Originally published in The Shocker magazine
Chance Swaim ’14 stopped by the Wichita Eagle one summer afternoon in 2015 in search a job. The recent Wichita State alum had a bachelor’s degree in English earned while working full time in construction, insulating buildings – including a few on campus. Swaim planned to join WSU’s graduate creative writing program that fall, but also wanted to make a living as a writer, and figured a newspaper was one place to do that.
Then-deputy editor Tom Shine gave him a tour of the newsroom, suggested he get some experience, and introduced him to Shelby Reynolds ’16, an Eagle intern and incoming editor of the Sunflower, the WSU student newspaper.
Two years later, Swaim followed in Reynolds’ footsteps and assume the editorship of the Sunflower, despite the fact that he studied fiction, and had no journalism experience when he began. In fact, he’d never taken a communications class. And yet this past spring, Swaim was named the Kansas College Journalist of the year. This fall, he’s helming the paper, holding down the MFA program’s fiction fellowship, finishing the collection of short stories that will form his thesis, and applying for investigative reporter positions at newspapers across the country.
Swaim’s path to journalism started when he was a kid, with his curiosity and questions about the world. He remembers going fishing with his father and brother and asking nonstop questions, thinks like: “What would happen if we catch a thousand-pound fish.”
In high school, his jaw was wired shut for six weeks after he broke it during a fistfight over a dispute over a call in a pick-up basketball game. “That’s when I really started writing,” he says, “because I couldn’t talk.” He wrote stories, poetry, journal-like personal essays.
In 2013, his friend Kolby Hopkins, “one of the nicest, kindest people,” was shot and killed after the bars closed in Old Town, right across the street from the old Eagle building. The case remains unsolved, a source of frustration for Swaim, both then and now: so many questions still unanswered.
As a WSU underclassman, Swaim bounced around a handful of different programs and potential career options. By the time he landed in Bryan Flores’ English 102 class, he’d settled on biology with an eye on pursuing a career as a pharmacist. As the class reached its end, Swaim realized he would miss it. So he took another literature class, and switched his major for the final time.
He took creative writing classes toward the end of his degree program and got hooked. Margaret Dawe, associate instructor of creative writing, remembers meeting Swaim for the first time when he stopped by her office “with a big construction helmet under his arm” to ask permission to take her undergraduate fiction workshop. “He had a Jimmy Stewart, ‘aw, shucks’ manner about him,” Dawe says.
Swaim credits Dawe and other creative writing faculty for his development as a writer. When he started working as a beginning reporter at the Sunflower, he already wrote well, says the newspaper’s faculty advisor, Amy DeVault. “He’s an exceptional writer, and we really have to credit that to the faculty in the English department,” DeVault says. “It’s not hard to make a journalist out of a good writer, a good thinker, and a good researcher. Chance is all three of those things.”
Most inexperienced reporters cut their teeth on stories about campus events and student profiles, but Swaim’s first published article was about a homicide. “I wanted to get an insider’s view of how the news worked,” Swaim says. But his first story taught him that that reporters “can feel just as left out as everyone else.”
Still, he relished the challenge. At the recommendation of Reynolds, he read the work of legendary journalists such as Seymour Hersh and looked for other challenging subjects to tackle. An open-records workshop taught by then-Eagle reporter Kelsey Ryan inspired Swaim to start requesting documents. “That’s where the real stories are: in these documents that no one would usually see,” he says.
His work with open records caught the attention of the Kansas Collegiate Media judging panel. “His work shows he is as comfortable unpacking documents and records for readers as he is harnessing the emotion of his subjects,” reads one judge’s comment.
Fiction writers struggle over character motivation, and Swaim brings the same concern to the subjects of his reportage. “As a reporter, you have to round [subjects] out, even if it’s just in your head, in order to give them a fair shake,” he says.
His fiction training “infects” his journalistic writing at times, Swaim acknowledges. Dawe, herself a former journalist, sees the connection, too. “In the long run both parts of his life – journalism and creative writing – are about the narrator. Is the writer trustworthy, are we in agreement about what happened to this character?”
Swaim’s MFA thesis is a collection of linked short stories about a boy who goes hunting with his father and has to kill a dove, loosely comparable to Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories. While he plans to continue writing fiction and poetry, Swaim will also pursue a career as a professional journalist. “It started as a way to make money as a writer,” he says, “but it turned into a way to ask questions and get answers and search for the truth.”
He’s hooked, like a thousand-pound fish.