Until he was 19, Joshua Prager wanted to play professional baseball or be a doctor. After 19, he was just glad he could walk. For eight years Prager was a senior editor at The Wall Street Journal, where he was a four-time Pulitzer Prize nominee for his long-form pieces investigating historical secrets. In his talk at TED@New York — one of the 293 given as part of our TED2013 Talent Search — Prager weaves a personal story around the event which shaped his entire adult life, a bus accident that left him a quadriplegic.
You seem to agree with comments that some of your stories have “the gestation of a llama.” Do you think the pace of your writing has been informed by your injury? How has your accident shaped your writing process?
A few key ways. The first is — it’s striking this didn’t occur to me beforehand — I had just spent a decade writing these long articles about people whose lives had changed in an instant, when someone said to me, “Well, obviously your life changed in an instant.” And I was like, “Oh my god!” This is not some tortured connection; it’s so obvious, and yet it truly was not apparent to me. I wrote an article about a person who swung a baseball bat and his life changed, who clicked a shutter of a camera and his life changed, a person who inherited something, a person who disappeared, and I hadn’t realized the obvious connection.
Another thing is — someone else pointed this out to me — that I have spent all these years writing about secrets and the corrosiveness of secrets. And here is why this is so important to me: I don’t have the luxury to tell someone on our third meeting, “Oh by the way, I have a cane, I’m disabled.” When you meet me, you know instantaneously that I have something wrong with me. And the key is: My openness works for me. I don’t have to bottle things up inside. I tell people what I’m thinking, because there it is. It’s right out in the open. And I have been sort of, one person at a time, helping other people live openly as well. When a person can be honest and open, they feel better.
One last point: Because I can’t run, I actually do stop and smell the roses, in a sense. I really pay attention along the way. I love detail. I really pay attention and look around, and that comes out in my work.
You were 19 when your accident happened. Before that did you have an interest in writing or journalism?
I had no interest in journalism, but I loved writing. I had wanted to be a doctor. Then four months after the accident I got out of the hospital, I had no idea how the fuck I could be a doctor because I didn’t feel anything, I couldn’t move my hands well, I just didn’t see it physically being possible. (Later I wrote about quadriplegic doctors and now I know anything is possible.) And because the real way I expressed myself before, baseball — I was a very good ball player — I couldn’t do that anymore. The thing that was left for me was writing.
And now do you play?
I do. I play softball with my friends every Sunday in the park. I’m the one who organizes the game. Someone runs to first base for me, and I pitch overhand, and I have a great time. And I’m still pretty good.
Watch out for more Q&As from the TED@NY event throughout this week. Head to TalentSearch.TED.com to watch and rate these talks, as well as those from the 13 other stops along the TED2013 Talent Search tour.