Sportswriter Wright Thompson equates the work of a profile writer to that of a lie detector.
“The one thing I find myself talking about over and over again is the idea that you have to cut through myth and cut through brand,” said Thompson, speaking as the first author in the Willie Morris Writer’s Series at the University of Mississippi School of Journalism and New Media. “Brand is just a fancy name for a lie.”
In an era of hot takes and clickbait, Thompson prides himself on reporting the truth about the people he covers.
“If you’re going to write profiles, I find it’s most interesting to live in the space between the stories they tell about themselves and the stories others tell about them. Figure out where that disconnect is to tell something that is true.”
Thompson’s new book, “The Cost of These Dreams,” is a collection of his explorations of sports celebrities at various points in their careers. Thompson says great stories are often “about the beginning or end of something.” He opens the book with a profile of Michael Jordan as Jordan contemplates turning 50.
“Yes, he’s one of the most famous people in the world, but he’s dealing with something everyone will struggle with — the loss of power and the loss of time — the realization that you are the sum of choices you’ve made.”
Though Thompson writes about some of the most high-flying sports figures in the world, he says all profiles are just two sides of the same coin.
“You want to make Michael Jordan as small and normal and human as possible, but for a normal person you want to find the extraordinary in them.”
Getting Thompson to kick off the Willie Morris series was not a tough sell. Both were born in Mississippi with a love of storytelling. In 1967, Morris became the youngest editor of Harper’s Magazine. He wrote both fiction and non-fiction, including his seminal work “North Toward Home.” Thompson says he decided to become a magazine writer after reading that book.
“He was the editor who first started writing stories like the ones I do,” says Thompson. “Everything you read in magazines is here because Morris wanted Harper’s to be different. He was a fierce enemy of saccharine and cliché and a real fan of empathy.”
Thompson himself is a fierce fan of journalism and says there’s never been a more important time to go out into the world and tell the truth.
“This is an unbelievably tribal time. People hate the media because the media tells people things they disagree with and nobody likes to be told they’re wrong,” says Thompson. “If we’re going to have an American tribe, we’re going to have to take the people standing on this small island of truth and just make it bigger and bigger. Journalists are people standing in the breach.”