Go long and go deep: teaching literary journalism

Bill Reynolds

Bill ReynoldsOne of the best ways I have found to teach the work of the writers who depend on Tom Wolfe’s four horsemen of the literary journalism apocalypse (or so the manifesto seemed to imply, some thirty-five years ago), that is, scenes, details, dialogue, and point-of-view, is to “go long and go deep.” That is, apply the principles of writing employed by literary journalists to the teaching of their work: interview authors, often more than once, go over in detail the steps taken to create the work, and engage in a discussion of strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, do’s and don’ts, methods, personal ticks, etc. — all of which can enrich students’ understanding of the piece itself.

This is an elementary proposition, to be sure, but one that has yielded success and at least four observations. First, students learn more about the work when their curiosity is satiated. The writers we teach seem superhuman to them, and they wonder how they can ever possibly live up to these heroic standards. When I casually mention tidbits such as John Vaillant not settling on a writing career until his mid-thirties; or William Langewiesche struggling for years, mostly in vain, before landing a staff writing position at The Atlantic Monthly; or Jon Krakauer disciplining himself to write a professional query letter every day, hoping to break into an intensely competitive marketplace — they begin to realize the level of seriousness required to do literary journalism well.

Second, students are motivated to delve deeper into the text when an instructor can provide examples of ethical struggles or eureka moments the author might have experienced during the researching of the story. Almost always, if you engage a writer on his or her turf, there will be something in the writer’s experience that had a deep affect, one that crystallized their approach to researching, interviewing and writing. If the instructor can build a telling scene from that writer’s life, something that created an indelible impression on the writer at that time, students tend to understand better the point of the book, or at least what is at stake for the writer.

Third, when students read literary journalism, they’re usually in the process of absorbing a writer’s unique voice. What I have found to work especially well is to present back to students excellent quips, snippets and comments writers might make over the course of an interview. Whether about the act of writing itself, or about an aspect of how the story was created, great quotations directly from the source go a long way to keeping students engaged in the process. If I directly quote the writer as saying, “I just dynamited it,” referring to a writer’s deep structural edit of his own work, this adds a colourful dimension to the creator of the text for students.

Finally, students became more engaged in the text when glimpsing the inside story of the writer’s point of view. They are attracted to writers who have strong opinions about journalistic methods, and definite ideas about what works and what does not. Especially when it is a controversial subject. For example, a few years ago Toronto journalist Ian Brown came into my Advanced Magazine Writing classroom and delivered his entertaining, provocative lecture on inspiration. He looked at the large television set hinged to the wall near the window. He looked at the black iron grillwork hanging from the ceiling. He said you must write what you see. But look, you’re at a school of journalism and already you’re caged in and mediated. There is a cage above you and a television between you and the street. That’s the way it always is. But you must write down exactly what you see — not what your editor tells you to see, not what you think you’re supposed to see, not what the public relations person tells you to see, not what your fellow writers say they see, but just exactly what you yourself see. Try it, and you will begin to understand how difficult — but also how liberating — literary journalism can be.

Inspired, enthusiastic guest speakers who are enthralled with the craft, plus informed commentary of personal historical background, plus the telling quotes about how the writer got the story — all of these factors have enhanced the learning experience for students and made the job of communicating literary journalistic excellence that much easier.

Bill Reynolds
is an assistant professor at
Ryerson University’s School of Journalism. He has a Master’s in philosophy and
was the long-time editor of
Eye Weekly in Toronto. His This magazine feature
Crossing the Line” won the gold award for essays at the 2005 National
Magazine Awards. He was a resident at the Banff Centre’s 2006 Literary
Journalism program, completing a manuscript about life and death in the
bike lane, which was later
published in The Walrus.  He is currently secretary-treasurer of the International Association of for Literary Journalism Studies and co-editor of the association’s newsletter.

This column was originally published in Summer 2007 issue of Literary Journalism, the newsletter of the International Association for Literary Journalism Studies.