Twelfth, and final, class

哇!The fact that you, as a class, requested to read each others’ final, 2500-word story – then sent them around on the class email unbidden, says it all. I’m proud of what you achieved individually in your writing this semester, and grateful for the time I got to spend with the 21 of you.

Remember, this class comes with a lifetime warranty, so don’t hesitate to write with editorial/job/college/book publishing questions, and tales of all your future adventures and success.

(Your final stories will be in the inbox or mail to you on Monday, April 30.)

Eleventh class

Where has the time gone? As Faulkner said, the problem with the past is that it’s never past, but in our case it feels like we started class last week. In this, our penultimate class, we talked about using archival research to create literary journalism, beginning with Timothy Garton Ash’s incomparable The File: A Personal History, and continuing with Adam Hochschild’s digging in the British Library, the battlefields of the Somme, and in the Russian offices of Memorial, among other places. We also read Dan Barry’s piece on Eleanor (in which the town is the character and the story is told almost entirely in summary), and looked at this piece from West Virginia. What a beginning!

Speaking of archives, today’s Guardian story details how the Crown destroyed or sequestered documents on colonial doings. Continuing with archives, remember that you can request FBI files here, and access thousands of post-Liberation newspapers and village annals/gazetteers here in Hong Kong at the Chinese University’s Centre for Chinese Studies. The last decade has also seen vast amounts of archives digitized – you can access every issue of the People’s Daily, the Times of London, and the New York Times. It’s always good to do a newspaper search on your topic, as there can be surprising results, as I found, coming across first-person reports of the Boxer Rebellion in Beijing.

Finally, you can send me your draft/notes of your last assignment by Friday at noon. Next class, bring a paper copy of the story (single-spacing is fine) with three potential publications up top. Do an I/me/my search, circle those verbs in your rough draft and ask yourself if there are better/more descriptive ones, and *read your draft aloud.* We heard great presentations this week on Orlean, Talese, Morris and Hemingway – remember that nugget from the latter: “Do not mistake movement for action.”

See you next week, with your story, Steinbeck and Nabokov in tow.

Tenth class

We heard presentations on Abraham Vergese, Spike Milligan, and Hunter S. Thompson, a trio whose dinner party it would be fun to observe the way Gay Talese shadowed Frank Sinatra. This class was about Talese, of course, and Bill Buford and George Plimpton and Kahta Pollit – how each of these writers participated in their reporting, even when it seems they are invisible.

We talked about the depth of reporting – and personal honesty – in these pieces: no composite characters, real names, verifiable facts, and detail after detail, even when in summary instead of scene.

Next week we’ll look at Adam Hochschild’s deep reporting of historical events using archives and other sources, and Dan Barry writing about a town’s past through observing its present. We’ll also hear the final batch of presentations, on Susan Orlean, Gay Talese, Jan Morris and Ernest Hemingway. Another dinner party that would be fun to observe . . .

Ninth class

We talked about how to drop a reader into a place – be it Patagonia, on a train, in Bombay or Beijing – with a sympathetic voice, and observed details. There are many ways of doing this: retelling a childhood dream about going there, shoving off from home and describing your fellow passengers, recounting first-night notebook fragments, and having a main character walk on stage (“The Widow opens my door without knocking.”).

We also heard presentations on Ian Johnson and David Foster Wallace. Links to their work can be found in the Readings sections of this site.

For the next class, read Gay Talese, Bill Buford (Granta), George Plimpton (The Paris Review) and Katha Pollitt (an award-winning columnist for The Nation). Many of you have asked whether your final writing assignment can be in the first-person. Yes! So much of the literary journalism we’ve read this term uses “I” as a character. As you’re reading the four authors above, note how they incorporate “I” (or not); how much information do they tell the reader about themselves, about their relation to the subject and story? And, as ever, make note of where the writer uses summary and scene – and why.

The theme for next class is Subjectivity, so on that note, I emailed you a short talk from a Nieman Lecture at Harvard on using “I.” It’s from a nice compilation titled “Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writer’s Guide from the Nieman Foundation,” which is in the HKU library, once Alexis returns it.

Turn in redrafts on paper next class, 4/11. If you have questions about your final 2,500-word story, don’t hesitate to email. I’m looking forward to reading your work – good things going on in class, keep it up.


Eighth class

Dickens invented Oliver and Pip, but — as Ally’s presentation taught us — he was a journalist and publisher as well, and drew from his experiences in creating his fiction. This week we discussed pieces about four real people: a movie star, a mayor, an orchid thief and a migrant worker. The writers had too much access, or none at all, and all four of the pieces give an intimate glimpse of a life through a combination of summary, scenes and characterization so observed we learn what the person drinks, how they talk, what other people call them, what they’re afraid of, and how their pants sag.

Each of these pieces started as articles, and we read Leslie Chang’s thoughts on the importance of deep reporting, but the difficulty of switching from a journalist to literary journalist’s voice. You can read those thoughts here.

We also talked, individually, about your final, 2500-word story: your topic, your character, and how to report it. In the next class, tell me what you’ve decided to write about. You have five weeks to report it, and the final piece should show that you’ve put in this legwork.

Next week we’ll read the final eight scenes, hear presentations on Ian Johnson and David Foster Wallace, and talk about four travel pieces – on Patagonia, on a train leaving London, in Bombay and Beijing.

