Blog Assignment 20: Final Literary Journalism Reviews

The Retirement Home for Horses Inc. – Michelle Klug

Michelle’s story is about a farm where horses of various backgrounds, neglected, abused, retired, can live in peace for the rest of their lives.  Michelle’s piece is mostly in the traditional style, with lots of reporting and a mostly objective view.  She makes great use of quotes throughout her story, my favorite being the piece’s last line, “My wife always says if you have four legs, you’ll do well here.”  I thought Michelle’s story was emotionally powerful – at times encouraging, and at times quite depressing.  I noticed a couple of grammatical errors and a typo, but those can be corrected in minutes.  One place that was a bit confusing was the first paragraph on the second page.  It reads:

“The Retirement Home For Horses only takes horses over the age of 20.  Younger horses are more likely to be adopted and kept as companions.  Older horses are sometimes abandoned after they are deemed useless.  They also do not accept horses from private owners.”

This makes it seems as though the RHFH sometimes abandons older horses after they are deemed useless, and I don’t think that’s what Michelle meant.

One more place in the story that could use a little rearranging was the following two paragraphs, the first of which ends: “…some will fall victim to abuse, neglect, or even death at a slaughter plant.”

“Hi.  I’m Pete the Plumber,” Gregory Joked in his British accent…

The image of horse abuse and death isn’t quite out of our minds before Michelle introduces Gregory the jokester.  I would have tried to separate the paragraphs in someway, or at least include a transition sentence to the next, starkly different, paragraph.

I enjoyed reading your story, Michelle.

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Rachel Sale

Rachel’s story profiles Will Harding, coach of the University of Florida Tri-Gators, the university’s triathlon team.  Rachel’s story strays from traditional journalism in its use of a first-person narrator, subjective reporting and exploration of inner experience.  Rachel clearly tries to get into Harding’s head, which seems difficult as he is described as a naturally private person.  The major strength of Rachel’s story, in my opinion, is her reporting work.  She relays a number of details that give the reader a good sense of Harding, such as his aversion to technology, his small hands, and his perpetual (so it seems) worry about the well-being of his athletes.  Rachel also has a number of good quotes in her story, for example:

“We could be drinking or doing drugs.  Some of my family does that.  But we don’t.  We train.”

I think, however, Rachel’s quotes would have been even more effective if she had been a little more selective in their use.  What I mean is, while there are a number of good quotes in the story, there are also some that, I think, could be left out to equal effect.  I would’ve cut the quote about Harding hating driving as it doesn’t really add anything to Harding’s profile, just that he hates driving (as many of us do.)

I’d also advise Rachel to more clearly explain her involvement with Harding if she is using a first-person narrator.  In her first paragraph she writes, “Thursdays are Happy Feet, which serves as another opportunity to run short and fast distances if we don’t want to swim or bike.”  But she hasn’t told us that she’s a member of the Tri-Gator team, so that creates some confusion for the reader.  Also, give us a title!  Nonetheless, I thought Rachel’s story was a nice profile of an interesting and complex coach.  Thanks, Rachel.

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The Friday Crew – Sadie Cone

Sadie’s piece details a day at Brother’s Keeper Soup Kitchen, whose volunteers serve food to the homeless of Marion County.  Sadie’s story is named “The Friday Crew,” sharing the nickname that the kitchen’s volunteers use for themselves.  Great title.  It also opens with a biblical quote, which I think worked very well.  Of course as I started reading i wasn’t exactly sure what the purpose of the quote would be, but after reading the story I came back to it and, in my opinion, it fits perfectly.  Although Sadie’s story, I would say, is mostly traditional feature journalism, she does use some elements of literary journalism within it.  Status details, for example, show that the kitchen’s “guests” (which I thought was a great way of describing them) wear all of their possessions on their backs and wear old, soiled clothes.  Sadie also uses a little bit of the inner experience element, telling the reader how some of the kitchen’s guests are uncomfortable taking free food.

Sadie asked the class some questions at the end of the piece, which (for some) I’d like to offer my answers for.

#2.  I don’t think you should force yourself in the story, Sadie.  You did a great job being a fly on the wall.

#3.  I think some more description in a few places would have added just that extra little bit of detail that make a story that much more descriptive.  I would have liked a little more about the dining hall.  You say “six long tables” but never say how long or how they’re arranged.

#4.  In my opinion, your ending is not too sappy.  I thought it worked very well.

