“What’s on your syllabus?”
Every narrative journalist can point to a story or a book, or two, that changed their lives, and that made them want to tell true stories. What story does it for you? Where was your love born? When we asked about influential writing via Twitter, answers came in a flurry. Wright Thompson said North Toward Home, by Willie Morris; Mara Grunbaum said, “Up and Then Down: The Lives of Elevators,” by Nick Paumgarten; Will Hobson said Friday Night Lights, by Buzz Bissinger, and “Tonight On Dateline, This Man Will Die,” by Luke Dittrich; Jordan Conn said “The Last Shot,” by Darcy Frey; Andy Pantazi said “Pearls before Breakfast,” by Gene Weingarten; William Browning said Larry L. King’s Texas Monthly profile of Willie Morris; Tom Junod said the “holy trinity” of Faulkner, Fitzgerald and Hemingway; Diane Shipley said Zoe Heller’s Sunday Times columns and Nora Ephron’s breasts (“so to speak”). And on it went.
We wondered what’s on college reading lists these days and asked some distinguished writer/professors of narrative what stories or books they assign — but also why. Stand by for Jacqui Banaszynski, Mark Bowden, Madeleine Blais, Rob Boynton, Jeff Sharlet and Rebecca Skloot.
The course is Intermediate Writing. I have students in my writing class pick most of what we read and discuss. That allows them to explore and discover what they respond to, which gives them more ownership of the techniques at work in effective writing and keeps the class varied and fresh. Their choices range from narrative to investigative pieces to sports columns. Along the way, I have a handful of standards (some book chapters and magazine pieces, but mostly newspaper stories) that I pull out to emphasize the components of the craft:
Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott. This has become my irreverent bible. It offers an array of solid lessons on writing, but mostly makes struggling writers feel a little less alone and a lot less crazy. It lets them in on two necessary secrets: Writing is damn hard work, and all writers feel like fakes.
The Things They Carried, a novel, by Tim O’Brien. I start my in-depth writing class with the first chapter. That means I reread it twice a year, and it always reveals something new and fairly astonishing. It is a masterpiece of foreshadowing, building tension, revelatory detail, character development, pacing, wordplay, metaphor and layered meaning. Students then write personal essays built around a similar prompt: The things I carried, wore, ate, lost, etc.
Hiroshima, by John Hersey. I have found nothing that better demonstrates the reporting that is both required and possible for powerful literary nonfiction. We analyze what Hersey would have had to notice and ask to reconstruct such precise, vivid and credible scenes. As for the writing, it is a study in simplicity. Hersey uses verbs that are strong but seldom flashy, sentences that are tight and direct, and a minimum of embellishment to let the raw drama of the narrative come through.
“A Boy of Unusual Vision,” by Alice Steinbach (Baltimore Sun). A great example of a rich story told entirely through a series of tight, focused scenes. Also demonstrates the kind of reporting evident in Hiroshima. Steinbach is fearless and compassionate in talking to Calvin about his blindness.
“From ordinary girl to international icon” (Terry Schiavo’s obituary), by Kelley Benham (St. Petersburg Times, now Tampa Bay Times). The first paragraph is a study in the use of parallel construction and pacing. Benham controls both throughout the piece, showing how structure itself can carry readers along. She also demonstrates the power of selection – choosing just the details that reveal the core of the story being told.
“The Girl in the Mirror,” by Julia Sommerfeld (Seattle Times). A long, complex story made readable through tight, focused and purposeful scenes. Strong example of immersion reporting, rather than reconstruction; Sommerfeld witnessed much of the action. Great use of analogy to help readers see and understand the inaccessible (facial deformation and surgery).
“Richard Nixon’s Long Journey Ends,” by David Von Drehle (Washington Post). I use this to demonstrate a writer’s voice and authority. It dares to have a strong point of view. It’s also a study in word selection and in essay-like structure.
“Digging JFK Grave Was His Honor,” by Jimmy Breslin (New York Herald Tribune). Another study in point of view, but this one demonstrates that classic lesson of “zig, don’t zag.” Breslin goes where no one else thought to, and finds a story all can relate to.
