Backstory: Trying to explain what life in a wheelchair is like for Eric LeGrand

Editor’s note: This story comes courtesy of Mark Selig. Mark is a journalism graduate student at the University of Missouri. As part of his research, he started a blog, Backstory, that analyzes how writers and editors work a story.

From time to time, Mark’s work will be featured on the Sherman Report.

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By Mark Selig

Justin Heckert wanted to write about “the real shit.”

That’s how former football player Eric LeGrand — paralyzed after a freak injury at Rutgers — describes what’s truly going on in his life. Questions like “How’s rehab going,” are general and boring.

But the real shit? That’s what we’re all curious about.

What’s life like for a 25-year-old who talks about women but can’t enjoy sex?

How do you use the bathroom?

That’s the real shit.

Heckert found out what it’s like to be Eric LeGrand after spending four days with the former player and his mother.

Sometimes, when LeGrand explained his situation, he spoke in second person. You do this. You do that.

Heckert thought it might be smart telling LeGrand’s story that way, too.

He wanted the reader to be able to see life as LeGrand, even if they couldn’t literally feel it.

Writing in second person and capturing the real shit were ways to differentiate Heckert’s story from others on LeGrand.

“I just thought that the realer I could make it — good and bad — would be true to what he’s experiencing,” Heckert said.

Second-person (putting the reader in the place of a subject by using the pronoun “you”) doesn’t always sound natural. It can seem forced.

Heckert, a skilled freelancer, used the right touch.

The reason Heckert believes it works for his story is because the reporting is there. He spent four entire days with LeGrand and got an intimate look his life.

“There’s no suppositional second person of me imagining,” Heckert said. “I’m asking him what every bit of this is like that I wrote about. So it’s really from his perspective, but it’s just switched to second-person. None of it is me imposing something on him.”

(Heckert has tried suppositional second-person before. When he was at the University of Missouri, he wrote a magazine story from the perspective of two dogs he watched for days).

With LeGrand, conversation was easy. Heckert felt as comfortable with him as he has any other source in his 13-year career. That also gave him confidence to take the strategy he did.

The story was actually supposed to appear in Esquire, but the editor-and-chief did not want it to run. Esquire gave Heckert a second crack at it, and he wrote it in the more common third person.

His new lede: “Eric LeGrand wanted to watch football. But he couldn’t turn on the TV. That was because of football. He was in the hallway that led to his bedroom, a nylon jacket zipped up to his neck.”

Still, Esquire didn’t want it.

So Heckert presented both efforts to ESPN The Magazine, where he used to be on contract before leaving in 2010 to pursue non-sports stories.

ESPN chose the original, in second-person point of view.

Here’s the lede we all got to see:

IT’S YOUR NOSE this time. You try to do what you can for it, sitting alone in your bedroom, arms resting on each side of a $40,000 wheelchair. You are parked beneath a giant TV, watching football. You scrunch your eyes and flex your cheeks, wriggle each nostril, stretch your mouth, until your entire face is dancing. But the itch won’t go away, so you call out to your ma for the third time in the past hour.

“MAAAAAA!”

 

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