Seventh class

We started the class by reviewing a technical, and Talese’ian, definition of Literary Journalism, and how the genre relies on fact to tell a story, but interpretations of those facts to tell a larger Story. This week’s theme was Subjectivity, and we began with Orwell, who said of Down and Out in Paris and London: “I think I can say that I have exaggerated nothing except in so far as all writers exaggerate by selecting.” Pamuk illustrates this in Istanbul, as does Didion writing about Patty Hearst and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. writing about Anatole Broyard.

I have to say, again, how impressed I was by the scenes submitted this week. You will learn far more reading your peers’ work than listening to me, especially when the writing is of this quality, and making use of the lessons our course authors exemplify. The pressure is on for Group 2, whose scenes are due Sunday, March 18.

On March 28, you should have a subject in mind for your 2,500-word final assignment. It is not too early to begin the reporting for that now.

Happy Founder’s Day!

Sixth class

We whipped through Capote and Kapuscinski, but keep both in mind when writing your scene assignment – in less than 1000 words, they keep the camera lens/reporter’s eyes focused on a place and time, and action with a beginning and end. McCann and Agee do this with a blend of action and summary – showing the mother sitting down to talk or the father’s turning on the hoses, then leaping forward in time to include many such instances. Naipaul walks the reader through the writing of a single sentence – his first for a book manuscript – and all that went on around it, not only for the character, but the writer. There is a ton of action – movements across oceans and over class and national boundaries — in that short excerpt from his autobiography.

Here’s the Tips-on-Scenes lecture from the Nieman series. We covered the main points in class, so this is just for reference. I think you’ve seen better examples via our readings (long tracking-shot in real time with the general zapping Charlie Cong; closed set in a Beijing taxi with Manon). Keep the five senses in mind.

Also, Orhan Pamuk’s excerpt from Istanbul is great. He uses old photographs (which he includes) to describe a city’s emotion.

Happy break!

Fifth class

We read Simpson in Tiananmen Square, Thompson at the Kentucky Derby and O’Brien in Vietnam, reacting to each on the continuum of Objective Truth to Story Truth. We also began looking at scenes – how Thompson, for example, structured his piece around a series of Obstacles and Fantasies (or external and internal conflicts), while O’Brien alternates the narrative between scenes of reading of a letter and exposition of whose these characters are, where they are, and what they’re doing.

Jennifer gave the first presentation. Next week we’ll hear two more, finish responding to the Character assignment, and talk about McCann, Agee, Kapuscinski, Capote and Naipaul. As you read, mark the start and end of what you consider to be a “scene.” (In fact, you can skim some of the longer pieces – such as Kapuscinski — when you think we’re in exposition/set piece mode, pulling the lens away from a scene.)

And I’ll try not to talk about Benjamin Luca/程路客 the entire time. Thanks again for the card and your excellent work in class. Keep going!

Fourth class

We loved/hated Norman Mailer and John McPhee, but agreed that Joseph Mitchell was a success, via Mr. Hunter. If you’re interested in the thirty-year writer’s block that followed, here is one report.

Next week we’ll read Temily, Alexis, Saga, Manon, Jennifer, Jala and Anne-Laure. In addition to your usual notations while reading (on details, dialogue, conflict, motivation and a character’s action), try making an outline of the piece – what is the writing trying to achieve, and why is it working, or not?

Jennifer will give the first author presentation, on Adam Hochschild. The point of the assignment is to talk to and/or read more about the work and life of a writer you admire, and want to introduce to others. You can’t read all of his/her work, of course, but you can survey enough to see a pattern of his/her subjects, or a style of how books and articles are structured – how they begin and end, for example, what characters are included, and themes that run through the work. (Orwell, for example, often writes about principles and class.) Speaking of the “meet cute” type of story – please tell us how this person became a writer, and managed to make a living. A paid newspaper position? Scripts? Selling insurance by day and typing at night?

Finally, via Alexis, here’s a recent post on the New Yorker Books blog about fact-checking literary journalism. Conclusion: Don’t make stuff up to “fit” a story. Reality works just fine. Further to this, via Samantha, is a clever essay on Slate arguing the same, by including 32 falsehoods, revealed at the end.

Third class

We began class with Dan Barry’s three-act, active-verb-laden piece about Alberto Wickehem’s “excellent hands,” and discussed by stories pieced together via back issues of the Baltimore Sun, observed from a helicopter in Vietnam, followed for a year in small Colorado town, and, in Thurber’s case, perhaps transcribed from hallucinations.

Next week we’ll read character pieces by Yujia, Xinyan, Samantha, Emilia, Helen, Natalie and Lily. Look for them in your Inbox by Sunday night. Remember: we’re focusing on structure and storytelling technique, not content. The material is a pile of puzzle pieces that you’re assembling into a whole. The goal is to grab the reader, and hold him/her to the end.

By way of further example — I did this assignment as a grad student, which you can read here: The Photograph. It’s long, but a quick glance will give you the idea of its structure, and the building of suspense. I had a photograph of the subject on my desk, alongside hand-written notes of interviews I had done with his teachers about his reading skills, and the newspaper reports of the rape on school grounds. The challenge was to assemble these pieces in a manner that went beyond how the boy and crime were portrayed in news reports. It was an exercise in chopping up the narrative and seeing if it could be built into something even “truer” than a straight news story. It was also a way of allowing other voices into the piece – how the character is seen by other people.

On to presentations: Thus far, people have signed up for Jan Morris, Adam Hochschild, Hunter S. Thompson, David Foster Wallace, Peter Hopkirk, Peter Hessler, Susan Orlean, Qian Gang, Gay Talese and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.