“What a Day!” by Ken Fuson (Des Moines Register). This shows how a mundane assignment can be turned into art in the hands of a creative and bold writer. The single long, breathless sentence echoes the feeling of the day itself.
“Old ladies ‘do what we can,’ ” by Alex Tizon (Seattle Times). This is one of 14 short dispatches that were part of “Crossing America,” filed on the road from Seattle to New York City immediately after the 9/11 attacks. All are great examples of “place profiles,” but this one stands out as a study in character development.
Jacqui Banaszynski (@jacquib) is the Knight Chair in Editing professor at the Missouri School of Journalism, senior collaborations editor for the Public Insight Network of American Public Media and a faculty fellow at the Poynter Institute. She won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize in feature writing for “AIDS in the Heartland,” a series about a gay farm couple facing AIDS.
For a class entitled Diaries, Memoirs and Journals, I require a shifting list of full-length books as well as articles and essays. This fall’s assigned books include:
This Boy’s Life, by Tobias Wolff. I find this book a pitch-perfect evocation of the powerlessness of being a child — and of the power that ensues when an adult retaliates with his version of events. This memoir is widely considered one of the finest exemplars of the genre.
Father’s Day, by Buzz Bissinger. This new work by the author of the acclaimed nonfiction narrative Friday Night Lights and other books uses the journey motif to move back and forth in time, and possesses a candor that becomes its own armor in the service of revealing some of life’s less appealing truths about oneself.
Name All the Animals, by Alison Smith. Alison Smith experienced the loss of her idolized teenaged brother while still a child, and her memoir is both healing and devastating.
Brother, I Am Dying, by Edwidge Danticat. The author’s elderly uncle from Haiti enters several circles of hell when he is detained at the infamous Krome Avenue Detention Center in Miami while trying to enter the United States legally. A sad story ennobled by the quiet grace with which it is told.
Madeleine Blais won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing while at the Miami Herald. She was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University and has written for newspapers including the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune and the Boston Globe. She is the author of In These Girls, Hope Is a Muscle, which was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist in nonfiction and named one of the Top 100 sports books of the 20th Century by ESPN; The Heart Is an Instrument; Portraits in Journalism; and Uphill Walkers: Memoir of a Family, which won a Massachusetts Book Award.
The course is called Masterpieces of Nonfiction.
“The American Male at Age Ten,” a short piece by Susan Orlean which she undertook after being approached to write a profile of Macauley Culkin, then the most famous 10-year-old in the world. Orlean wasn’t that interested in the actor, but was interested in studying a typical 10-year-old boy in hopes of better understanding men. She fails, but succeeds brilliantly in an essay that is sweet, funny and memorable. I love to assign this story because it shows that writing great nonfiction does not require dramatic subject matter, foreign travel or even huge amounts of time.
Hiroshima, by John Hersey, because of its historical importance in the genre of literary nonfiction, because of its relative simplicity as a piece of reporting and writing, and because it is a powerful and compelling read. Hersey illustrates the importance of asking, “Who and what, at the most basic level, is this story about?” In the case of the atom bomb, it was the one piece of the story that had not been reported — and which was the most important.
In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote, because every time I assign it my students love it. I enjoy pointing out Capote’s careful attention to craft. It also prompts interesting conversations about choosing subject matter, immersion in reporting and how the values and experiences of the writer shape the best nonfiction in the same way they shape fiction. There are also four films it has inspired – I usually choose one – so it’s fun to see how story is translated to the screen.
The Right Stuff, by Tom Wolfe, because it is such a joy to read, and it illustrates how a great reporter and writer can make something entirely new out of material that has supposedly been reported to death. The book is essentially an extended essay, or argument, as nearly all of Wolfe’s stories are. It is also useful to get students thinking about the importance of voice.
The Executioner’s Song, by Norman Mailer. I consider it to be one of the classics of American literature, and Mailer’s best work. The book is really two for the price of one, not just because of its length (I give my students plenty of time to read it), but because Mailer shifts gears so dramatically in the middle, first telling the story of Gary Gilmore as he imagines it really was, and then adopting a completely different style, telling how the same story was transformed by TV and the press into a bizarre media event.
