Welcome to the second session of our discussion with narrative instructors about the stories they’re assigning students this fall. If you missed Monday’s recommendations from Alex Kotlowitz, Doug Foster and Kelley Benham French, you can read them here.
Lisa Pollak, who won the Pulitzer Prize in feature writing as a reporter at the Baltimore Sun and worked as a producer for “This American Life” for nine years, is teaching a course called “Storytelling for the Ear” at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism this semester. Here are a few of the audio pieces she’s assigning to her students:
“Take My Break, Please,” by David Segal, [This American Life.] Before David Segal reported this hilarious, cringe-inducing radio story for “This American Life,” he wrote a print version for the Washington Post. The stories share the same main characters and plot (struggling comedy act earns and loses its big break the same day) but take different approaches to the storytelling: The radio version delays the big reveal for a can’t-stop-listening-to-it payoff. In class we’ll compare the two versions and talk about what made this print story translate so well to radio.
“And Daddy Makes Three,” by Dan Savage, [This American Life.] This funny, touching radio piece — about a 6-year-old boy who doesn’t want his two dads to get married — is a great example of writing that works just as well for the ear as it does for the eye. The piece was excerpted with few changes from Savage’s book “The Commitment” and it’s a great lesson for students in how to tell entertaining, meaningful personal narratives.
“Love is a Battlefield,” Alix Spiegel, [This American Life.] This story asks the question “Can love be taught?” and does so through an intimate narrative about a boy who can’t form attachments and his parents’ efforts to help him learn love. A story like this requires extensive, thoughtful interviewing; the second half of this assignment is a recent episode of the “How Sound” podcast in which Spiegel talks in detail about the interviewing techniques she used while reporting this story.
An assistant professor at Ashland University in Ashland, Ohio, and host of the Gangrey podcast, in which he interviews practitioners of narrative journalism, Matt Tullis persuaded an all-star lineup to Skype into his narrative journalism course this fall, among them Esquire writer and novelist Mike Sager and New York Times Magazine contributing writer Wil S. Hylton. To keep up with discussions, his students will be reading stories that include:
“A Brevard Woman Disappeared,” [Tampa Bay Times] by Michael Kruse. This story is the perfect example of using public records and observations to create a compelling narrative, one that also asks a question of society: How does this happen?
“The Boy Who Died of Football” and “The Legacy of Wes Leonard,” [Sports Illustrated] by Thomas Lake. I love how these stories, ostensibly about sports, transcend the games we play.
“The Essential Man,” [Esquire] by Chris Jones. There is a right way and a wrong way to write celebrity profiles. This story illustrates the perfect way to capture the essence of a famous person.
“Never Let Go,” [Tampa Bay Times] by Kelley Benham French and “Walking the Border,” [Esquire] by Luke Dittrich. I love well-crafted, first-person journalism, and these stories show how it’s done.
At the Nieman Foundation, our resident narrative non-fiction instructor is essayist and short story writer Steve Almond, who just published a new book, “Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto,” Some of the works he’ll assign to the Nieman Fellows he’s teaching this semester are:
“A Few Words About Breasts,” [Esquire] by Nora Ephron. A wonderful example of how the comic impulse can be a tool for investigating the self. Ephron is writing deep truths about gender insecurity, her own in particular, but of all of ours ultimately. She also makes the reader howl with laughter.
“Slaughterhouse-Five,” (Chapter One,) by Kurt Vonnegut. This is a remarkable example of radical disclosure. Before diving into his crazy, Sci-Fi novel, Vonnegut provides the backstory of his own struggle to write about the trauma of World War II. It makes the rest of the book even more deeply affecting.
“The Ticking is the Bomb,” by Nick Flynn. Nick Flynn is best known for his wrenching memoir, “Another Bullshit Night in Suck City.” I like this book just as much. It’s a thoughtful meditation on torture that blends reportage, cultural criticism, and sheer poetry.
What stories would be on your dream syllabus? Let us know at email@example.com.