I knew it was going to be a great class the second week of the semester, when Mike Sager told my 11 undergraduate journalism majors about the time he snorted coke with a pimp who lived on his block — all for a story he was working on.
The narrative journalism class at Ashland University is essentially the final writing/reporting class our journalism majors take. It’s made up of juniors and seniors, some who will end up working in newspapers or magazines, others radio and TV, and still more who will do something entirely different altogether.
You need to know a bit about AU, though, to understand why what Sager said was so, well, awesome. Ashland is a mid-sized liberal arts university smack dab at the midpoint between Cleveland and Columbus. The university was founded by the Brethren Church, and while it’s not a religious school per se (it does have a seminary), a lot of our students come from the surrounding area, which means they often come in with strong religious views, almost all of them of the Christian bent.
And so it was, as Sager, a writer-at-large for Esquire, dropped F-bomb after F-bomb (“Steinbeck was very fucking journalistic!”) and talked about getting high with a pimp and trying to convince Brooke Burke to have sex with him when he was reporting “The Secret Life of a Beautiful Woman” in 1999, that eyes started to widen.
But this was good. I wanted my students to feel uncomfortable, because that’s what good narrative journalism does to you. It takes you to a place you haven’t been and wouldn’t necessarily go, and it does that for the reporter as well as the reader. And while you’re at that place, you start thinking about life, your life, the subject of the story’s life. You start thinking about what it means to be human. What it means to suffer and what it means to triumph.
I knew when I started planning the class that I wanted my students to talk with some of the outstanding journalists they would be reading during the semester. I’ve long believed that the best way to learn how to write narrative journalism is to read a lot, write a lot, and talk to the best in the business, a lot. I’m always rejuvenated, as a reporter and a writer, whenever I hang out with people who I know are better than me when it comes to telling nonfiction stories.
Initially, I thought maybe I could get one or two nationally renowned reporters to Skype into the class. But as I thumbed through “Next Wave: America’s New Generation of Great Literary Journalists,” edited by Sager and Walt Harrington, I figured I would go for broke. I knew a decent number of the reporters in that anthology thanks to Gangrey: The Podcast, the podcast I host and produce, and which features many of these very reporters talking about their work. So I emailed 14 of them. In the end, every single one said yes. Fourteen of the country’s best reporters agreed to spend 45 minutes to an hour talking to 11 undergraduate students, to share their secrets, to talk about how they get people to open up and how they make words sing. It was a narrative journalist’s dream.
Every week, my students were assigned three or four stories by the reporter we would be talking to next. By the end of the semester, they had read hundreds of thousands of words.
And then they asked questions. Lots and lots of questions. And they got some amazing answers.
They asked Wil S. Hylton, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and author of “Vanished: The Sixty-Year Search for the Missing Men of World War II,” how he recreated for an article in GQ the heartbreaking scene of a mother driving her 11-year-old son 60 miles to a hospital, where she planned to abandon him so he could get the mental health help he needed.
“You have to keep asking the same questions over and over and over again and look for places the story changes,” Hylton said. “Memories are fallible, so I would say, ‘You remembered that differently the last time we talked.’ That’s when they interrogate their own memory. That’s when they remember the minute details.”
They asked Eli Saslow how he got to the point where he could essentially write whatever story he wanted to at The Washington Post, and at such a young age. Saslow, who is 32, started at the Post covering high school volleyball, but has now won one Pulitzer Prize and was a finalist for another.
“People who are thriving are doing so because they have found something they care about,” he responded. “I had a pretty good sense early on about what I wanted to do. And then it was all about getting better and better with every story. It’s a super-long evolution, and I’m not nearly there yet. It’s just making sure you’re always continuing to challenge yourself.”
And they asked Chris Jones, a two-time National Magazine Award winner and writer for Esquire and ESPN The Magazine, about his incredible essay about contemplating suicide. That piece ran in an issue of Esquire focused on mental health. The essay wasn’t published online until Robin Williams committed suicide. I hadn’t told Jones to expect questions about this piece because I didn’t know it existed. I had somehow missed it in the magazine when it came out. My students found it on their own, though, and asked what it was like to write something so personal. He was silent for about 30 seconds while he contemplated an answer.
“The nice thing about writing is I never have to face my audience,” Jones said as he faced his audience. “I hardly ever think of something being read. Nobody knew that stuff. My wife didn’t know about that stuff. But I had been feeling a lot better, and I thought it was important to share that stuff.”
But did it work? Did this idea of reading a lot and writing a lot and talking to these remarkable reporters and writers work? Did my students write great, 2,000-word narratives? As with every class, some students did. Some didn’t. But here’s the thing: most of the pieces had voice. They had structures that looked like the stuff they had read. They all tackled topics that were difficult in their own ways. And a few were remarkable, far better than I had hoped for.
They wrote about friends grieving for a classmate who died in a car crash, an 89-year-old cleaning lady with just one remaining client, and an SPCA humane officer who still thinks about one horrific dog rescue.
Nobody in the class took an easy way out. They all attempted difficult stories, and they all succeeded in one way or another. At the very least, they made themselves uncomfortable. They took risks.
And this, I think, was the most important lesson from the semester. Great reporters aren’t great because perfect stories just flow out of them. They are great reporters because they take chances. They try stories no one else will. Sometimes they work. Sometimes they don’t. But in every case, the great reporters, the ones who talked to my class last fall, are striving for that flawless story, even when they know it’s impossible.
Seth Wickersham, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, talked about the time he was in college and he wrote a story about a football player whose dad was an alcoholic. He wrote the story from the second-person point of view of the alcohol. He said it was an internship at The Washington Post that taught him to rein in his language, to be more clear and concise.
Kelley Benham French, formerly a reporter and editor at the Tampa Bay Times and now a professor at Indiana University, spoke about the regrets that linger from her remarkable story “Kennel Trash,” and how she didn’t notice, or was afraid to notice, the story shift under her feet. She wrote a story about compassion, about women charged with putting rescued dogs to sleep. But she realizes now the story should have been about stereotyping, how pit bulls were put to sleep simply because they were pit bulls.
“Looking back, you can make a strong case that journalists have turned pit bulls into boogie men by reporting inaccurately,” she said to the class. “I wish I had let my emotions guide me more. I was too cautious.”
Chris Jones said he pitches 20 story ideas for every one story Esquire takes. And he’s on staff there. He pitched his iconic Roger Ebert profile for six months and it wasn’t until Taylor Swift backed out of a proposed story, he said, that he got the go-ahead.
I gave a presentation on this class at a College of Arts and Sciences meeting at AU, and one faculty member asked how much I had to pay these reporters to spend time with my students. Nothing, I said. They do it, I suspect, because they love narrative journalism, and they see value in teaching others not only how to do it but how and why they should love it.
Now that the semester is over, I truly think some of my students left with a love of this type of reporting and writing. That leaves me hopeful for the future of narrative journalism, and makes me think, maybe, just maybe, one day in 10 or 15 years I’ll be Skyping with one of these 11 students as they talk to a new generation of students about the stories they’ve written.
For 10 pieces of advice these writers gave the students, go here.