If you’ve been following 40 Towns, the new literary journalism magazine produced by Jeff Sharlet’s creative nonfiction students at Dartmouth, you’ve seen longform stories about ex-cons, a roadside motel, a bead shop, a diner, a homeless woman named Tecumseh, and more — stories that get inside the lives of people of the Upper Valley. Sharlet’s students fanned out to dozens of towns and communities, looking for the kind of immersion-reporting opportunities that would produce “literary journalism from the fault line between Vermont and New Hampshire,” as the magazine’s Twitter bio puts it. Sharlet, a contributing editor at Harper’s and Rolling Stone, and the best-selling author of The Family and other books, wanted his students writing with a goal: to be read. Sharlet will be here Wednesday at 3 p.m. for a live chat with essayist Leslie Jamison about the state of literary journalism, so please join us. Until then, have a look at our long chat with him (edited slightly for length and clarity) about 40 Towns. Discussed: the trouble with magazines, the problem with formulas, the practical stuff young writers should be learning, why literary journalists should learn to write before learning to report, explaining the writing life to Mom and Dad, the future of 40 Towns and more. “I would like to launch the careers of the students who are graduating,” Sharlet says, “but I also want to make 40 Towns an institution at the college so that it becomes a sort of long-term vehicle for students to write and to publish, and to launch themselves.”
Storyboard: So how did this start?
Sharlet: Basically, I’ve been teaching here for three years, and before that I taught for a couple of years in NYU’s graduate journalism program, and every single term there was someone, and often more, who’d write something that was just great, something that I admired the way a writer envies another writer. It was frustrating to sort of see at the end of the term that stuff disappear. I’d actually vouch for 40 Towns being better than a lot of professional work out there, but it’s not gonna be published because the subject matter is “small.” Because the writer is not as polished. Some of the virtue of each piece — that it’s utterly lacking in formula — is an obstacle to getting published. So there was that. I’d see this great work and hate to see it go into the void. Years and years ago, when I was an undergraduate, my teacher was a guy named Michael Lesy, who’s probably best known for his book Wisconsin Death Trip, and he would have us do a publication. I was at Hampshire College, and to pick a topic we’d sort of go into the neighboring city of Northampton, and that would be our subject, or Amherst College would be a subject. The course was called Writing to Be Read. And that made a big impression on me. I think this is in fact an especially important obstacle for young writers: They write but they don’t publish. Attempting to publish your work is sort of the completion of a process, so I would tell students, “Look, I want you to try and publish your work, I don’t care where. And I don’t care if you get rejected, I want you to take that step. That’s a step that liberates you to move on to the next story.” So many young writers can get caught up in perfecting and perfecting and perfecting, which is actually usually just procrastination, procrastination, procrastination. My students, I’m sure, did way more revision than most undergraduates have ever encountered. It always blows their minds when — I don’t know about you but when I do a magazine story I put it through so many drafts before I even send it to the editor. And then we go through it. Students think, “Oh, three drafts or four drafts, that’s crazy!” I’m like, “What you see in The New Yorker or Harper’s probably went through 25 drafts.”
Yep — before even sending it. Self-imposed drafts.
Right. That allows you to think more fluidly about what a draft is. So, allowing these students to do that, and to take that step to publishing, it seemed pedagogically an important thing. I just finished this at the end of the term, so I haven’t actually seen my colleagues in poetry and fiction, but I don’t know that a project like this would make as much sense for them. It’s something I’ve thought a lot about with nonfiction. We had two students last year who were ready to publish their senior thesis, their poetry theses. as books, but that’s very rare. With nonfiction, I feel like students don’t know that stories are old and have been done too many times, so they do it again, like hang out at a 24-hour diner, like Lindsay Ellis did in “Kings of the Counter,” or just hanging out with a homeless person, like Nate Kania. The pieces become great because the writers don’t know the formulas. They know what fiction is. When they sit down to write a short story, whether it’s realist or fantasy or whatever, they’re imitating Harry Potter. That’s what they think a story is. And if they write a poem they’re imitating Billy Collins. Nonfiction? They’ve got no guide. I mean we’re constantly reading in class but because none of that material is hitting them with the kind of reverence the way that they know famous poets and fiction writers, they feel free to say, as they did with James Agee, “The problem with this guy is that he just can’t write very well.”
