"Just be his friend"

Or, Profile writing for beginners

Casey Gerald and I are writing buddies. We read each other’s drafts. We offer honest, brutal comments. I counseled him through the writing of his magnificent memoir, “There Will Be No Miracles Here.” He returned the favor in reading an early draft of my book “Winners Take All,” telling me it was too angry and strident and that I had to “find the love in it.” It took me a minute, but I came to learn what he meant, and it changed so much. (For those of you who found the amended work too angry and strident, just imagine the earlier version!)

This week, he published, on the cover of Texas Monthly, an astonishing piece of journalism: a profile of the musician Leon Bridges that is unlike profiles you have read before. Casey bores deep into his subject’s soul, and the subject offers an unvarnished, haunting look at himself and his quest for joy, and the result is a masterwork.

I asked Casey if he would share with readers of The Ink a reflection on what he learned from this, his first (!) profile. Generously, he offered the words below.

By Casey Gerald

I’ll never forget driving away from Leon’s house in Fort Worth, after my last day with him and his friends, after the scene that ends the profile. I was headed south on highway 287, back to Austin, listening to his song “Shine,” and I just couldn’t stop crying. I was so damn happy, so grateful, so exhausted. 

That song, “Shine,” had been my North Star: Use me as your vessel / I want to shine like the candle / Shine like the burning candle in the room.” If a profile writer, any writer, is a vessel of sorts, what was I to do? 

Before I started this whole exercise, I got a crash course on profile writing from a few people, including the great writer John Spong, who put me onto so many other masters of the profile, including legend and MacArthur genius Dave Hickey. Hickey gave me what felt like almost insultingly simple advice: Just be his friend, hang around, and write the story. As much preparation and craft work as went into this story, that advice was at the heart of the whole thing. It only worked because Leon showed up willing to bare it all, willing to be my friend, too, even if just for a month. 

I believe it is my job as a writer to make the language, our literature, reflect the raw, strange magic of our humanity — the raw, strange magic of a rare artist like Leon. I cried on the highway because I realized that Leon had given me a chance to do that, that we’d pulled off something like a great caper. And I guess I also cried because I thought of the little miracle of it all — thought of us as the broke and lonely Black boys we’d once been, me in Oak Cliff, Leon on the Southside of Fort Worth.

What would those boys say looking at us now, trying to live our best lives as best we know how, trying to be whole and free and sane in this sick world, taking up all this space in somebody’s magazine? Leon gave the best answer, and that answer ends the piece, and I hope someday some kid will read this profile and know that their biggest, freest life is possible, too. 

Read Casey Gerald’s profile of Leon Bridges here, via Texas Monthly.