Things We Learned from David Carr
By Clinton Nguyen and Emily Overholt
In the collaborative spirit that David fostered in us during Press Play, his seminal and only completed course at BU, here are two reflections on what he meant to us during that brief time.
A bum in a blazer stumbled into our classroom and were it any other bum, we would have helped him back outside. But this was one David Carr.
We were silent until he piped up. And the man can pipe up.
Most people know David for his writing, but you can glean how his mind works by hearing his voice. Because it was one thing to read his work — journalists usually have voices that are less embroidered in person than what shows up in writing — but to hear Carr thread his weird turns of phrase into his speech made you understand that his person and his prose were inseparable.
He had this voice that’s been scratched out by years of personal torment and chain smoking. He often started conversation like he was in the middle of one with you, no matter who you were. He often spoke with measured pauses, sometimes staring off for a couple seconds before continuing. It was usually either something profound or supremely cheeky. That’s how David operates.
When I became a teaching assistant under his stead, we got to know each other through more frequent contact: phone calls to talk class strategy, emails punted back and forth. He meant business but never failed to sign off with a “brother,” “boss,” or a simple “10–4, buddy.”
Despite this, it didn’t make him easier to know. In fact, sometimes he was harder on me because I felt I had more to prove. We had intersecting interests in technology, the business of newer publications, and he saw something in that. To the point where he saw a bit of Alexis Madrigal or Zach Seward in my personality. Right. A rookie can only dream.
He nipped mercilessly at my slip-ups, no matter how small or large, but assured me that he wanted to see me grow out of them.
He taught me that there are some wrong ways to start answering questions: “You know that thing where you start repeating the question after I ask it? Stop that. You kinda sound like an idiot.” There’s an art to using pregnant pauses and he was its finest practitioner. And he taught us that it was okay to admit ignorance; playing the idiot will make you better at your job in ways you would never imagine.
For the rest of the three months we spent in class with him, he gave us some very sobering advice. That piece of advice was echoed by almost every person he brought into class:
There was, he said, going to be a lot of shit to shovel before you understand where you’re needed and where you need to be. And an even longer time before you reconcile the two.
And I trust this magnificent bum, because he’s made mountains of mistakes. He was tremendously lucky, almost offensively lucky to be able to pull himself from the trenches and was willing to bear so many scars for others to learn from.
As it turns out, he wasn’t the only one in class with scars to bear.
One day in class David Carr asked us what the most interesting thing about us was. There were the students from a far flung countries, one from Thailand working on a story about drag queens, another from Saudi Arabia, another who was the only natural child in a family of adopted children, Clinton said he was clairvoyant.
“I was a teenage drug addict,” I said.
It’s not something I like to say, but at that time it was the most interesting thing about me. It’s hard to tell now, with my degree from Boston University, my actual career in journalism, my general ability to function in society with minimal repercussions, but it’s true.
There’s an understandable stigma that comes with addiction, and as such it’s not something I talk about. As students rattled off their formulaic responses I was visibly shaking, pale. But if there’s anyone I could own up to my faults to, it was the man asking the question. After class I felt naked, judged, and stupid for saying it. It just made another room full of people to avoid eye contact with in the future.
I read The Night of the Gun the summer before I came to college. I was two years sober but still feeling like no one like me could amount to anything of substance. But there was David Carr. His book, which I highly recommend, is a tale of clawing out of the deepest depths of crack addiction, with a backstory of being an amazing journalist even during the ordeal. I read the book as an inspiration. If he could do it so could I.
The next morning after my revelation I woke up to an email with the subject line “Yesterday” it said “I thought what you did was brave and smart yesterday, but then, I would, wouldn’t I? Good for you.”
I didn’t feel so stupid anymore.
He didn’t know that he was my hero when I first sat in his class, I’m sure he would have dismissed that kind of thinking. I will always feel like he knew we had a bond. But just search “David Carr” in Medium, everyone he met felt like they had a special bond.
For being a public face of journalism, he was an incredibly unassuming professor. He’d speak, we’d listen. Sometimes we’d disagree. He would give us edits and tell us to take them if we so chose. He said the best editors made you write better, it didn’t matter how well they wrote. David Carr didn’t want to be our hero, he just wanted us to do good journalism.
So we did.
David Carr taught me that we are not defined by our successes or our failures, we are defined by trying. “It’s OK to take a big swing and miss,” he told me as I sat in his office out of ideas for stories. That’s exactly what I did.
Neither of us were particularly happy with my final project, “Emily Get Your Gun,” which ended as a personal narrative instead of the hard-hitting expose on gun licensing I had promised, but he was genuinely happy when I emailed him the day before Christmas asking for help responding to the barrage of comments and responses I received.
“Great news,” reads another email I will keep forever.
David Carr taught me that there are two important principles in work, to ask the tough questions, and to be a good person. Don’t hurt people for your own gain. Don’t pretend you’re doing someone a favor when you are not.
David Carr taught me to stop saying sorry for who I am, a foul-mouthed, kind of abrasive, plot-point spoiling jerk. David Carr called me an asshole and said it was okay, because he was an asshole too.
If you were to ask me right now what the most interesting thing about me was, it is hands down that I even had the opportunity to work with David Carr.
And Nick Bilton said it best. We can mourn the sky falling or we can be grateful for every thing and every person that pulled us out of the dark and brought us up there.
This caper continues with us and we have David to thank for bringing us up to it.
Note to future professors, j-school or otherwise: snacks. h/t Jill Abramson.