Ed Grisamore is as much a fixture in Macon, Georgia as the people and places he writes about each week. His writing is full of the very life and breath of his city. Most folks in Macon grew up on his writing, whether it was from his early days in the sports department or on his weekly columns, which by the way he is closing in on number 3,000. Ed has been with the Macon Telegraph since 1978 and is preparing for his new home on the campus of Mercer University, as part of the new Center for Collaborative Journalism. Ed took some time to answer a few questions about his writing career, his Grammy nomination, and the future of print.
When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?
When I was 7 years old, I published my own family newspaper on Blue Horse notebook paper. We lived in LaGrange, and I called it “The LaGrange Daily News’’ even though it came out about once a month. I wrote the stories and headlines. I even drew my own cartoon strip. I would staple it together and sell it to my mom and dad for 10 cents. My mother, bless her heart, saved every issue. In the 10th grade, my high school English teacher, Mrs. Janet Atwood, encouraged me to join the staff of the school newspaper at Riverwood High School in Atlanta. It was called The Raider’s Digest. I was sports editor. When I was a senior, I won a first-place award in sports writing from the Georgia Scholastic Press Association. It was an affirmation of my life’s calling. I went to the University of Georgia and majored in journalism.
Any other writers in the family?
All three of my sons — Ed, Grant and Jake — are excellent writers. Ed is a songwriter living in Nashville. Grant followed in my footsteps and majored in journalism at UGA. Jake has a talent for writing clever scripts for the stage and theatre. I am very proud of my boys.
You began your career at the Macon Telegraph in the sports department. What did you most enjoy about writing and reporting for that department?
Sports is a wonderful training ground to learn the craft of writing. The late, great Red Smith of The New York Times once said people attend sporting events to have fun. And they read about them in the sports section to have fun again. So sports writers learn to express themselves in a colorful, creative way. They learn to put their fingers on the pulse of the readers. They learn to write under deadline pressure. They learn to get both sides of the story because there is a winner and a loser. They get to travel and meet a lot of people. They do have to work long hours and the workload is tremendous. But it makes them better. They are battle-tested.
What did you enjoy the least?
I was sports editor for three years. I’m glad I did it for the experience, but I tell people the most important thing I learned by being sports editor was that I never wanted to be an editor again. I was not cut out for an administrative job. I missed writing and not being able to get out of the office. That desk was a ball and chain. That’s why I believe writers do themselves a great disservice when they sit in an office, stare at a wall and observe from a distance. I keep a quotation from John Le Carre at arm’s length: “A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.”
What has been your biggest professional honor?
It happens every day when someone tells me they enjoyed something I wrote. I have always said making someone’s refrigerator door is the highest honor in journalism. Winning writing awards is nice, but the greatest moment of my professional life came when I was named recipient of the 2010 Will Rogers Humanitarian Award. It is a national award presented by the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.
I went to Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, to receive it. It recognizes a newspaper columnist for his or her work in their community. That means more to me than any writing award I could ever receive. It is why I do what I do.
Some may not know this, but you were nominated for a Grammy in the Spoken Word category.
It was cool. I was notified by Joey and Jennifer Stuckey, who own Shadow Sound Studio in Macon. They produced my audiobook, “Gris & That.’’ At first, I didn’t allow myself to get to get too excited. I didn’t want to go around referring to myself as a “Grammy Nominee” because I figured there might be lots of “nominees.” And I was right. There were more than 2,000 in the “Spoken Word” category. But when the judging began, the initial list was pared to 105, and I was on it. I made the ballot, just below Garrison Keillor. I didn’t make the final five, so I didn’t get to put on a tuxedo and head for Hollywood for the Grammy Awards. The winner that year (2006) in the Spoken Word category was Jimmy Carter, and I was most upset. After all, he had already been President and won the Nobel Prize. He didn’t need a Grammy. He probably took it back to Plains and put it in a closet. I, on the other hand, had already cleared off a place on my mantel.
In 2008, you were inducted into the Macon Sports Hall of Fame as a writer. How would you rate yourself athletically?
I was the second-fastest kid in the fifth grade. My wife and my children roll their eyes when they hear me tell that story, which is all the time. I played football in high school … a skinny tight end … and ran track. Basketball was my best sport. I dreamed of being the next Pete Maravich. I enjoyed playing baseball and softball, too. I love golf, although I don’t get to play much any more. My Pings are gathering rust in the garage.
One of the most celebrated graphic designers of all time, Milton Glaser, famously said “art is work.” How much of your writing creatively pours out and how much of it is just plain work?
The creative process is simply part of who I am. It’s an extension of my life. My mind never stops working. I wake up thinking about writing stories and go to sleep thinking about my lead paragraph for the next day. The muse is always on my shoulder. Sure, there are times when I struggle. I might be mentally fatigued. Or I might not have great material, so it’s a bit more of a struggle to put it together. But then there are days when I feel like I am taking dictation from God.