I’ve had ’em trash Joan Didion, too. It’s just amazing. But you know, the good students are the ones who look and look again, until they understand why other people love these writers. I read fiction theses and I read for prizes and so on, and I rarely, rarely see undergraduate fiction that I think, “This needs to be published.” But I see nonfiction all the time. The question becomes are you gonna be the kind of teacher who goes a little bit with the MFA kind of apprenticeship model, which is, “Children gather ’round at my feet and I’ll dispense wisdom,” or are you gonna say, “Look, we’re all writers in this room. I’ve been doing this for longer so I can tell you some things, but we’re gonna do this project together?” I think that’s gonna work better. I enjoy it so much more than the other way, I’ll say that. This project also comes from the fact that I’m living in a very remote area and I want to get to know it, and you can’t, as in New York, just go out for a walk and stumble into a million different things. I live five miles from the post office, on country roads. So this was the kind of magazine that, when I moved up here, I wished there was. There’s a couple sort of glossy magazines and there’s a terrific small-town newspaper called Valley News, which is astonishingly good, but there was nothing. And all these things — I find out there’s a hobo camp behind the K-mart, I find out about all these little subcultures. One of my favorite pieces is “Going Back Around,” by Catherine Treyz: This kid goes over to White River Junction — there are these odd little pockets of almost post-industrial space, and that’s one of them — and she comes back and says, “I’m gonna write about a bead store.” I said, “Oh my God, I dread having to read that.” But she says, “No, I think there’s something there.” And it’s this great, strange piece that gets at those tensions between author and subject. Regionalism can give a frame that makes students better, and also a region that they don’t think they know. I look at some of the stories that come out of NYU — I’m picking on it because I know it, not because I want to pick on it; there’s so many wonderful students there — it’s very difficult for a young writer to do anything in New York that not only hasn’t been done but that hasn’t been done better. So you get Joseph Mitchell knockoffs and Gay Talese knockoffs. Here, I have the advantage of a region that people think is very quaint. And it’s not. New York is kind of what you think New York is, in all its splendor; rural New England is not what the rest of the country imagines it to be.
Other teachers in other regions could use the idea with their students.
Oh, absolutely. If you give students the right conditions, those who do not come in as strong writers and certainly not as reporters — and almost none of these writers had any idea of what reporting was — can do better work than my best students before this. I almost feel a little bad about this, like I should’ve been doing this earlier and giving these opportunities to these other students. I mean I did, but the other thing about Dartmouth is that it’s such an isolated campus — I mean these students have been all over the world but they have not been to the town next door. And they kind of don’t want to go. There’s a real ripple of class anxiety running through all these stories. Maybe no more so than Nate’s story. He puts on what he describes as his “rich douchebag who likes to party” sunglasses and goes off to this kind of hobo party. I mean I love that piece because he’s slowly realizing, “Wait a minute, I belong here, I get along well here.” At the same time he’s terrified. You see a transformation.
If they had little to no reporting experience, how did that level of instruction go? How did you advise?
To a certain extent the ones with the least reporting experience were the ones that did the best. I’ve got a couple of stories coming from ones who had written for the student newspaper; they really had to break this very dull talking-head habit. Which is where students on student newspapers so often don’t do original work — they try to make their pieces as much like a New York Times piece or a Washington Post piece as they can. But they’re not as good at writing New York Times articles as New York Times reporters are. And so the pieces are very, very pale echoes. The kids with no idea what reporting was about just figured, “I’d better insert myself in this place.” They get at some of the awkwardness. Danny Valdes and “The Shady Lady,” that’s one of my favorites. Danny went over there and just stood in the parking lot, not knowing what to do, and got that great scene where the 10-year-old girl comes along and offers to be his guide because he’s so clueless. There’s a little bit of James Agee there and a little bit of John McPhee, and those seem like such opposite writers but you become more aware of the filter through which you’re looking at things. Like John McPhee, you become aware of the value of asking stupid questions, especially when you don’t know what questions to ask. It’s really interesting because in Danny’s case it reveals not the kind of sordid violent drug culture, which is also there, but this kind of sweet collection of kids trying to make their lives there. I’m not opposed to learning how to report, obviously, I just think you want to do some writing before you learn how; you don’t want to start with that. There’s a good story called “Brace Yourself,” by Kendall Madden, about two women who got out of prison, and she learned her reporting after that. She decided, “Okay, I need to learn about women in prison, statistics, recidivism, all that kind of stuff,” but she only figured that out after she’d had this series of powerful conversations with these women. She really wanted to know, not in a dutiful way; suddenly that information seemed essential to understanding her subjects’ experience.
