Popular Culture Journalism (JOUR494): Class recap for Oct. 8 — personal essaying (continued)

Quick-like, today. Once more with the personal essays on popular-culture forget-me-nots. Koestenbaum on Jackie Kennedy’s Zapruder moment. Rakoff on the fact that “Rent” is a piece of junk. Franzen on the heartbreaking perfection of Charlie Brown. Yeah, yeah, yeah we get it. THE PERSONAL ESSAY. (Did you even do the readings? I have my doubts. Some of you are just too quiet.)

All right, then: 750 to 1,000 words, due Monday the 15th. (Don’t forget: Double-spaced, two printouts, e-mail me a copy, and add your SEOs.) Knock yourselves out, but just in case, I wrote up a handout sheet for writers who find themselves in a spot of trouble on Sunday night.

ORGANIZE: Write a first draft and get all your thoughts onto the page, if that’s how you want to do it. On the next draft, look for the best stuff and think about what order it goes in. Go back to some of the readings (Vowell on The Godfather; Anderson on water parks) and see how well-organized they are. You shouldn’t be very far into your first or second paragraph before it’s absolutely clear what work (TV show, movie, cartoon character, etc.) your essay is about.

DOESN’T HAVE TO BE FUNNY: What you’ll notice in a lot of these personal essays that we’ve read is that the goal is not to be a comedian or zinger-master. Humor can draw the reader in, but it’s often the melancholy or thoughtful passages that are the real payoff. Writing about a how a piece of pop culture affected you can conjure nostalgia, which very often puts us in that Proustian place of considering the loss of childhood, innocence; coming to a realization about why you loved this thing, and do you love it still?

DESCRIBE: Describe the subject of your pop-culture personal essay as if the reader has not seen it or heard of it before, but be careful not to use all 1,000 words doing this. Be precise. And also describe – deeply – your reaction to it. Notice in Vowell, Franzen, et al, how much personal biography can come up in the body of the essay, but not TOO much. What were the people around you doing while you were watching and loving this particular piece of culture? What was the world around you like? What was the context/backdrop against which you experienced this culture? Was it popular? Highly-rated? Sold a billion copies? (Do the research.)

FOLLOW EXAMPLES: Go back and look at how the readings for this assignment (Vowell, Loh, Anderson; Franzen, Rakoff, Koestenbaum) are structured. These could be blueprints. If you’re still struggling, come by and I’ll dig up more examples that might help.

STEP OUTSIDE OF YOURSELF: Once you’ve written a draft, read it as a complete stranger. Are you compelled to keep reading?

COME TO A POINT: In the final couple of paragraphs, what did this piece of culture mean to you but also: what could it mean to the reader, to society, to popular culture? What’s the takeaway point of this essay besides, “Oh my God, when I was little, I totally loved Josie and the Pussycats”? (That’s about the most dated reference I could have possibly come up with. Sorry.)

EDIT: Work on making this piece as lean and precise as possible. Although you have up to a thousand words (and no more), see if it gets better when you whittle it down to 800 or the minimum 750. It might.

* * *

For Wednesday, Oct. 10: No readings! (Hallelujah. No Hank slaving over the photocopier either.)

We’re moving deeper into a discussion about your SCENE STORY and how to do them. (They’re due Nov. 7.) One surefire way to find a good scene story is to go toward things that disturb, frighten or repulse you. It’s a much better story than writing about something you already like. To get us moving in another direction, please watch this 23-minute documentary, American Juggalo, by Sean Dunne. (Warning: NSFW.)

I want you to imagine that your editor has assigned you to cover the juggalo gathering. What would be your approach? How would you go about it? Would you feel safe? What would you ask that wasn’t asked in the movie? Write a long paragraph about your reaction to the movie and how you’d approach this assignment; bring that to class.

And THEN, I want you to visit the web site for the Nightmares Fear Factory, a haunted house attraction on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. Go to the “pics/video” archives and look through lots and lots (a plethora!) of photographs of visitors caught in an instant of total terror.

Enjoy! Pick one photo and come up with questions you would ask the people in it, if you were writing about them. (A question besides: Were you scared? Was it scary?) Notice the fabulous diversity in these photos. Come ready to talk about PEOPLE and writing about how they experience popular culture. Bring these questions along with your American Juggalo paragraph.

See you Wednesday.

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