The Perfect Storm, by Sebastian Junger, because it is a wonderful example of how a skillful writer can conjure a “true” story by cleverly reporting around the edges of that which he cannot know. Junger could not, of course, interview the doomed fishermen aboard the Andrea Gale, but that doesn’t stop him from writing a thrilling account of their final moments in the storm. I love going through the book chapter by chapter, and showing how he does it.
The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion, because it lets me introduce the memoir and because Didion was so ruthlessly honest in writing about herself. It demonstrates how rigorous self-examination must be to rise above self-indulgence, a threshold very few memoirs achieve.
“Urban Cowboy,” by Aaron Latham, both the original article and the movie. The article cleverly ridicules the faux cowboys of modern Houston, who work on oilrigs and dress up in boots, buckles, and 10-gallon hats to go dancing with the gals. Turns out the gals ride the mechanical bulls better than they do, which leads to heartbreak. The movie (which Latham co-wrote) dispenses with the wit entirely, and turns these wannabe cowpokes into romantic heroes.
“The String Theory,” David Foster Wallace‘s amazing essay about what it takes to be the best in the world at anything, in this case, tennis. He examines the question not by studying the best tennis player in the world – he does that in a later, more famous piece called “Roger Federer as Religious Experience” – but by profiling Michael Joyce, an unknown second-tier tennis pro who, as talented and hard-working as he is, will never reach the topmost ranks of the game. Why? The story illustrates how a writer can elevate something as mundane as a sports story into something truly memorable by asking the right questions — not of the subject alone but of himself.
I also throw in some of my own work – this semester Black Hawk Down and a few shorter ones – to give students a chance to pick my brain about how they were reported and written.
Mark Bowden is a best-selling author and journalist. His book Black Hawk Down, a finalist for the National Book Award, was the basis of the film of the same name. His book Killing Pablo won the Overseas Press Club’s 2001 Cornelius Ryan Award as the book of the year. His book Guests of the Ayatollah, an account of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, was listed by Newsweek as one of the 50 “books of our times.” His most recent books are The Best Game Ever, the story of the 1958 NFL championship game; Worm, which tells the story of the Conficker computer worm; and The Finish, an account of the mission to kill Osama bin Laden, to be published in October. Bowden is a Vanity Fair contributing editor and a national correspondent for The Atlantic.
Boynton’s excerpted reading list for his Literary Reportage class at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, sans liner notes:
We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, by Joan Didion
Up in the Old Hotel, by Joseph Mitchell
Fame and Obscurity, by Gay Talese
Iphigenia in Forest Hills, by Janet Malcolm
“Introduction,” by John Carey, The Faber Book of Reportage
“Why I Write,” by George Orwell
Hospital Sketches, by Louisa May Alcott
“The Dream Factory,” by Clive Thompson (Wired)
“The Hand-Off,” by Ted Conover (New York Times magazine)
“How Do You Like It Now, Gentlemen?” by Lillian Ross
“Ingrid Sichy, Girl of the Zeitgeist,” Janet Malcolm (New Yorker)
“The American Male at Age Ten,” by Susan Orlean (Esquire)
“Church and State” memo from Harold Ross to Raul Fleischmann
“Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” by Norman Mailer (Esquire)
“Secrets of the Little Blue Box,” by Ron Rosenbaum (Esquire)
“A Few Words about Breasts,” by Nora Ephron (Esquire)
“Nickel and Dimed,” by Barbara Ehrenreich
“Tilting at Tree Bags,” by Ian Frazier (Mother Jones)
“Out of Iraq,” by Adam Davidson (Harper’s)
Robert S. Boynton is the author of The New New Journalism and director of the magazine journalism program at New York University.
The course is called Whose Story Is It?, borrowed from Jane Kramer’s great little book Whose Art Is It?