We talk a lot about how the best narrative journalism rests on a foundation of solid reporting and how it’s not about style over substance; you’re suggesting not the opposite of that but rather a different entry point.
Exactly. That’s really important. Good reporting is what matters here. It’s just, what do we mean by “good reporting?” To me, the first thing in good reporting has always been immersion: You just go and you be in that place for a while. For “Kings of the Counter” Lindsay Ellis decided, “I’m just gonna go to this diner and be there.” And she was there a lot. I mean she spent really half her term, every minute that she could, just sitting at this counter at this diner. That’s reporting. Not: How many small businesses in New Hampshire, gathering numbers, that kind of thing. It was being attuned to the dynamics. You and I have discussed this before — I have one class called Investigative Memoir. The title tells you what it is. I don’t allow any straight memoir. If you can write your story without getting up from your desk I don’t want to read it. I’m not saying that that work isn’t good. I’m happy to say we have way more of it than we need. You and I have talked about (John) D’Agata — there’s a little bit of a sense that the lyric essay is an attempt — not D’Agata, because for all his sins D’Agata really does go and do reporting, right?
Well, I mean — seriously?
He goes places. He gets up from his desk and —
Okay, but that’s not synonymous with reporting, just being there.
He takes his notebook, he asks people questions. He doesn’t write down the answers correctly and then he makes stuff up to make it sound better.
I’m only using him as an example, to differentiate him from the kind of lyric essayist who — they recognize the exhaustion of sit-at-your-desk memoirists who say, “You know what, if I break this up with some numbers, and if I Google some esoteric data and shoehorn that in, then it’s like I reported it.” Google is not reporting. So yeah, in that sense that was also part of this class. I insisted that they get off campus because otherwise they’d write stories about their friends, and that’s not reporting either. They needed to go to a place where they had a notebook or a tape recorder and they had to document stuff, they had to fact check it. The fact checking was not as strong as I’d like but now that I know that that’s an issue I’ll push it more next time. You want the fact checking not just as a pragmatic experience, but as an aesthetic experience.
Do you have them fact check each other?
No, I don’t do that. Do you think I should? Maybe I should.
As long as they’re not colluding, yeah, that could be cool. Because you learn a lot by fact checking somebody else’s work.
Oh you do! You do. You learn the shiftiness of facts, the unreliability of sources; your story almost always gets more nuanced and complex, not just in terms of data points but also when you call someone back about quotes. You don’t let them change anything, obviously, but they may say, “What I meant was,” and that can be really valuable. So yeah that’s a great idea. Next time I think I’ll have them fact check each other. Of course that means they have to get their stuff done earlier. The fact checking exercise that I usually do — and this is the only place in the course where I use my own stuff — I bring in one paragraph from a (published) story of mine and say, “Okay, break up into teams and count how many facts need to be checked here.” They’ll range anywhere from eight to 25, and I’ll say, “Okay, the fact checker for Rolling Stone flagged something like 45 things to be checked in that paragraph alone.”
I love that.
And then we go through it and start reading it out loud together, and they start getting it. Fact checking becomes interesting, especially when you’re talking to people about their lives. The homeless woman, Tecumseh, that Nate writes about, she’s making up stories about her life. And so Nate had this really interesting experience of realizing that not all these stories could be true. So what does he do with this? Does he say, “Liar!” Or does he try to figure out what’s going on with this. And I love that, because my own undergrad experience years ago — I was in San Diego, on the homeless beat, and befriended this guy and he told me he’d been at Khe Sanh, in Vietnam, and I was very impressed. I told my dad, who among other things was a historian of Vietnam, and he said, “How old is this guy?” I said, “Thirty or something.” And he’d have been like 13 at Khe Sanh. And I started realizing how many people back then — this was the early ’90s — would tell you they’d been in Vietnam. That became the narrative by which they’d explain themselves. That puts any writer in an interesting place. There’s plenty of professional writers who could do with this kind of wrestling. There’s also plenty of professional writers who could do with this kind of immersion. The reality is that magazine pieces don’t allow you to hang out in a place for four weeks. As I looked at all these pieces — I just enjoyed these stories so much more than the latest issue of the various magazines I subscribe to.
