Popular Culture Journalism (JOUR494): Class recap for Sept. 5 — reported essays (Dam!)

Photo: PBS

Moving forward with trying to figure out how to approach the reported essay. We discussed some good ones today, mentioning their weaknesses as well:

Didion on the Hoover Dam: An example of how to write about something that is beautiful and yet creeps you out. When something amazes and frightens you, you’re headed in the right direction. All the biggies are here — voice, tone, fact, vibe and most of all, a lasting impression. Not everyone loved it (not everyone ever did when it comes the woman — the “neurasthenic Cher” — who built her career on Santa Ana winds, chintz curtains and migraines), but oh, those words. Lunar clarity. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be … Those sentences. I pulled out my overused observation about Joan: Nobody parallel parks a Winnebago-size sentence like her. How often do you see something really mindblowing (the Hoover Dam, or closer by, the Grand Tetons, or the Berkeley Pit) and talk about it generally, abstractly: “It was amazing” or “It blew my mind” or “It freaked me out.” Work harder to describe exactly what it is. Notice how closely she paid attention to the turbines and machinery she was shown on her tour.

Henry Allen on handcuffs: Henry emailed me last week after I told him we were reading this particular piece. “I just re-read it. What does it feel like to be handcuffed? What does it mean? I asked those two questions about everything.” As should we all. The potential for these essays is all around us. This one came about topically, because Washington was in a dither about a woman who’d been pulled over on Wisconsin Avenue and handcuffed to a mailbox. A picture ran in the paper and people were decrying the use of handcuffs. Which got Henry thinking about handcuffs in general — discipline, sex, fetish, control. I don’t just mean thinking, I also mean research. It’s all right there, leading up to the penultimate one-sentence paragraph, one of my all time favorite Henry Allen lines:

Keep it up and you’ll learn about leg irons.

Klosterman on breakfast cereal: Not a perfect piece, most of us agreed, but I gained some insight into how and why the youngs dig them some Chuck. I admire the synthesis of history in the opening paragraphs — all that bizarro Victorian-era quack science about nutrition and sex and bowels and corn flakes that ultimately gave us Trix and Cocoa Puffs. (Could it have used a smidgen of attribution to breakfast historians? Or does the second line — “As any breakfast historian will tell you” — cover him well enough?) And who can resist his observations about the strange morality/discrimination of cereal advertising, in which the rabbit can never have any Trix, Barney may never have some of Fred’s Fruity Pebbles? (Such subtext!) The point here is how to be smart about everything, even if you sound like a stoner in mid-reverie. Sometimes you can be too smart about everything and lose some of the organization and structure you started out with. Also people get tired of hearing you. I also wonder if, a decade later, Klosterman has switched to something oatier, grainier, healthier than Lucky Charms? What do you wanna bet?

Vowell on mix tapes: Really more of a personal essay, but notice the ease with which she tells her story, and thus, gets at a more universal story of what it means (meant) to compile a mix tape. Sure, she could have given us the history of the invention of audio tape, and talked about the format’s impending doom, but maybe she knew somebody else (a lot of somebody elses) had either already done it or would come along and do it. Seems like we all felt what she wanted us to feel, even if tapes are long gone.

Then we moved to the business of the students’ pitching ideas for their essays. I won’t attach these to the names of the authors quite yet, since the deadline is still 12 days off and they have the right to change their minds, but just a few ideas I’ve heard that I really like are cowboy hats, corn dogs, the calendar and orange earplugs. That’s just the beginning. Lots of research to do and people to talk to on any or all of those. I haven’t heard one idea yet that I don’t like, but remember to narrow it down from the broad to the specific. Someone mentioned bumper stickers, to which I would (and did) say, well, in an essay of a thousand words, how about one kind of bumper sticker (e.g., the “COEXIST” sticker … or those little decals that minivan mommies put up of their stickfigure family). You see how I did that?

This assignment has two points.

1. Uninhibited, highly descriptive, incredibly fun, potentially heartbreaking, factual writing.

2. Sharpening our ability to NOTICE everything.

For our next class, Monday, Sept. 10, we’re reading four pieces in which the reporters — in these cases, all Style section people — were tasked with a topical assignment and had to turn it around quickly, often for editors who were desperate for something smart to put in tomorrow’s paper. What to look for: How the pop-cultural, essay-like style works its way into each piece, sometimes just as a paragraph or two. What did the writer have to find out to write this piece? What did the writer have to know, have to feel? What did the writer already, even instinctively, know?

• “Goodbye, Mr. Chips,” Monica Hesse doing an appreciative deadline essay about the death of the man who invented the Dorito. (Washington Post, 2011)

• “Two Months that Zap Your Zip,” Martha Sherrill outsmarting the dreaded “August” assignment, comparing it to February. (Washington Post, 1995)

• “Honoring @, which made the Web a place for us all,” Monica Hesse again, noticing that the “at” symbol had been inducted into the Internet hall of fame. (Washington Post, 2012)

• “Real Men Can’t Hold a Candle to Jake Ryan,” yours truly acting on a editor’s request for Valentine’s Day copy, by mining a cultural icon who ruined crushes forever. (Washington Post, 2004)

Until then … Come back Monday with your essay pitches really firmed up and ready for group input. Don’t forget to come talk to me if you need any guidance whatsoever. You know I love batting ideas around. If you can’t find me, text me or email me or tweet me.


  1. Nelson Martinez on September 5, 2012 at 8:15 pm

    Brand of the beer, name of the dog.

    • Hank Stuever on September 5, 2012 at 11:45 pm

      And name of the puppet, Nelson!

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