This is a link to a piece written for the National Association of Writers in Education magazine, about the importance of teaching creativity to students of journalism.
I had a rather depressing conversation this week with a student, who was seeking a potential interviewee for a profile piece. After two weeks of thinking time, she hadn’t come up with one.
“I don’t know anyone interesting,” she told me.
“Yes, you do,” I said. “Everyone does.”
“No, I really don’t,” she argued. This says a great deal more about her than it does about her friends and family. To a reporter, everyone is interesting and has a potential story to tell. But that mindset can and must be learned, to succeed in this industry.
This semester, students on two of my journalism modules have to produce a similar assignment: writing a profile. Some will produce a profile of any interesting character for the Magazine Journalism module, while others studying Fashion Writing need to find someone related to the industry.
Writing a good profile is quite a skill, although to read some of the published pieces that come under this general umbrella, you wouldn’t think it. In trying to explain what makes a worthwhile read, I’ve not only used the exemplars, but also the woefully large number of examples of how not to do it. Students can be forgiven, in a way, for getting it wrong. So many articles that purport to be profiles are simply ‘cuttings jobs’, in other words a mish-mash of other people’s pieces that offer no new information on the subject at all.
Even worse, I think, are the ones that are set out simply as Q and As, or a series of statements in the guise of answers to questions. This seems to me to be a deeply lazy form, the likely result of nothing more than an e-mail exchange between the reporter and the subject (or the subject’s press team). It means the interviewee can carefully control all the information that’s published about them, and the reader gets no insight into their personality at all. It’s a PR puff. For the reader, what’s the point of that?
The trouble is, this is the preferred style in so many magazines and even newspapers these days. I think it’s another example of the media treating the reader like an imbecile, as if we’re all incapable of reading longer-form, more nuanced writing that digs deeper than the public persona. So I tell the students that I know they’re capable of sending out a list of questions by e-mail and copy-and-pasting the replies. I don’t need to test this. I need to test their ability to interview face to face, to get a subject open up, to include their own observations and to write it up in a compelling way.
The profiles that do work really well are those where the reporter is not only informed but, crucially, is unafraid. Examples that I’ve read recently include The Guardian’s profiles on Louise Mensch (written before she resigned) and actor James Corden. Both of these show reporters who’re unafraid to press a subject long enough to get them to reveal something of themselves, and they are a joy to read.
Understandably, the students agonise a little over who they should interview. “I don’t know anyone famous,” is often the anguished cry. No – and most reporters don’t. Most interviews are with people you don’t know, and having the courage to ‘cold call’ and ask people to talk to you is a key journalistic skill. Assume they will talk to you, I always say – because most people do say yes, and a positive, unapologetic attitude will encourage that.
I’ve also made it clear that their subject doesn’t have to be someone famous, just someone interesting. A classic example of an excellent profile – where the subject is someone most of us haven’t heard of – is from The New Yorker and is about ‘the chef who catches your dinner.’ (Once again – the American long-form journalism often beats ours into a shameful pulp).
Some good elements to include in a profile, I’d suggest, are:
Anecdotes about the subject’s childhood or younger days, that hint at the person they’ve become;
Descriptions of their surroundings, appearance and body language, because such details often give away something of their character
And the things they didn’t want to talk about or the questions they shy away from. Go back to that incisive interview with Louise Mensch and see how she responds to questions about whether she’s had a face-lift. That section tells us much more about her than anything else I’ve ever read.
At the end of a profile, the reader should feel that they know the subject a little more – almost that they were there with the reporter, having a coffee with them, watching it all go on. You can’t get that from a list of Q and As. Let’s hope that newspapers and magazines begin to realise that and have the courage to offer the reader something more.
A student walked into my Literary Journalism class on Week One, fresh from training for a cage fight. With a broad Geordie accent and intimidatingly well-developed muscles, he was not the usual third year student stereotype. But when he wrote about his favourite sports, his personal stories and his original, affecting use of language shone right off the page. He’d never seriously thought about writing for a living before. But now he’s got a placement on the sports magazine he’s subscribed to for years, and is entering his writing for national competitions, where I’m confident that it will impress.
This week, as they used to say on The Fast Show, I have mostly been marking. And so I thought it might make sense to write something about the work that’s been coming out of the Literary Journalism module, which has been of a standard to really restore my faith in the future of non-fiction writing.
Recently, as a guest on Victoria Watson’s very good blog, elementaryvwatson, I discussed whether creative writing can be taught. You can read it here, and it’s something I’m quite passionate about. I’ve watched some students, who’ve spent three years writing ‘just-the-facts-ma’am’ journalism, or else academic essays, try their hand for the first time at a freer style of writing. And I would say that it’s like watching butterflies struggling out of a cocoon, except that would be a cliché and I’d need to send myself off to find a fresh way of saying it.
‘Literary journalism,’ if you’re not familiar with the term, is a kind of journalism that uses the creative techniques more associated with fiction to tell true stories. These techniques include creating strong character portraits, crafting scenes, using dialogue and fresh description, to tell true stories. At first, when I tell the students they can write about anything, they’re a little dubious and they spend a couple of weeks trying to get me to direct them. Which I will not do. But by weeks three or four, they are coming up with so many ideas that the only problem will be sticking to the word count. They try their hand at life writing and memoir, travel writing, or even biography, learning how the craft of telling stories is what lifts any kind of writing away from the banal.
The Americans are way ahead of us here. The writer Lee Gutkind, who was dubbed by Vanity Fair magazine the ‘godfather’ of the creative nonfiction movement, has developed courses in which members of the legal, medical and other scientific professions are learning the art of storytelling. Why on earth? Because all the research shows us that we will understand and remember information if it’s told to us in a story, rather than in a series of bald facts. And I watched a great talk online by the writer Susan Orlean about the role of a nonfiction writer in an age when facts can accessed at the click of a mouse. It’s no longer, as in journalism of old, just to find the ‘facts’, because anyone can do that, in a matter of seconds. It’s about telling the stories that enable us to make sense of those facts and put them into a wider, relevant context. It’s about finding more than information; it’s about finding a kind of truth.
The students get this, very quickly. And their writing displays not just the energy that you might expect, but a maturity that defies expectations. Someone recently asked me if there was any point in getting such young people to write pieces of memoir. If they’d read the pieces I’ve just marked, on bullying, or anorexia, or living with epilepsy, or being bereaved as a child, they wouldn’t need to ask. Their ability to write without the filter of many years of life experiences gives the work a raw excitement and authenticity. And don’t think they’re all ‘misery’ memoirs – one account of giving birth to a baby on Christmas Day and another’s ‘fish out of water’ story (about being a more mature student) showed a gift for comedy that deserves a wider audience.
It was only after learning the techniques of creative nonfiction writing, rather than their more strictured traditional journalism skills, that they were able to bring those stories to life. The results have been revelatory – and not just for the students. I’m one of those people who doesn’t ‘get’ sport and I would never, out of choice, read a piece about a cage fight. But my student told his story in a way that made me understand, entirely, why he does it - and why it matters. And that is creative non-fiction at its best.