You’ve mentioned the destructive power of the magazine formula. What do you mean?
That’s tricky, because the formulas I know are from the magazines that I have worked for, and I don’t want to trash them. And, you know, I tell my students, “Formulas are not bad things. There are reasons for formulas, especially when you understand a magazine as an aesthetic project that is bigger than you.” The New Yorker has a bigger project than any one writer in it. Same with Harper’s. So if you want to come and be a part of that project you can do so on their terms. I’m talking about simple things like — at Harper’s, I was writing for them for years before I knew that no section could be longer than — I’m forgetting exactly but something like 1,200 or 1,800 words. I had just been thoughtlessly conforming to that style for a long time, partly because I like the magazine and I’d read it and was sort of emulating it, so I heard the beats in the story in that same way. The same with Rolling Stone. It’s a magazine that I love and a magazine that I think is very respected, but occasionally I’ll come upon people who don’t realize Rolling Stone — they’re one of the last places that’ll run really long stories; they’re not the New York Times magazine. If they’ve got a 14,000- or 15,000-word story, they’ll do it. That said, there’s things you don’t put in a Rolling Stone story. And I know this from experience. When I publish in Rolling Stone, I write a Harper’s story and then de-Harper’s-ize it.
What do you mean?
There are things I like about Harper’s, where you go back and forth between scene and a sort of meditation, a more essayistic form; Rolling Stone, you don’t do that. You go back and forth between scene and hard reporting. That shapes what that story is. Again, those are good formulas. Like, what is it in Jewish law? You’re not supposed to study the Talmud until you’re 40? I feel like magazine writers shouldn’t actually know the magazine formulas until they’re 30. You don’t want to mess with those until you’re old enough to work with them as opposed to slavishly trying to imitate them, crushing your voice at an early age. I would go so far as to say this is why magazines are dying. The other thing is, in the new age of the Internet or whatever, the reality is that training students for that old way is really, really ridiculous. I’m always telling the student paper, “What are you doing? Why are you trying to master Washington Post style? That’s not going to exist five years from now.” You know? Look at the New York Times — look at the big avalanche piece. If you want to prepare for your future in journalism, study that. Study Grantland. Study some of the reported essays you see in The Millions, or The Awl. Or don’t study those, just write stuff. I’ve been feeling this way for a long time, that we’re actually in a golden age. I mean it’s a big die-off for traditional media but the 1930s was not such a good time for traditional media either — yet it was a great time for American writing. It was the age of the little magazine. And here we are now, in the age of the little magazines again. Except they’re not so little. I remember saying to my publisher, “A review in The Nation would be nice; they’ve got about 40,000 subscribers, or whatever it is, but a review in The Millions, with 200,000 readers, that would matter a lot more.” And they’d never heard of The Millions. So 40 Towns is like a little magazine, right? We’re up to about 8,000 readers, which is not very many except that the Georgia Review’s is like 5,000.
You’ve already surpassed the Georgia Review?
My left toe could surpass the Georgia Review. It’s not that hard. We’ve been talking about this within the context of magazines but on the other end of the spectrum there’s literary journals. In some ways the problem with literary journals is that they’re terrified of the word “about.” If the Georgia Review was actually about Georgia, I would actually like it better, but “about” supposedly undermines your devotion to art. These 40 Town stories — part of what makes these stories great is that they’re about a particular place. They are about the Upper Valley. I thought about this a lot, because if you create a publication at a college one of the questions that arises is, “Well, will it be open to other work from other classes? What if someone wants to write a poem about autumn leaves?” No! No, they can’t! They can be in the literary journal! Traditional literary journals, the readership is mostly comprised of people who are in that journal or want to be in that journal. But you make a publication “about” something and suddenly people are reading it — there’s non-writers reading it. There’s non-writers reading it, holy shit, from the literary journal world. That’s astonishing, to get someone who has no intention of submitting anything; they just like to read. In some ways I’ve been framing this in terms of magazines because that’s where I come from and ultimately where I see the most vital work, but the allure and temptation and pitfall for students is literary magazines, literary journals, especially if you are in a creative writing program or an MFA program. The reality is that there’s an economy going on there. Your publication in the Georgia Review is more valuable to you than your essay in Esquire. An essay in Esquire or GQ, that could hurt you.
