Ryan Bort is a writer and editor who covers culture, the arts, sports, and everything in between for a variety of online and print publications, including Esquire, Rolling Stone, Vice, and Grantland. His work has taken him, among other adventures, swimming in shark-infested waters with horror director Eli Roth, spending time with comedian Bob Saget, and riding a bus across the Canadian border with a group of diehard Montreal Expos fans. He is currently a staff writer at Newsweek.
As a graduate of UW’s English Department, Bort has leveraged our commitment to quality writing and critical thought into a career imbued with independence and adventure. He wakes up every morning a writer, a cultural critic, a raconteur, and very much his own person. What can you do with an English degree? Below, Ryan Bort reflects briefly on his experience as an English major and some of the thrilling pathways it has opened for him.
Can you relate a little about the choices that led you down your path from high school to UW, and beyond?
I grew up in Dallas, Texas, playing baseball. I was recruited by a few colleges, opted to attend the University of Kansas with a few friends, and then changed my mind and enrolled at UW less than a week before the deadline. It was the best decision I ever made. I came to Seattle with no real career ambition, but figured a nascent love of literature and compulsion to write were good enough reasons to study English.
After graduating, I valeted cars, worked in a hotel, and interned at KEXP. I used what I wrote for the station’s blog to land an editorial internship at Paste Magazine in Atlanta. I’d saved up enough money by this point to move across the country and see what would happen. After a few months at Paste, I headed to New York City, where I hustled my way into what some might call a “career.”
As a journalist you seem to immerse yourself in your subjects. To what extent do you feel participation is necessary to your cultural analyses?
It is the most important thing. The only way to truly understand something—and, more importantly, to be able to convince someone you truly understand something—is to experience it firsthand.
Can you recall any specific English department instructors who or classes that influenced your craft?
Nikolai Popov taught my senior capstone course on James Joyce’s Ulysses. I met with him a few times to discuss my big end-of-semester argument, and I will never forget Popov, a career academic, explaining to me the importance of removing oneself from the bubble of academia to experience what’s going on in the real world. At the very least, I will always use this to justify not having gone to grad school.
Any advice for younger writers who might want to follow a similar career? What would you tell yourself at college graduation if you could time-travel back for a 5 minute talk?
Follow your gut, your heart, your intuition, your whatever-you-want-to-call-it, even if it doesn’t seem practical at the time. Embracing uncertainty like this can be scary as hell, but ultimately it’s what separates the people doing what they love from the people who hate their job. That and working your [tail] off.