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It takes time and patience: Journalism students apply literary craft to shape stories

Robert  Sanchez and literary journalism class
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

Robert Sanchez, guest lecturer and writer for the Denver-based magazine 5280, speakes to the Journalism 480: Literary Journalism class, which met at the The News-Gazette, the daily newspaper in Champaign-Urbana.

Journalism is often a deadline-driven job. Get the story; get it done.

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Learning to be a reporter means learning the nitty-gritty of covering cops and courts, fires and floods, city councils and school boards.

But there’s another genre of journalism, literary journalism, whose demands are very different. In this form of reporting, the keys are time and patience, detail and more detail, and getting to really know the subject – then applying literary craft to shape a story that’s still faithful to the facts.

To do it well, “it’s got to be the human that amazes you and fascinates you,” says journalism professor Walt Harrington, a former Washington Post Magazine writer, published author and the U. of I.’s resident expert on the form.

Harrington has been teaching literary feature writing at Illinois since 1996, but a partnership with Champaign-Urbana’s local daily, The News-Gazette, added a new dimension to three recent semesters of his class, ending with this past spring.
Part of it was students getting the opportunity to learn alongside working News-Gazette reporters, taking the class with them in the newspaper’s offices.

And twice each semester Harrington’s students got a visit from an award-winning feature writer, thanks to funding from the paper’s Marajen Stevick Foundation. The visitors were Pulitzer Prize-winners David Finkel, of The Washington Post, and Lane DeGregory, of the Tampa Bay Times. The students also heard from Todd C. Frankel, of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; Justin Heckert, now a free-lance writer for The New York Times Magazine; Robert Sanchez, of 5280, Denver’s city magazine; and Bryan Smith, of Chicago magazine.

Both in class and over a meal or two, students had the opportunity to pick these writers’ brains.

Perhaps most important, though, this cooperative arrangement gave students an opportunity to see their stories published in a prominent way. Eighteen stories that made the grade have appeared in the News-Gazette’s pages over the past year in a series called “Slice of Life.” The paper will be publishing them in a book this fall.

Thomas Bruch was a student in Harrington’s class last fall and remembers his view of journalism then was rather limited. The May graduate from Peoria, Ill., now interning as a reporter at the Journal Star, in Peoria, said he thought in terms of “press release, source, source, 750 words, that’s a story.”

That changed when he read “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” a 1966 Esquire piece by Gay Talese assigned early in the class. “I read that and I was like, wow, that is the coolest thing I’ve ever read in my life. If this is somehow related to what I’m going to be doing this semester, it’s going to be great.”

For Jessica Bourque, a May graduate from Kewanee, Ill., who took the class in the spring of 2012, the piece she remembered was “The Man Who Couldn’t Read,” by Gary Smith, from a 1990 Esquire. “I loved everything about that story,” she said.

The students read a lot in the first weeks of the class. Harrington wanted them to read some of the best examples of literary feature writing, from the great writers as well as previous students, before attempting to produce their own.

Then came time to find people from the local area to write about.

That was difficult, remembered Emily Siner, a May graduate from Glenwood, Ill., who took the class last fall and is now interning at NPR. You had to find someone interesting enough for a story who would also give you access to their life, she said. It was something she wasn’t sure she would be willing to do herself.

They had to pitch their ideas to Harrington and the class, and it did not always go well.

“I had three ideas initially and they were all shot down in a matter of minutes,” Bruch said with a smile. He realized after that he had not given the ideas much thought.

Something similar happened to Bourque.

Bruch finally found his subject in a female boxer training at a local gym. Bourque found a local woman who ran a rescue for exotic birds, and had many of her own. Siner found a retired rabbi who had survived the Holocaust.

The students then had to put in the time with their subjects. At Harrington’s urging, they spent many hours over several weeks – at their work and at home and elsewhere, sometimes asking questions, often just hanging out and observing.

What books did the rabbi have on his shelf? How did Cindy talk to her birds? What does it feel like for a boxer to struggle for breath in a losing fight?

With so much access to personal details, and sometimes confidences, Siner realized she had to carefully consider what she used and how. “I learned how to be a more compassionate reporter,” she said.

Bourque said the experience taught her to be a better interviewer, less dependent on a list of questions and more “organic.” It also taught her the value of careful observation, “picking up details that at the time may seem small, but then when you go to write the story you’re like ‘Oh thank God I have that.’ ”

The hardest part of the process for students, however, is figuring out “the larger thing that the story is about,” Harrington said. Sometimes he calls it the “universal resonance,” or the aspect of the story that will connect with readers and their own lives.

“It’s something about being a human being – a feeling or an emotion, more than just ‘here are the facts,’ ” Bourque said.

Many students were still struggling to find their story when they wrote their long first drafts. As with every step of the process, those drafts were presented and discussed in class “so everybody can learn from everybody else’s experience,” Harrington said.

According to Bruch, “no one had a really good story the first time … once you get it out there and you have people talking about it, you realize the flaws … how sort of bad it is.” He remembered stewing over it, then hearing Harrington’s assurance to everyone that, with work, they would have a good story at the end of the process.

Bruch then remembers more pain as he worked the story into its final form over several weeks, “but at the very end of it, it’s your best work.”

Harrington makes sure his students understand that they likely won’t begin their careers doing this kind of work. If it’s something they have a passion for, they likely will need to develop it on the side and prove themselves first.

“There’s a great deal of craft to learn, in terms of the elements that make a story feel like a story in the way that a piece of short fiction feels like a story,” Harrington said. Few who write in the genre produce great work before they’re 30, he said.
Even if the form is not something they are drawn to, the skills developed in the class can be applied in everything they do, Siner said.

“A lot of aspects of a literary journalism story can really be applied to anything. It’s just a matter of thinking about it when you’re reporting, like thinking about taking details and asking questions that are going beyond the surface level.”

It can be easy to look at aspects of a person’s life and think “that’s kind of boring,” Bruch said. Look at it closer though, and you might find “that’s really interesting, that’s really inspiring.”