Oh my God, in the academic world? I’ve got a piece coming out in VQR, Virginia Quarterly Review, which I love, and of the literary journals it’s one of my favorites because they are really dedicated to reporting. They were under Ted Genoways and now they’ve got these new editors, and they’ve always been doing longform reporting. That’s a good thing. I exist in an English department that knows who I am, what I do, and they’re supportive of it, but when you go for tenure you’re being evaluated by — you don’t know who they are. And there are lots of English departments in the country who’d see Rolling Stone on my CV and kind of turn up their nose. That snobbery goes the same way, though. You can do your super piece for VQR, Georgia Review — do not expect that to open doors for you at Rolling Stone.
I guess they don’t take into account that sometimes people need to take certain assignments just to survive, to pay the rent.
Oh, yeah. And I took the Rolling Stone job because I love writing for Rolling Stone and also because they have the resources that allow me to do some of the aesthetic things that I want to do. Instead of writing my ponderous essay, “My Thoughts on Occupy,” Rolling Stone had the money to allow me to travel down there and to see the Occupy in different cities and so on. That’s an aesthetic reality, versus the endless kind of written-from-the-desk kind of thing. The reality, I think, for the MFA world, if you’re looking for a teaching job or for grants, or if you’re looking to go to artist colonies, those smaller publications are more valuable. I mean they’re probably more valuable than anything except maybe The New Yorker and Harper’s. And I know that’s not fair to a lot of wonderful magazines, or to magazines that are not so wonderful but that publish wonderful things.
Do you guys talk about this kind of stuff in your classes? Because maybe some of your students are thinking long term about whether to go academia and write on the side or —
I talk about it and I always have. I’ve always said, “Look, you need to understand your writing practice as many things. And among others it is an economic practice. You are engaged in keeping yourself alive — emotionally, psychologically but also physically. You need to think about that. You need to think about what’s going to enable you to keep doing the work. You need to make those choices. You write a book so that you can write another book. You write a magazine story so that you can write another one, so that you can live this life.” So yeah, we talk about that a lot. In fact, I do it more at Dartmouth even more than I did at NYU — those kids were in J-school; they were in professional training. If this is happening at Dartmouth this is happening everywhere: They are overwhelmed — overwhelmed! — with practical information about how to go into finance and how to go to Wall Street, and how much money they can make. These corporate recruiters come around on campus — I would love it, like, if FSG would come around on campus and recruit people. That’s wonderful for students who want to do that, but part of the reason the humanities have suffered — and in humanities I include magazine writing — is because of a certain kind of preciousness in the narrative of art that has prevented us from advising our students very realistically about how to do this stuff. I mean really basic things. My students did not know about tax deductions. That’s something you need to know! You need to know that if you’re writing and you’re buying books for your project, that’s all tax deductible. And they also need to know things like — they’re sitting there trying to do their work in the library with people talking, and they’re not understanding why it’s not going well. It’s because you need to figure out how to get yourself a dedicated space. Some of you can work in noise, but a lot of you can’t. So how do you get that dedicated space? Maybe through one of these writer retreats. Or maybe you decide to think like a small-business person and make an investment in a studio.
With undergraduates the interesting thing is, a lot of these students, especially at a place like Dartmouth, they are wrestling against expectations. The average income for a Dartmouth graduate is something like $160,000. That’s not going to be the case if you go into writing. So they’re wrestling against that; they’re wrestling against their parents — something like 43 percent of our students come in declaring that they want to be premed. And something like 11 percent come in saying they want to do humanities. Those numbers shift radically over time as they discover that the only reason they wanted to be premed was that there was a promise of being wealthy, and of course doing good, helping people. I tell them all this pragmatic stuff so that they can carry it home to their parents and say, “There is a way to do this.” So that when someone asks them that cheesy question, “What’re you gonna do with an English major?” they can say, “Well I’m gonna pursue writing and I know there’s gonna be bumps but there’s all these ways to do it, and it may or may not work.” Being a lawyer may or may not work either. They can take 40 Towns to their parents and say, “Look, Mom and Dad, here’s this piece.” And, “Look, Nieman Storyboard, which is a thing at Harvard, which is another brand name you love,” and “Look, nice words from editors” — this is a thing that can be done. You can take them seriously in a way that student literary magazines are never taken seriously. We take seriously our young scientists. We take seriously our young economics majors. But we don’t take seriously our young writers.