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Why 'literary journalism' matters

JournalismPosted by Barbara Fri, May 11, 2012 10:23:08

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.

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