“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”
– Hunter S. Thompson
Narrative journalism has been called gonzo, the art of hanging out, full immersion, and participant journalism. Critics have called it stunt journalism or playing tourist, but this research strategy involves introducing an experiment into your life and using yourself as a baseline to learn more about your subject, yourself, and the surrounding world. In this course, we will investigate narrative journalism through readings, writing, research and most importantly, action. Throughout this creative writing course, students will develop techniques for approaching the angle of journalistic and anthropologic assignments, such as finding the telling detail, writing profiles, covering events, and characterizing place. Students will be comfortable holding craft-based writing discussions, writing articles with narrative arcs, developing tension through scene and syntax, keeping the audience engaged with the text, acknowledging their stance within the text, and offering constructive criticism based in the goals of the piece. They will also develop a basic understanding of ethical issues involved in writing about living people and the fallibility of memory. We will work on acknowledging subjectivity, placing the journalist within the writing, conducting interviews, and reconstructing scenes, characters, and dialogue.
We will enter narrative journalism as participants, and challenge ourselves to undergo a change for thirty days in the form of a self-initiated and vetted life experiment. You may find yourself entering the fixed gear cyclist community, trying out a “paleo” lifestyle, becoming a guru, or befriending a ten-year old. A large part of this course will be participant observation, which has a foundation in anthropology. Students will define a research topic and accompanying subculture, such as “curanderas” or “low wage workers.” They will then find members of the community, join the community, and research it. In this way, they will be participating in the activity while also observing. Research on “low wage workers,” for example, may involve working at McDonalds or Wal-Mart for a portion of the semester, determining how one survives off of minimum wage, and interviewing other workers. In addition, the student would have to research the history, politics, and sociology of, say, working class food insecurity. The student may also read investigative pieces on their subject, such as Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich, Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell, or The People of the Abyss by Jack London.
Using narrative journalism as a medium to explore contemporary subcultures, students are expected to develop interdisciplinary, nuanced arguments within their essays. Essays should demonstrate substantial background research coupled with original observation and participation. Substantive synthesis in the form of honest reflection should appear within these papers as well.
The course reader will include selections from Hunter S. Thompson, Gay Talese, Susan Orlean, John Jeremiah Silva, Joan Didion, Phillip Gourevitch, John D’Agata, Sarah Vowell, Lee Gutkind, Robin Hemley, Tom Wolfe, and several more authors.
Requirements include attendance, active participation in discussions, substantial research and writing, public presentation, and one life experiment.
Student Learning Objectives
- Analyze, critically interpret, and evaluate examples of narrative journalism within their interdisciplinary, cultural, and historical contexts;
- Construct publishable creative nonfiction articles with narrative arcs, developing tension through scene and syntax, keeping the audience engaged with the text, acknowledging the author’s stance within the text;
- Increase writing proficiency through creative essays characterized by original and insightful theses, supported by logically integrated and sound subordinate ideas, appropriate and pertinent evidence, and good sentence structure, diction, grammar, punctuation, and spelling;
- Criticize peer writing in an effort to improve the integrity of the work based on the goals of the individual piece;
- Integrate ideas and methods from different disciplines, including anthropology, sociology, linguistics, journalism, and creative writing.