#5.  Your story includes a number of characters.  Adding more might’ve confused your readers.  We already get a good feel for some of the personalities working at the kitchen.

One small thing I think Sadie can work on is more showing and less telling, which is something I think we could all work on.  For example, you say “Her fingers are stick with jelly, causing the bags to cling to her small hands.”  Then you include a quote of the woman explaining how her hands get sticky and showing you exactly how sticky they are.  Also, about Kathy, you say “She is an expert at slicing…” but you don’t need to tell us this, just show us through how she, as you write, deftly wields a knife as she talks.

I thought you did a fantastic job with this piece, Sadie!

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Final Story – Casey Kochey

Casey’s story is an intricate look at an area that most students of the University of Florida are unfamiliar with, the cadaver lab of the Communicore building.  Casey does a nice job of slowly guiding the reader into the cadaver lab without announcing what’s ahead and also without losing the interest of the reader.  Two paragraphs go by before Casey writes, “Alyssa enters the classroom for the first time, and her eyes are immediately drawn to the body bags.”  A great way, in my opinion, of showing, not telling, his readers where they now are.  Casey adeptly explores the inner experience of the students who will work in the cadaver lab for the next few months of their lives.  “Alyssa Triacca walks through them for the first time and her stomach churns.  She is anxious and unsure, and she isn’t alone.”  Casey also does a nice job reporting important and interesting facts relating to the bodies, such as that their families must pay for them to be used by the university.  I also appreciated Casey’s restrained use of quotes – only a few throughout the entire story.

There were just one or two places where I thought Casey could’ve clarified some detail of the story.  I couldn’t quite visualize the foyer of the cadaver lab: “Standing in the foyer beyond the double doors, students have their last chance to gather themselves.  To their left is a large, metal sliding door – the loading dock.  To their right, two classroom doors.  In front of them, a refrigerated storage area.”

Another place that could use just a touch of clarification is the beginning of the fourth paragraph: “Once the first bag is open, Alyssa begins to settle down.  Their faces are covered, and the bodies have been shaved bare.”  It’s not immediately clear that the faces are those of the bodies (though I assume that they are), and what are they covered with?  Also, watch the repetition of “hallway” in the first paragraph (and the start of the 2nd graph.)

I thought this was a great example of literary journalism.  Clearly, Casey did some traditional reporting and interviewing, but he also got underneath the skin of the students having to go through this trying period of their lives.  Nice job, Casey!

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The Unspoken Race – Ginny Hoyle Lawrimore

Ginny’s story, “The Unspoken Race,” details three women struggling with the pressure they feel to get married.  Ginny’s story follows, primarily, the tenets of traditional journalism, displaying a great deal of objective reporting and interviewing.  Ginny explores the inner emotions of her story’s subjects, but mostly through their own words, in quotes.  Still, there is some literary exploration of inner-experience within Ginny’s story, for example, “She was afraid that the pressure would act like a poison, infecting her relationship.  She was never one to plan to be married by 30 or to pine for a diamond ring.”

Ginny clearly made her story’s subjects comfortable – enough that they would discuss personal, emotionally powerful matters with her.  This, I feel, is the great strength of Ginny’s story.  The women she interviewed are speaking from the heart about matters extremely important to them, which, in the mind of the reader, adds authenticity to their words and the story in general. On the other hand, though, the piece is a bit quote-heavy.  I’d like to hear a little more from you, Ginny!

One other thing this piece could have benefited from, in my opinion, is a better-defined nut graph.  The reader (or I, anyways) isn’t quite sure what Ginny is getting at in her discussion with Jennifer Mashburn, whose long-time boyfriend left her for another woman.  With Rebekah Fitzsimmons, the focus becomes more clear in her worry about getting married and starting a family.  Still, the nut graph doesn’t really show up until the end of the 2nd page of the story: “Actually, recent studies show that trends over the past 50 years have led to a sharp decline in marriage…”  Perhaps this is the effect Ginny desired, though.

I thought Ginny ended the piece with a great quote which explains her story’s title nicely.  Ginny also got a chance to interview some experts on the subject of marital pressure on women, which I thought fit quite well within the piece.  I enjoyed your story, Ginny, thank you!

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Blog Assignment 19: Tracy Kidder – No Joking Around

Tracy Kidder’s 1981 Pulitzer Prize winner, The Soul of a New Machine, does a great job of turning a relatively mundane, sleep-inducing subject matter into an interesting immersion journalism story.  The story begins with Kidder approaching an ugly, plain two-story brick building.  Not all that interesting, right?  But Kidder does a nice job interspersing reported facts to answer questions he (and thus, the reader) has about this odd building off a Massachusetts highway.

