For the Love of Carr

Photo by Sarah Fisher

Last year the world lost its biggest variable in the media equation. David Carr died on the night of February 12, 2015, and 52 weeks later, our Mondays remain bleak.

Many, many, many, many, many, journalists and media personalities spoke about the loss of this big-weirdo-turned-little-weirdo who beat all odds and made it to the top. From the beginning of his career, Carr offered a unique ability to mentor and encourage the hopeful writers-to-be. So when he left, he left a man-shaped-hole in the heart of writers-who-became and those still waiting for take-off. I fall in the latter half of that group.

After a year of reflecting, I don’t know how I ended up in David Carr’s class.

During my juvenile years of college, I grew dreadlocks, took a semester off, and lived out of a van while working with a nonprofit, bouncing my graduation date back a semester from the spring to the fall of 2014 — Carr’s teaching debut at Boston University.

Because of a glitch in the system that believed I had already entered into the other side of life-after-college, I never got the emails that pimped out Carr’s class, and in turn, missed the deadline to apply. I wrote Mikeala Lefrak, the TA for the upcoming semester, pleading my case. She gave me the essay prompts and told me that if I responded in the next twenty-four hours she could try to get me in the running. I wrote about my aforementioned hippie days and some things I learned about the media. Days later I received an email: “Welcome to Press Play.”

Somehow the stars aligned themselves to my good fortune and I was henceforth in an email thread with David Carr, which was great, except I hadn’t the slightest clue who the man was (I know, I KNOW). My major was photojournalism, and I spent considerably more time studying the names under the photos of A1 than the names under the headlines. Tell me Tyler Hicks was my professor and kaboom, fanboy. I was in the camp that labeled Carr a homeless man had I seen him bopping around my campus.

All I knew was that Carr hailed from the New York Times, and this was my last chance at leveling out the playing field between my photographic portfolio and articles I’d written, or lack thereof. I would be a good student, and this important human metronome would de-facto force me to stretch my comfort zone and guide me to my written voice. This was my last semester, and I wanted to leave BU feeling comfortable with my ability to do something with my words.

I was terrified you-know-what-less entering the course. I was one of three undergraduate students in a class of god-like graduates who — from my perspective — were destined for fame comparable to that of the man in front of them. Every Monday I felt as though I entered Athens: Carr was Socrates, spouting his wisdom onto the Platos around him; I was a 2-year-old in diapers who escaped from his mother and wondered onto the stage.

So when that time in the course came along that I was supposed to write things and then get graded for them, I panicked. Fortunately, Carr stressed the importance of multimedia to enhance our stories. He knew being able to pay your rent as a journalist meant you needed to shape shift with the media landscape around you. And he was the master shapeshifter — a homeless body covering up a 20-something-year-old that self-published on Medium and was boastful of his Twitter following. I found my floating device. Forget “enhancing,” I would bedazzle my stories with photographs, serve them on a high resolution platter, and make the man forget I was ever in a writing course.

My first graded assignment was just that. I produced an iceberg — 10% meh words, 90% majestic photos. The only problem was, Carr did what he did best and flipped this iceberg upside down, paying 10% attention to my photos and 90% to my words.

“yer” — David Carr

Not seen in the screengrab above is the subsequent paragraphs of commentary about my writing. And not heard was the half-hour-long conversation we had minutes after this email was sent, reiterating the same points. He wanted to be a good teacher, and he was proving it. What I soon learned about Carr was that he didn’t care where you came from, he cared where you were going. Throw your resumé in the garbage. And throw any sense of privilege in there with it.

During that first assignment, Carr advised me not to color my story with a purple crayon. “The hyperbole doesn’t serve. I would hose it off.” Every photojournalism professor told me to get closer, physically. Carr knew my biggest struggle was getting closer, emotionally. He saw the slippery slope from objective to advocacy journalism. He understood that distance gives perspective, and perspective lends itself towards truth. And if Carr cared about anything, it was his unending love story with truth.

“This is not really about your writing, which is effective, but your voice,” Carr wrote.

My voice? Oh. That’s new.

At that point, I knew I needed to do more than just visually assault. Journalism suddenly went from a stale and boring chore to an endless game that I could be good at. Over the next few months we massaged out story ideas for the final project — the prize of the semester’s work, this final would be a product we were proud of and could parade to a future employer. Like most professors I’ve had, he was never going to be completely satisfied with what I drafted up in a pitch or mentioned during a meeting. But that gust of wind I encountered after the first story gave me a newfound confidence. I knew I had something important to me, so I nudged my way into a story that would necessitate a great deal of reporting I wasn’t accustomed to and a vocabulary I had seemed to misplace.

The story was about Muslim youth living in Boston who were trying to break free from the hovering identity that haunted them since 2001. I would parallel photos from the field with vignettes of stories that portrayed the struggle of American born-and-raised Muslims finding a religious and cultural identity separate of their foreign forefathers.

When I turned that story in, I was proud of what I created. I knew it wasn’t Carr-proof, but I was proud of my photos, of my writing, and of the little voice that I saw springing up from cracks in the ground. And turns out, Carr was proud of me too. The last time I saw him was on New Years Eve 2014. He invited me to the New York Times office, this photo Mecca I had crafted in my head that now housed so much more significance. On the cafeteria floor he said to me, “I believed in you, but I don’t know that I believed in you.” After what I did for the final, I had surprised this unparalleled media king, and in turn garnered his trust, support, and friendship.

From an email titled: Final Project Grade

Carr was a lot of things to a lot of people. I was only fortunate enough to land during the last year of his odyssey, but in that short time, he gave me permission to find my voice, and joy for the long road ahead. He truly was like no other professor, storyteller, friend, or magician you’d met.

As I continue the pursuit of journalism, my fingers remain a magnet to the purple crayon (I want this essay to bleed hyperbole!). I’m still the young child pretending to understand Socrates. In the interim, I’m learning to work with the crayon. I’m holding on tight to Carr’s words, and in doing so I am scribbling less, and writing more.