Remembering a writing mentor at the Capital Gazette
A gunman shot his way into the Capital Gazette newsroom on June 28, 2018. He killed five people, each of them a beloved colleague, journalist, spouse and parent.
Newsrooms around the country honored the victims with a moment of silence last Thursday. Those killed were editor Rob Hiaasen, 59; writer Wendi Winters, 65; editorial page editor Gerald Fischman, 61; sportswriter John McNamara, 56; and sales assistant Rebecca Smith, 34.
Police have arrested Jarrod Ramos, 38, of Laurel, Maryland, who had a longstanding grudge against the newspaper. Ramos was charged with five counts of murder. Police say they found him hiding under a desk.
This story was originally published in the Baltimore Sun. It has been republished with permission.
Silver-haired and 6-foot-5, the big guy settled in an office chair draped one leg over another, and regarded my newspaper stories on the table. Silence.
I was a young reporter. I had called Rob Hiaasen, the assistant editor at The Capital newspaper in Annapolis, Md., and driven two hours with my stories and thin credentials. Years later, I remember his words. “Forget the resume. Let’s talk about this lead.”
The newsroom scene, in my memory, is warmed by afternoon sunshine, by our deepening talk of the writers and stories I had been reading alone. Rob knew them all; he offered more. Maybe an hour glided by, or maybe not. But I remember a sense of something. Of a beginning.
Rob Hiaasen was my reader that afternoon, and he would stay my trusted reader for the next six years, well after I left him. Rob believed it was a gift to have a reader: someone to spot your wrong turn, take your hand, and walk you back.
He was my reader until a gunman blasted into The Capital newsroom last week, killing five people — some of the most senior journalists — including Rob, 59. He was a longtime features writer, columnist, editor and teacher.
In our few years together, Rob changed the way I saw the work and the world.
Now, I picture him at his desk — which always seemed too small — his sleeves rolled past his elbows, telling me again my own words are getting in the way. “You’re gilding the lily, Tim.”
He showed me the elegance of E.B. White and the humor of John Irving (his favorite author). Journalism needn’t be so far removed from literature. To Rob, we’re all storytellers. Mostly, he taught me to linger and to get lost. The world out there is really something, he would say. Go look.
“He understood the great humanity that is this mess of a world,” said his widow, Maria Hiaasen, a high school English teacher and former journalist, on NBC Nightly News, “and that those stories and those feelings we all have, they matter. And you can follow your heart.”
In his heart, Rob was still a “Florida boy,” though he had lived 25 years in Maryland. When I knew him, his gold earring was the only hint of his old roustabout days scouring the Baltimore waterfront for offbeat tales. He wrote about a lovable ticket scalper, a beer slurping dog, and one shipwrecked houseboat that “sleeps with the fishes.”
He wrote features for 15 years at The Baltimore Sun before accepting a buyout a decade ago. I met him in his second act: editor.
His pal Kevin Cowherd, an author and former Sun columnist, spoke at his memorial service, saying this new Editor Rob had seemed to form a writers’ cult in Annapolis.
I was introduced to Rob’s “Dead Word Society,” his list of lifeless words to be banished from all stories: fiscal, feedback, recently. I carried his worn list in my shirt pocket like a holy relic.
My first story for Rob was 470 words, many of them “dead,” about an impromptu bookstore wedding after snow closed the courthouse. He plucked out one buried detail — bookstore staff set out all the romance novels — polished it off and placed it sparkling at the top.
I’ll always think of certain assignments as a “Rob story.” Those stories, like his wife said, that show a little humanity in a messy world. He taught me to recognize their grace.
He sent me to write about a retirement community enchanted by a wandering peacock, an Annapolis man mistaken for Burt Reynolds, a nudist colony that couldn’t find lifeguards (there’s plenty of humanity in the buff). In about a decade of newspapering, it was the most fun I’ve had.
His lessons filled scraps of paper tacked above my desk: “omit needless words” and “cut for tension.” He saw “bones” in stories and spoke of a “promise of the piece.” He taught me the power of understatement and the force of a repeated phrase. He called it “echo.”
Inside this Cult of Rob, I covered ship selection at the Naval Academy in rhyme. I quoted e.e. cummings in weather stories. When Capital reporter Earl Kelly died without ever slipping his catchphrase past an editor, Rob put it in ink. We printed “rat bastard.”
My last story for Rob was more than 2,400 words, took months of reporting, and revealed the saga of a sunken fishing trawler that been popularized on postcards, in paintings, even on throw pillows. Classic Rob story.
In four years, he had shown me a path to the life I wanted — a life writing about the grace notes around us. One day, he bought me lunch. Rob said he was proud of me, and we hugged.
Then, just like him, I left to write for The Baltimore Sun.
Soon enough, I became discouraged. I went from writing Rob stories to cranking out dispatches on fires and shootings. The work felt cold and mechanical, like I had hit a wall. Maybe leaving him was a mistake?
Late one night, I wrote him. The subject line of his reply was two words: “Wall work.”
“You will be re-positioned in the newsroom in time, and will have more opportunities to tell your stories,” he wrote me. “Learning to identify and scale walls is a true survival skill. But a wall is just a tall test, and if we’re not tested occasionally, there is no learning.”
I began to find my stories. Well, Rob’s stories. I wrote of a city cop who befriended a 98-year-old widow, a Johns Hopkins University scholar who came from remote bushlands in Africa, a baby who survived a bullet in the womb.
Rob would pluck out his favorite lines and send them to me. He was still my reader.
“Looks like you are doing great at The Sun,” he wrote. “I knew you would.”
When we spoke, he would ask the question at the heart of it all. “Are you doing the stories you love?”
Last summer, he sent me the draft of his novel, “Float Plan,” asking for my thoughts. He begins with a quote: “We peak twice in life — at our first breath and our last. Everything in between is hard candy.”
Like his columns and stories, his novel made you laugh and cry. I wrote him back with edits and encouragement. I told him the novel was lovely.
It’s hard to think about the violence in which he died. The barricaded door, the pump-action shotgun, the smoke grenades. That hard candy.
One day later, I read back through our emails, remembering one: his answer to my edits on the novel. His voice comforts me.
Rob thanked me for the gift I had given him. I had become his reader.
Lessons from the writing Cult of Rob
Rob Hiaasen shared his life's craft of writing with many young journalists and students. These are some of his favorite lessons.
Find humanity in whatever you're writing.
Don't gild the lily - let the reporting shine, not the writing.
Remember Strunk and White: omit needless words.
Modifiers like adverbs and adjectives are crutches; find the right noun or verb.
Echo: repeat a distinct word or phrase in a choice spot.
You may need bones or scaffolding to structure. Write it in, cut it out.
Cut for tension.
Be most spare in moments with the most emotion.
What is the 'promise of the piece?' Great stories have meaning deeper than a nutgraf.
Above all: Are you doing the stories you love?