St. John speaks on Saban profile

Emily Williams

Warren St. John left Birmingham to attend Columbia University in New York City, but that hasn’t stopped him from returning to Alabama.

“You get something from leaving and coming back. There are a lot of amazing stories right in front of you,” St. John told a group of about 200 students in Reese Phifer Hall Thursday night.

St. John, a Birmingham native and former New York Times reporter, gave a behind the scenes look at his research and writing process on his recent profile of Nick Saban, published in GQ magazine.

“The most fun thing about journalism is the excuse it gives you to learn,” St. John said. “You can learn your way out of any situation. I like to be thrown into something new over and over again.”

It is this curiosity that drove St. John to go beyond the stoic post-game reactions and temperamental press conferences to investigate the real Nick Saban. St. John spent almost three weeks trying to get an interview with the coach but found it difficult to get Saban to open up. So he let other people say what Saban wouldn’t.

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He interviewed friends, family, Saban’s long-time golf buddy and his work associates. After days of following Saban around, St. John was eventually able to make a connection with the coach over a shared taste in music. He said the “small human moments” that occurred outside the office provided the most interesting and compelling details in the story.

St. John went on to discuss his writing process, telling students to embrace free writing in order to remove the pressure of self-judgment. He said the hardest part of writing anything is sitting down and starting to write. He suggested students write an email to themselves to clear their heads and get the writing process started.

In addition to research and writing, St. John also emphasized structure. He said that his Saban piece was somewhat chronologically based on the time he spent in Alabama, but the piece’s driving force was his personal quest to find out more about Saban. He included the details of his setbacks and negotiations to create a sense of mystery and a “journey narrative.”

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The one element St. John said he felt he didn’t fully explore was Saban’s sense of humor.

“You’re never really going to get all of someone, and that’s always going to haunt you,” he said.

Finally, St. John gave advice to all aspiring writers in the audience.

“Write. Don’t wait for inspiration. Don’t wait for the perfect assignment. Just write. Just get bylines,” he said. “Write about things that you love and care about.”

Alaina Upman, a freshman majoring in journalism who attended, said she found the session inspiring.

“The most interesting thing for me was when he said, ‘don’t wait for inspiration … just write,’” Upman said. “I have a blog and I often times won’t write something for a couple weeks because I don’t have inspiration, but I should just pedal through it and push through it and just go for it because eventually it will come.”

In addition to his work for GQ and The New York Times, St. John is also the author of two books.“Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer: A Road Trip into the Heart of Fan Mania” is what he calls “an exploration of fandom as a phenomenon,” and “Outcasts United: An American Town, A Refugee Team and One Woman’s Quest to Make a Difference” is the story of a soccer team for refugees in Georgia.

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