You know those pin-dot graphics that the data dudes produce that show how things are both clustered and connected? Things like who uses Twitter, or COVID rates in red- and blue-voting districts. This week I’ve been wondering how cool it would be if something like that could be put together that showed how one person touched others upon others upon others in ways that made a difference for the rest of their lives. Or maybe instead of a pin-dot graphic, we would need to track a truly elaborate version of Six Degrees of Separation. Because in the world of journalistic writing, I bet a whole lot of people to track a connection to Don Fry.
His full name was Donald K. Fry, something I didn’t know until I read teh tribute to him last week by his longtime teacher, student, colleague and friend, Roy Peter Clark. I simply knew him as Don Fry, and usually called him by both names, as if they were one. To me, Don Fry was too big an influence and too certain a presence to be called by a single, common syllable. Had I ever been a formal student of his, back when he taught medieval English literature, I’m sure I never would have gotten past Professor Fry. So even though I was well into my career when I finally met him, my honorific, if you will, became “Don Fry.”
Don Fry died last week at age 84. He is one more of those whom I consider among the master class of journalists and journalism educators who are passing. (Long-time Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt also died last Monday, Dec. 6. He was 66.) Whether you did or didn’t know Don Fry, I urge you to read Clark’s tribute linked above; it will either introduce you to a remarkable force in the world of narrative nonfiction, or remind you of the serendipitous connections in your life. It’s quite likely someone who influenced you was influenced by him.
I may have first met Don Fry at The Poynter Institute, where he taught for many years. But the memory that sticks is from a writing workshop held in Delaware many years ago. I believe it was the pilot to what became the renowned National Writers’ Workshops that were co-hosted by Poynter around the country. Don Fry was a presenter and, at some point, coaxed me into joining him on stage — although from him, it felt more like an order. I was, in a word, daunted. Don Fry always seemed to do everything he did with unapologetic certitude. I didn’t agree with everything he said that day; some of it seemed unrealistic for the daily grind of reporting work I often had to do. Ditch the inverted pyramid? Ha! Tell my editors that. Write without looking at my notebook? I am nothing without my notebook. Start my stories with the last paragraph and work backwards from there? Sure, and I’ll type while standing on my head.
Over the years, though, as I sat through more and more of Fry’s workshops at Poynter or on the road, I saw the genius of his mad-sounding methods — what he called “process.” There’s no way I can capture it all here. Nor do I have to, because Don Fry left it to us, in the Poynter archives, in his blog and some of the most useful journalism books on the market. I especially recommend “Writing Your Own Way: Creating a Writing Process That Works for You.” It’s almost an anthology of what Fry taught — and learned, borrowed or co-opted from others, which he admits — through his long career.
Roy Peter Clark honors Don Fry as the teacher and friend who shaped him — as a writer, coach and man. There’s no possible way I could point to tangible techniques in my own writing and coaching that were shaped by Don Fry. I do know I would be less solid, less creative and less comfortable without his influence.
I also know I would be lonelier. That’s the only word I can conjure. The thought takes me back to that pin-dot graphic. Because I bet if it were possible to map the journalists world-round who met and learned from Don Fry, we would need an endless supply of pins. He pushed and cajoled and argued with writers and editors for more than 40 years, preaching his process. But he always supported us, daring us to be better than we were, and believing we could do so. His connections made for quite the community, and his legacy goes beyond anything that can be measured.
One of the techniques Don Fry liked to use in workshops was to have people type their stories with the laptop screen turned off. The folks who weren’t fluid touch typists fumbled and grumbled. But I often find myself now, when writing, staring off into space, my fingers finally channeling the first-draft magic that somehow happens in my brain. I have no need to look at the keyboard. The cursor blinking across the screen is a distraction.
And my notebook stays closed.
A version of this post was published with the Storyboard newsletter on Dec. 10, 2021.