I wandered into a discussion about journalism today — which is sort of the cue for anyone with half a brain to turn the page — but it occurs to me that what it’s really about is something else. First, a piece by Susan Shapiro, writing teacher, over an assignment she gives her “feature journalism students,” i.e. “the humiliation essay,” which she calls her signature assignment. Students are required to:
…shed vanity and pretension and relive an embarrassing moment that makes them look silly, fearful, fragile or naked.
You can’t remain removed and dignified and ace it. I do promise my students, though, that through the art of writing, they can transform their worst experience into the most beautiful. I found that those who cried while reading their piece aloud often later saw it in print. I believe that’s because they were coming from the right place — not the hip, but the heart.
She goes on at some length about this assignment, and how to make it worth reading. It’s a good one. I’ve always felt the first job of any writer, whether one works in fiction or nonfiction, is to tell the truth. Telling the truth about yourself is frequently the hardest thing you’ll do as a writer, so learning how to do so early in your career is probably a useful exercise.
Hamilton Nolan at Gawker disagreed, making the very good point that a journalist’s last job should be to write about themselves. He points out that Shapiro, who seems to be only about 50 or so, has already published three memoirs, and maybe that’s not the craft’s highest calling. He’s onto something there, and notes:
…let us more generously interpret Shapiro’s attitude as not a cause, but a symptom—her own honest reading of the state of the professional writing market today. In a way, she is not wrong, although she is also part of the problem.
Shapiro is, in essence, telling her students that they only way they will get published and sell stories and books and have careers as professional writers is to exploit every last tawdry twist and turn of their own lives for profit. Why, she could be the editor of any number of popular websites! Her takeaway from editors’ and agents’ demands for interesting stories is, “Sharing internal traumas on page one makes you immediately knowable, lovable and engrossing.” She is teaching a gimmick: the confessional as attention-grabber. Her students could just as well include naked photos in their essays, for the same effect.
They’re both right, and they’re both wrong. Journalism students should be learning, first and foremost, how to write about other people, not themselves. But. Making yourself your toughest assignment is hardly a waste of time; besides what I mentioned before, confronting your own awful story may well help you when you’re trying to write someone else’s. So I’ll defend the assignment.
But Nolan’s position is more than defensible, and from how she described them in her piece, I doubt I’d find Shapiro’s memoirs very interesting. In fact, the one she talks most about — “Five Men Who Broke My Heart” — sounds ghastly. I have five heartbreakers of my own; why would I give a fat rat’s ass about yours, Susan Shapiro? He’s right that a typical memoir of today traffics in just this sort of overheated crap, which is why I don’t read many of them. But to reject the personal essay/memoir out of hand as “not journalism” is simply ignorant — “Out of Africa,” “Ten Days That Shook the World,” etc. etc. and more etc.
The difference, of course, is that these great storytellers were writing about something outside themselves, through their own eyes. They have the sense to know what’s interesting and what’s just self-indulgent twaddle.
I really don’t know much about Shapiro’s students; maybe “feature journalism” is what she calls memoir or personal history.
Ultimately, one of my favorite writing lessons is the one Norman MacLean’s father delivers in “A River Runs Through It” — an assigned essay of a certain length, which he requires his sons to cut in half, cut in half again and maybe a third time, after which he delivers the final verdict: “Now throw it away.”
Most writing can be thrown away, when you come right down to it. Newspaper work teaches you that, as you’re virtually assured that your precious words will end up wrapping fish, lining birdcages, training puppies, abandoned atop the toilet tank or shredded into insulation. The best you can hope for is to be pinned to someone’s refrigerator for a while.
A book note before I go, while we’re on the subject:
I didn’t say enough good things about “Capital” last week. The author is British, and I’d forgotten how much fun their slang is. “Naff” took me a while to figure out, and I’m still not sure I’ve quite got it. (I think it means tacky, but that’s not exactly right.) Speed bumps are “sleeping policemen.” And then I was sidetracked by the in/on thing.
New Yorkers stand on lines, everybody else stands in them. But there’s a difference between English and American English on the subject of addresses. Brits are more likely to describe life in a road than on it. Why is that? I always figured that the older the road, the more likely it is to be cut into the countryside by years of passing conveyances, and maybe there’s more in than on to them by then.
I’ll leave it to our resident Brit commenters. Because I’m mighty tired, and think I’m off to bed.