“In the Current,” from Boys of My Youth, by Jo Ann Beard. A portrait of the artist-to-be as a bored little girl, grasping metaphor for the first time. We read this to think about how we start to become writers.
“The Cross and the Color Line,” from Blood Done Sign My Name, by Timothy B. Tyson. Tyson remembers what he understood of the murder of MLK when he was a boy. We read this to think about the intersection between the personal and the public.
“Mic Checked,” by Rachel Signer, from KillingTheBuddha.com. I thought this was the best piece I read on the experience of the Occupy movement. I like it because it’s more or less topical, by a writer breaking radically from her usual style, and because it’s in the second person. I normally forbid the second person for the duration of the term, but I start with this piece to remind students to break my rules when they need to.
“Artists in Uniform,” by Mary McCarthy. One of my favorite descriptions of a conversation, between McCarthy and an anti-Semitic colonel she meets (and despite herself, flirts with) on a train. It’s good early in the term because it invites close reading and because the setup is so simple: a conversation, unplanned. There’s a companion piece by McCarthy, about writing it, called “Settling the Colonel’s Hash,” and a much later scholarly analysis of that essay called “Unsettling the Colonel’s Hash,” that I don’t assign but make available.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem, by Joan Didion. I assign it for the same reason most people assign it: because it’s one of the books that made me want to be a writer. That may have been generational, though. My students like it, but they don’t love it. None come to class wearing oversized sunglasses.
“Professor Seagull,” by Joseph Mitchell. I have them buy Up in the Old Hotel, but all we read at the beginning is “Seagull,” set up for a slow reveal. Meantime, the lesson is about voices.
“Animal Show,” by Rosemary Mahoney, from Whoredom in Kimmage. “Writer walks into a bar” is an old story. Mahoney makes it fresh by finding the right voices and giving them to us true.
Specimen Days excerpts, by Walt Whitman. I use Whitman to talk about the term “literary journalism.” It’s not a term he used, but exemplified the paradox inherent in the term through his love of literature past – piety – and fundamentally democratic impulse of journalism.
“Breathing In,” from Dispatches, by Michael Herr. An immersion in deep subjectivity. Also, a reminder that prose should move.
Safe Area Gorazde, by Joe Sacco. I taught Sacco’s Footnotes from Gaza to a big class last term, and it was one of the best teaching experiences I’ve had. I taught this earlier book of comics journalism, from Bosnia, to grad students at NYU years ago, and while they loved it, they couldn’t connect it to their own work. Turns out undergrads are more agile about moving between image and text.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo. This replaces Melissa Faye Green‘s great Praying for Sheetrock as my excursion into the full potential of third person.
“Down at the Cross,” by James Baldwin. This one’s been on and off my syllabus, but it’s going back on here because Baldwin moves between memoir and reportage and essay. I don’t want students to think they must choose.
“Slaughterhouse,” from The Forbidden Zone, by Michael Lesy. By this point in the term, I want students to be venturing further off campus. “Slaughterhouse,” a minor masterpiece, is great because it gives them license to just write down what happened. Everything that happened.
“Needle and Thread,” in Number Our Days, by Barbara Myerhoff. To help students be aware of their role in an interview. They’re part of the story whether they want to be or not.
The Convert, by Deborah Baker. I can’t explain, without giving away the ending, why I assign this innovative book. It’s a very fine book and a great exposure to a different kind of immersion, that of the archive. It’s also ideal for the kind of debates students are ready for by the end of the term.
“Joe Gould’s Secret,” by Joseph Mitchell. Another one I can’t explain without a spoiler. After its companion piece, “Professor Seagull,” early in the term, “Joe Gould’s Secret” breaks the smart students’ hearts. It makes them decide to become writers or to never write again. Both honorable paths.
Jeff Sharlet (@JeffSharlet) is the nationally bestselling author of The Family, C Street, and Sweet Heaven When I Die. He’s coauthor, with Peter Manseau, of Killing the Buddha, and co-editor, with Manseau, of Believer, Beware, both derived from KillingTheBuddha.com, the online literary magazine they founded in 2000. Sharlet is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and Harper’s, and the Mellon Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Dartmouth College.
