Wil Haygood is a journalist who doesn’t let the story come to him. He goes in the cracks and crevices of the world to find the stories that demand attention, but are hidden away waiting to be discovered.
Of course, Haygood didn’t realize his passion for writing until after he graduated college. Haygood then moved to New York City to follow his dreams. However, his dreams landed him a job in a low managerial position in the towel deparment of a Macey’s.
Yet that job was exactly where he needed to be. One day, in the middle of firing him, Haygood’s boss asked him to take a notebook and write down what he really wants out of life. Haygood spilled onto the page and returned the notebook apologizing, claiming he couldn’t think of anything.
“‘You need to write,’ she told me,” Haygood said to several Denison students. “‘Whatever you do, you need to write.’ Now she told me that as she was firing me, but adversity pushes us forward.”
A message that inspired several listeners as they hung onto every word of his stories. Through class visits, a luncheon, dinner and reading of his latest book, Haygood reached the minds of Denison faculty and students all day long.
“He’s a captivating storyteller. He’s evidently put in an immense amount of work to understand the people he writes about, and that shows in his writing and when he talks to his audience,” said Smelanda Jean-Baptiste ‘21, an anthropology and sociology major from Stamford, Connecticut.
Haygood didn’t just find his ideal position, of course.
After he lost his position at Macy’s, Haygood read about the Editor-in-Chief at the Charleston Gazette who had just received the Elijah Lovejoy Award. Inspired, Haygood wrote to the editor and asked for a job. The editor later hired him as a copywriter to edit articles. Haygood used his two days off to go find stories to write, despite the fact the paper couldn’t pay him for the articles.
This determination did the job though, as Haywood was soon discovered by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Boston Globe and eventually The Washington Post.
Through his career Haygood traveled the world, took part in history and met extraordinary people. However, his most famous article, and the one that was created into a movie, was about a butler.
Haygood, always on the hunt for the right story, began looking for a Black employee of the White House that started working before the Civil Rights act of 1964. He found Eugene Allen and the rest is history. Read the article online at The Washington Post.
Haygood was able to write such a successful story by practicing what he thinks is the best form of journalism. He called it “shoe leather” journalism.
“Knock on doors, make phone calls, get what you want by looking for it,” Haygood encouraged students. “Luck favors those who work for it.”
One of the reasons Haygood’s work is widely respected is his specific style of writing. He doesn’t want the lyricism of his words to seem forced and is able to insert himself in the story when appropriate. He looks for people who write different than the status quo, as those people can tell a better story.
Haygood now teaches at Miami University of Ohio and has published eight books, with the most recent having been released in mid-September.
To make the transition from journalist to author, Haygood structures his chapters similar to longform articles. He outlines his book by separating chapter by chapter. After he finishes a chapter, he moves on the next.
When Haygood finishes the book he ships it to his editor and takes himself out for a lobster dinner.
He notes that the story is in the content, not in page numbers or word count.
“Use quotes that mean something,” Haygood advised. “I think of it as fishing. You throw back the smaller fish. With quotes, keep the ones with substance and let the other little ones go. Get to the point. Only use quotes that move the story forward and reinforces.”
Haygood has written about the interesting lives of other people, but his own is a story too large to tell. From watching governments crumble, to being held hostage in Somalia, to fiercely steering a wooden raft along the Mississippi River, Haygood couldn’t share enough while on campus.
His presence invigorated students in the Narrative Journalism concentration as well. A program only a few years old, students can see what good writing can do for the world, as Haygood was deemed by many to be an outstanding model.
Check out Haygood’s new book Tigerland out now.