Popular Culture Journalism (JOUR494): Class recap for Aug. 29 — the reported essay

Wednesday in class we talked more about the reported essay, which the students are beginning to work on and will file on Sept. 17.

What the heck is a reported essay? I think the adjective “reported” is there mainly to make those of us with journalism degrees feel a tiny bit better about publishing essays alongside the news. There are a lot of fine lines and danger zones in this form of writing, many of which invite the journalist into a less comfortable but potentially more creative realm. (Important: creative does not equal “made up.”) Should all the reported facts — the things you learn in the course of reporting, talking to experts, talking to anybody — be attributed (he said, he said, he said) in a feature essay or does that somehow bog down the beauty of it? (It depends, he said.) Should the facts speak for themselves and take on such qualities as irony, resonance, symbolism, metaphor? Or should the reporter’s notes instead build toward a kind of authority, which sets a vibe or tone? When does a riff start to read too much like a stoner story? How do we synthesize a lot of information about a thing (or a place, or a person, or a personality type) and turn it into its own piece of art? It usually takes a couple of drafts, that’s for sure. That, and a good and patient editor.

We talked about my piece from way back about plastic patio chairs: how it came to be, how I tried to do it, how I got it right on the second draft (or whatever “right” is — it never, ever feels pristine).

I also read aloud (and handed out copies of) a short reported essay that Ben Montgomery wrote five years ago in the Tampa Bay Times (nee St. Petersburg Times) about the unheralded majesty of the 7-Eleven taquito.

(Class: If you’re not checking into gangrey.com, a blog where Ben and a couple of other fantastic writers post daily links to current examples of daring work appearing in newspapers and magazines, please have a look.)

Henry Allen, self-portrait

I also talked a lot about Henry Allen, who, in my opinion, is pretty much the master of this kind of thing. Henry was my editor for almost a decade. I read the contents page of his 1994 book Going Too Far Enough, a compilation of his best Washington Post essays from the 1980s and early ’90s. The book’s contents page reads almost like an essay in list form, in which each piece is titled as a single subject. It really gets the idea-factory going. Read it and let your mind imagine what these pieces might have been about …

State fair, Summer houses, Casablanca, WASPs, Clouds, Tract mansions, Landscape, New Hampshire, Kennedy, Zsa Zsa, The Wyeths, Batman, Stephen Hawking, Dennis Hopper, Hoover, Guns, Thomas Hart Benton, The ‘80s, The Daily News, Mice, Harvey Pekar, The bus, Young fogies, Vietnam, Cigarettes, Sweat, Folklife, Crayons, Marching, Miss America, Good wars, Bad vacations, Space, Fireworks

I talked about some other reported essays I wrote and filed to Henry over the years — I spared the class the torture of actually having to read them — some of which were okay and some of which were sort of duds: Blue tarps, Above-ground pools, Interstates, Flip-flops, Living alone, “Sheetz vs. Wawa.” I could go on and on. (The students now know this about me.)

SO. Why are we doing this kind of assignment first, instead of last? Isn’t it kind of … daunting to start like this? Yes. I want the students to try something ambitious, perhaps a form they’ve never tried before. It’s a good way to stretch their wings and show me how they write.

More than that, the reported essay assignment is about NOTICING THINGS, which is going to serve them well on later, more traditional assignments. Noticing the popular culture motifs and objects and talismans all around us. Thinking about them. Finding out why they are the way they are. Talking to people — experts, and just plain people — about them. Finding the meaning in them. And then writing the hell out of it.

Already some of the students have pitched me some fantastic ideas for their essays. I’m dying to share them with readers of this blog, but I won’t — not yet.

No class on Labor Day. Our next class is Wednesday, Sept. 5. Here are the reading assignments. More reported essays, none of them very long, by writers with entirely different voices and approaches:

• “At the Dam” — Joan Didion on the Hoover Dam. (from The White Album)
• “Bound to Humiliate” — Henry Allen on handcuffs (from The Washington Post)
• “Thanks for the Memorex” — Sarah Vowell on mix-tapes (from Take the Cannoli)
• “The Lady or the Tiger” — Chuck Klosterman on breakfast cereal (from Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs)

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