new project called Land & Power, which examines how “an apartment complex in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood tells the story of gentrification in America.” The series has played on the air this week but also appears as — and sounds like — a podcast, wherever they are available.
The founding director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University, Andrew Conte writes the On Media column at NEXTpittsburgh with support from The Heinz Endowments. You can find all of his columns here, and you may reach him at PittsburghPublicEditor@gmail.com.