As a text, I’m a big fan of Telling True Stories, edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call (and I’m not just saying that because it’s a Nieman Foundation book and I’m doing this for a Nieman Foundation blog). It’s a wonderful collection of great writers talking about the essentials of nonfiction writing.
Structure: As for specific stories, structure is one of the most essential tools for writers to understand, so I absolutely harp on it in the classroom. We read and discuss a wide range of structures to really tease apart what structure is, how it’s held together, how it impacts the reading of a story. I always start teaching structure with something very basic, but still creative. One example: “How to Get Out of a Locked Trunk,” by Philip Weiss, which has a straightforward chronological structure (guy goes on a quest to figure out how to get out of a locked trunk). But of course the essay isn’t about getting out of a locked trunk – it’s about marriage, commitment, fear. Pieces like that are a good starting place to lay the groundwork and vocabulary for talking about more complicated structures. As a next step, “Travels in Georgia,” by John McPhee, is one of my essential go-to pieces for teaching structure because it’s brilliantly built. I talked a bit about that piece and why I use it here. Once we’ve covered that, I like to use a wide range of pieces with unusual or surprising structures, like Dinty Moore’s wonderful “Son of Mr. Green Jeans,” which uses the alphabet to organize short vignette-like paragraphs that collectively tell a story of fatherhood. Also Randy Shilts’ “Talking AIDS to Death,” and Lê Thi Diem Thúy’s “The Gangster We Are All Looking For.” (As an aside, I just finished reading Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, which would be a fun one to teach structure-wise. I find that reading fiction for structure can be very helpful for nonfiction writers, to help get them thinking about story, narrative drive, etc.)
Voice: I find that students often have a hard time pinpointing exactly what voice is, which is an essential first step toward helping them develop their own. I like to use collections of pieces by particularly voicey writers. Two of my favorite authors to do this with are Jeanne Marie Laskas and Susan Orlean. With Jeanne Marie, I start with “Enlightened Man,” her wonderful profile of Korey Stringer, the Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman who died of heat stroke during practice when he was 27. Jeanne Marie often does what she calls a “chameleon voice” – she spends a lot of time with the people she’s writing about, listening to their voices, so she can essentially channel their voices onto paper. In the Stringer profile, she is writing as Jeanne Marie but adopting Korey’s voice. For contrast, to illustrate how she changes her voice at will, I assign that profile alongside several other pieces of her writing: A few of her short personal “Significant Others” columns about living on a farm (one of my favorites was about planting a tree), plus some excerpts from her first book, The Balloon Lady And Other People I Know, which was (at least in part) written as her MFA thesis when she was a grad student. Some of those pieces have chameleon-type voices; others have Jeanne Marie’s very personal voice. So we look at all of those together, in chronological order starting from her earliest work to her latest, to look at what stays the same in her voice, what changes, what is “her voice” vs. the voices of those she’s writing about. After establishing what voice is, and how writers can alter their voice depending on what they’re writing, I like to look at how writers develop a personal and recognizable voice. Anyone who’s read a lot of Susan Orlean knows you can read a paragraph of her stuff without looking at the byline and know it’s Susan. But what does that mean? How does she do this? I assign students a big chunk of her stuff, starting back during her early days at an alternative weekly news paper, plus excerpts from her first book, Red Sox and Bluefish and Other Things That Make New England New England, her second book, Saturday Night, several of her New Yorker pieces, and The Orchid Thief. We discuss them generally as pieces of writing (structure, reporting, etc.), but the main goal is to specifically look at her voice throughout. In her early writing it changed a bit over time, becoming more honed, more Susan, but it’s still always distinctly Susan.
Rebecca Skloot (@RebeccaSkloot) is an award-winning science writer and the author of the No. 1 New York Times bestseller The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which is being translated into more than 25 languages, adapted into a young-reader edition and made into an HBO movie produced by Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball. She has taught in the MFA and journalism programs at the University of Memphis, New York University and the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned her MFA. She is at work on a new book, about the human-animal bond.