Do you know how many columns you’ve written since 1996?
I have averaged about 200 a year since I became a full-time columnist in June 1998, so I’m closing in on 3,000.
Do you have a favorite?
No. I get asked that question all the time. They’re like my children. I don’t love any one of them any more than the other. Columns can have an impact in so many different ways. That’s something I have learned to appreciate.
It’s the day before your column is due and you have nothing – what do you do?
It rarely happens. It did when I first started out. But as I got to know the readers, and they got to know me, I began to get multitudes of story ideas. Now, I probably have five times more stories than I will ever be able to write about. I have a reservoir. That’s a nice problem to have.
Favorite book written by Ed Grisamore?
I have written eight, but my answer is going to be the same as it was with the columns. I love them all equally. Each represents a different part of my writing life.
Favorite book not written by Ed Grisamore?
I don’t like playing favorites, but I’ll go with All Over but the Shoutin’ by Rick Bragg.
The journalism field has changed immensely since you entered in 1978. How has the Telegraph weathered the storm and used the changes to its benefit?
When I was a tenderfoot at the Telegraph, we were using IBM Selectric typewriters. Those were great machines. I can close my eyes and hear them now. When we said “cut and paste” we really meant “cut and paste.” Yes, we have had to weather a few floods, blizzards and tornadoes. It has only toughened our resolve. We have had to learn to adapt and adjust. In some ways, we’ve had to re-invent ourselves.
There is a website dedicated to tracking defunct newspapers. As most newspapers have complimented their print edition with an online edition, do have concerns about the life of print?
Don’t write the obituary. Yet. There will always be a need for writing and newsgathering. That much won’t change – just the way the product is delivered. There is a lot to love about the on-line world. Newspapers can now break stories and compete with TV and radio. We spent the early days trying to pick fights with the Internet, then had to figure out how to make it work to ensure our survival. In many ways, we’re still fighting a war on two fronts. Now, we have a generation of younger readers who will have never read a newspaper anywhere but on a computer, a tablet or a smartphone. That, combined with the rising cost of newsprint, may eventually spell the end for the traditional printing press. R.I.P, Mr. Gutenberg.
What is it you most enjoy about holding a printed newspaper or book in your hand?
The physical experience. It is a connection between the mind, fingers and heart. It is a part of my routine (along with a pot of coffee) every morning. If my newspaper is a few minutes late it throws off my entire day.
When the Telegraph began macon.com, do you remember the general mood around the office?
It was intimidating. We were slow to embrace this brave, new world. I think most newspapers were scared. We were out of our element. We were a horse and buggy parked next to a car. We had to figure out how to hotwire it or where to put the keys in the ignition. We have made great strides but it’s all still a work in progress.
The Telegraph will soon be relocating to the new Collaborative Journalism building on Mercer’s campus. What most excites you about this move?
It will be a team effort between The Telegraph, Mercer and Georgia Public Broadcasting. We will have a lot of eyes on us. We already do. It could be a model for newsrooms of the future. Of course, I have mixed emotions about leaving our building on Broadway. We have been on that corner for 52 years. It’s the only place I’ve ever worked, so I’m sentimental. I can sit in my office in my writing climes, with a small fan blowing my hair like the wind, and look out across at the railroad track and the river. This has served as my writing canvas for the past 14 years. On the flip side, our new digs will be in a brand new building in the Mercer Village. We will share the ground floor with the J-school, and there will be loft apartments above us. The transformation of College Hill has been exciting. We have some great visionaries in this city. We are looking forward to tapping into this energy.
Telegraph Publisher George McCanless has called the new center the “most innovative, collaborative arrangement in America involving public broadcasting, a local daily newspaper, and a private university.” Any reservations about the collaboration?
None at all. This is a win-win situation. We have wisdom and experience to offer these students. We have been out there in the world. We have meat on our bones. In turn, they will bring their youthful enthusiasm and energy to the writing table. I’m sure many of these young people are far more technologically advanced than we are, so they can teach us a few tricks. I have taught writing and journalism at both the college and high school levels, so this will be nothing new for me. I also have children in their teens and 20s, so I can speak their language. Somewhat.
One Final Question
When you wrote your book about Nu-Way, There’s More than One Way to Spell Wiener, did you learn any secrets?
That there really is more than one way to spell it. W-E-I-N-E-R. It took me 11 months to write, and I gained 15 pounds doing the research. It has been the best-selling book I have written, and it will soon be headed for a second printing. I was convinced it was going to be successful. Nu-Way is an icon in Macon. It is part of who we are. Everybody has a Nu-Way story. I also know the secret formula for the chili sauce. But, if I told you, I’d have to kill you.
Learn more about Ed Grisamore and his books on his website.
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