Gary Cartwright figured out the secret to writing: sit down. Spit out one sentence. Add another. Find your way forward.
It's a technique that has served him well in a 50-year career that has included sportswriting, fiction, and narrative journalism. His memoir The Best I Recall is a wild romp that opens in the Mad Men-ish '60s world of Dallas/Fort Worth journalism, stretches to '70s free-wheeling Austin where the hippies meet the rednecks and a lot of illicit drugs are consumed, detours to a long career writing long-form creative nonfiction for Texas Monthly, and stops with the stinging losses of later life.
“I invented myself,” says Cartwright, now 80. “I became a bigger-than-life character.”
It began in earnest in Fort Worth where Cartwright wore a snap-brimmed hat and a trenchcoat to simulate the police detective look while he actually worked the streets as police reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. After a misstep into advertising in Los Angeles he returned to Texas and stumbled into a sportswriting job alongside “hip-to-the-times wise guys” Bud Shrake and Dan Jenkins. Along with their mentor Blackie Sherrod, the dream team would raise the bar for sportswriting nationally. All the while they played the part of hard-partying, womanizing wild men for whom divorces were almost a given.
“Life was boring back then and nobody was taking chances,” Cartwright says. “Our goal was to be as outrageous as possible.”
At one point, Shrake was sharing a house with Jada, a stripper from one of Jack Ruby's Dallas nightclubs, with “hair the color of Tabasco sauce and with the temperament of Tabasco sauce.” Ruby, who always carried a gun but seemed harmless, was a frequent visitor to the apartment when late-night parties raged.
On Nov. 22, 1963, Shrake and Cartrwright watched from an intersection as President Kennedy's motorcade traveled through downtown Dallas. Cartwright swears the president waved and looked directly at him as he passed. Moments later Kennedy was assassinated, and soon Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested as the suspected gunman. That weekend, the Dallas Cowboys inexplicably played an out-of-town game that many felt should have been canceled. Shrake ran up to Cartwright at the stadium and asked him to guess who just shot Oswald in Dallas. Cartwright flippantly replied “Jack Ruby” as Shrake stared in stunned silence.
Sherrod, whom Cartwright had idolized since childhood as a Fort Worth Press paperboy, was a “good, smart writer in the days when sports was not good writing generally,” Cartwright says. “It had been the garbage of newspapers. He taught us to think like newspapermen.”
Cartwright recalls in the book, “He gave us freedom to write in whatever style suited us, and we took full advantage of it. We made it fun. Any self-respecting writer knows that there is a thin line between fact and fiction and senses the duty to stay as near the edge as possible.”
Jenkins meanwhile, was the “best pure sportswriter ever,” Cartwright says. “He loved sports. He understood sports.”
But Shrake, who made his mark as a novelist, was the real deal as a writer and as a friend, Cartwright says. “He taught me to take it as you find it and trust in yourself. I learned I could do it. If a writer as talented as him thought I could, it must be true. I learned from Shrake to write one sentence at a time.”
That encouragement led Cartwright to pen the sports-related novels The Hundred Year War and Thin Ice, which taught him lessons that he would use while tackling later nonfiction books including Blood Will Tell, his saga of Dallas oil man T. Cullen Davis' trials for murder that grew out of two pieces Cartwright penned for Texas Monthly.
His many years with Texas Monthly were highlighted by tales of true crime including pieces that helped get two wrongly accused men off of death row: Randall Dale Adams, whose case was also featured in Errol Morris' documentary film The Thin Blue Line, and accused cop killer Greg Ott.
“Writing fiction taught me how to structure,” he says. “The biggest difference is you have to tell the truth or decide what the truth is.”
The memoir's final section deals with the hard truths of Cartwright's later years—the leukemia that claimed his 40-year-old son Mark who had reconnected with father and become his best friend, and the cancer that killed Phyllis, his third wife of almost 30 years, and also his fourth wife Tam. “When you've lived life to the max, dying seems especially slow and clumsy and mean,” Cartwright writes in the memoir.
But he didn't get to 80 without some sense of optimism.
“You go on living,” he says. “You go on the best you can. I've always had an upbeat attitude. I don't dwell on what I can't change.”
Joe M. O’Connell, author of Evacuation Plan: A Novel from the Hospice, is based in Austin, Texas.