Can journalism schools teach narrative?

Narrative nonfiction is risky; it has to be grabby, telling, and true. To bear analytical weight, it has to be almost frighteningly shrewd.—Jill Lepore, The New Yorker (September 6, 2010)

What is journalism? How does one teach this thing you have so defined? I haven’t an answer to either question, but that places me in good company because I think most journalism schools haven’t had a clue, at least concerning the best way to educate their students as writers. With some exceptions, they’ve courted the same stereotypes that afflict education schools—padded, largely unnecessary—and with a fixation on hard news (easier to teach; dovetails with the press’s watchdog role; has the dubious cachet of social science) at the expense of narrative storytelling. Plus, the media mix is changing so fast they’ve got to be shellshocked, though ultimately that should prompt insights about the usefulness and ubiquity of narrative in whatever medium—TV, newspaper, magazine, blog, video-word-image hybrid web page, tweet, converged whatever.

Getting a degree in journalism isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a writer. It’s just risky, because journalism schools have been slow to understand narrative or to embrace the narrative nonfiction revolution. Or they know something is going on but don’t know what it is. Or how to teach it. When I was an undergraduate, in the late 1970s, it was the New Journalism that had students abuzz but which journalism faculty seemed impotent to help us learn to write. The exact same thing is going on with creative nonfiction today. English departments are eating j-schools’ lunch, with booming enrollments in creative writing and especially in creative nonfiction sequences.

Of course journalism professors level the navel-gazing criticism at English departments: “We teach professional writing for audiences.” The English response, if deigned to be made: “We teach the habits of art and the craft of real writing, not soulless formulaic typing.” Both sides have a point, actually, and could learn from each other. As someone who teaches both creative nonfiction and journalism, and who has degrees in each, I feel caught between these worlds and their perspectives.

English departments have lots going for them in educating working writers, including the fact that students are trying to make art. If your reach doesn’t exceed your grasp in college, then where and when? A “professional writing” class would give English majors confidence, though, and salve the fears of some employers. As for journalism, while it’s true that most undergraduates have shaky control of craft, the product being modeled is often so lowly and otherwise uninspired that there’s scant motive for students to bother swinging for the fences. So they’ll graduate unable to tell their own stories, and owning your own narrative is the baby step toward telling others’ well.

In her comments quoted above, Jill Lepore was reviewing The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson, which tells the story of the black exodus from the south from 1900 to the 1970s. “Before the Great Migration, ninety percent of all blacks in the United States lived in the South; after it, forty-seven percent lived somewhere else,” Lepore writes. Wilkerson researched this saga for over a decade, and interviewed 1,200 people. She then told it through the lives of three ordinary, unknown people, interviewed for hundreds of hours, who represent the diaspora of six million.

“Wilkerson’s work, in other words, is more novelistic than documentary . . . ” writes Lepore in The New Yorker. “Can three people explain six million? Do they have to? Your answers probably depend, mostly, on your intellectual proclivities. You’re reading this magazine; chances are you lean toward thinking that stories, good stories, explain. . . . The story exposes; the story moves; the story ends. What Wilkerson urges, finally, isn’t argument at all; it’s compassion. Hush and listen.”

Wilkerson, the winner of a Pulitzer at The New York Times, now directs the narrative nonfiction program at Boston University. Now there’s a journalism school, by another name, to look at. I also like the looks, on the web, of the University of North Texas’s j-school; it has a strong nonfiction narrative focus, at least at the graduate level, which I tend to think must filter down to undergraduates. The University of Massachusetts-Amherst appears to have a strong j-school—a faculty writing lots of interesting books and teaching meaty courses in writing and ethics and philosophy that bear on writing. And then there’s the University of Alabama, on whose j-school web site I stumbled across this announcement, which sounds a lot like Goucher College’s creative nonfiction program where I got my MFA:

This fall, the UA Department of Journalism will begin integrating creative non-fiction into the graduate professional track, which will require students to keep a portfolio of their work as they progress, [Department Chair Ed] Mullins said. This portfolio will serve as the student’s thesis work. Additionally, the students will be reading extensively from the great writers of this literary genre. The department’s goal is to produce graduates who can explain complex issues and give testimony to the human condition. “These are the kind of writers newspapers and magazines are going to want.”

Creative non-fiction is, as the name suggests, a blending of the creative aspect of fiction writing with the factual news-gathering technique of the non-fiction writer or journalist, Mullins said. Scenes may be portrayed through first-hand accounts from the writer’s perspective, extensive dialogue may be used instead of single quotations, and strict attention is given to factual reporting.

Most newspapers will run creative non-fiction in special sections in their Sunday editions, and magazines are another likely home for such writing. He cited the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times as papers that have added the creative non-fiction style to their news diet to supplement more traditional writing forms.

When a journalism school actually uses the term “creative nonfiction,” wow—even if it was provoked by competition from MFA programs. So something is happening, and I think I know what it is. J-schools are joining the narrative revolution! ‘Bout time. Better late than never, and all that. So there’s a scant silver lining to the illness of the newspaper industry. Desperation, at a certain point, can spur creativity in an industry, or at least in its survivors, and evidently in the education pipeline that feeds it.

I think that, as in any genre, immersion—in self or subject, or both—is a key to quality journalism, as Wilkerson’s work shows. That and reading great models of the form, like her new book, while trying to emulate them.

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6 Comments

Filed under creative nonfiction, immersion, journalism, MFA, narrative, teaching, education

6 responses to “Can journalism schools teach narrative?

  1. Scribbly Jane

    You have a unique perspective teaching both journalism and creative nonfiction. Do you see more examples of stronger narrative in newspapers today, Richard? Do you think the two will merge eventually?

  2. Beth, I do believe it’s changing. There’s always been designated writers at newspapers, but there’s been a strong writing movement for over two decades. Those reporters found and founded narrative nonfiction conferences and programs. As I wrote in my post “Mere writers,” there’s always convergence at the top, whatever path was taken to get there. But there’s definitely hostility on the lower slopes.

  3. Scribbly Jane

    Hi Richard,

    This article provides an add-on to your post. Should people even go to journalism school these days?
    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=130437287

  4. theexile

    You touched on a conflict I had all the years when I worked for a newspaper. I was an English major in a newsroom and hated writing hard news. I was lucky that I was able to move to a feature section. But, I was limited by deadlines and space as much as regular reporters were. It’s hard to write creatively in such a limited space, but it can be done. Working for a newspaper also thankfully slapped away some of notions of writing solely as an art form. I began to focus on my craft, and learned more from the experience than I think I ever could even in an MFA program.

    I also learned to read as a writer and not as a scholar when I worked for the newspaper. Which I think is the key to writing.

    Plus, this need to make of writing art is very much a 20th century notion, I think, at least for prose forms. If you haven’t yet listened to Jonathan Lethem’s interview on Big Think, you should. He addresses the old and engaging art vs. entertainment issue, as far as the novel goes.

  5. Interesting post. When I was in J-school at Indiana U., I took a course called “literary nonfiction,” and it changed my life. I had been looking for *that* kind of writing and hadn’t been finding it in journalism school, which seemed to focus so much on interviewing, research, and how to work the police beat. In the course we studied the new journalists, as well as longer form nonfiction writers such as John Hersey and Annie Dillard. At the time, most MFA programs did not offer degrees in creative nonfiction – I thought J-school was my only option. In the end I left J-school and (much later) ended up in a nonfiction MFA program. Neither was life changing in terms of drastically improving my writing – but, (surprise!) working at a newspaper was.