“Driving up to the building one day with one of the company’s public relations men, I asked, ‘Who was the architect?’

‘We didn’t have one!’ cried the beaming press agent.

Company engineers helped to design Westborough, and they made it functional and cheap.” (Kidder, 1981).

For those of you more familiar with movies, the beginning of the book has a similar feel to certain scenes of “Men in Black” (which I think was noted in our last class discussion?)  Kidder’s approach and entrance of the building in this book shares characteristics of Will Smith’s entrance to MIB headquarters.  The inside of each building is nondescript.  A security guard overlooks a plain lobby.  Entrance further into the building is wholly dependent on the escort of an employee.  Right off the bat, the reader is wondering: what the heck goes on in here?
Kidder slowly reveals what goes on behind closed doors, but not before reeling the reader in little by little.  For instance, we find out that whatever it is that goes on in this building, despite its homely appearance, earns many millions of dollars.

“Someone unaccustomed to reading financial reports might have missed the full import of the numbers on the screen, the glee and madness in them. But anyone could see that they started small and got big fast. Mechanically, monotonously, the computer in the case was telling an old familiar story—the international, materialistic fairy tale come true” (Kidder, 1981).

Kidder then gives something of a rundown on the history of personal computers.  He keeps the history lesson interesting, though, by regularly relating the computer talk back to the people operating them.

“Typically, one big machine served an entire organization. Often it lay behind a plate glass window, people in white gowns attending it, and those who wished to use it did so through intermediaries. Users were like supplicants. The process could be annoying” (Kidder, 1981).

“IBM, one executive of a mainframe company once said, represented not competition but “the environment,” and on Wall Street and elsewhere some people made a business solely out of attempting to predict what the environment would do next” (Kidder, 1981).

“I once asked a press agent for a computer company what was the reason for all this enthusiasm. He held a hand before my face and rubbed his thumb across his fingers. ‘Money,’ he whispered solemnly. ‘There’s so goddamn much money to be made'” (Kidder, 1981).

It become obvious quite quickly that Kidder did a whale’s share of research for this story and conducted interesting interviews too.  Perhaps the most overlooked facet of Kidder’s reporting for these stories is the time spent in the background, waiting, watching, reporting, waiting, watching.  Like Gary Smith, Tracy Kidder hangs around his story’s subject matter long enough that small facts and events start to lace together to form a bigger picture.

Personally, I think this kind of journalism is very interesting.  Journalists like Kidder (and Gary Smith) try to understand our world a bit better by looking closely at relatively ordinary events, people, and places.  I imagine there’s a good amount of pressure on the part of this kind of journalist to actually find something out of the mundane, the ordinary.  It’s probably rewarding work in the end; I bet Kidder learns a great deal from each story he reports and writes.  I also imagine it’s not an easy sell to an editor.  I would like to try this kind of work, but I’m not sure how feasible it is in this day and age where the 24-hour news cycle dominates.

The beauty of this kind of reporting is that it doesn’t take a once-a-year event, or a famously interesting person to make the story.  The story comes from the ordinary, the everyday minute rhythms of life.  A couple of possible process journalism stories for the Gainesville area:

  • Find out the history and current plans for the abandoned building on, I believe, 18th and University Avenue.  What was the original idea behind this building?  Who’s idea was it?  Why did construction so abruptly stop, and what is happening with this huge pile of concrete on very expensive property?  Is anybody actually doing anything about it?
  • The underbelly of The Swamp (Ben Hill Griffith Stadium) – what goes on down there?  Who’s in charge?
  • Missing bicycles – what happens to the hundreds of bicycles stolen from campus and the surrounding area each week?  Is there an underground stolen bicycle trade here in Gainesville?  Are the bikes whisked off to other cities?

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Blog Assignment 18: In Defense of Literary Journalism

In this article, Avis Meyer argues that journalism can be “accepted as a proper topic for academic rumination” (4).  According to Meyer, current newspaper dailies still show plenty of evidence of “tributes to the insight and resolve of journalism’s literary progenitors” (4).  Moreover, the author argues that the press (in 1982) is still fighting many of the same types of battles, such as government censorship and a “negligent Supreme Court” (4), that faced the press of pre-America England.

Unfortunately, most of Meyer’s essay reads like a dry history textbook.  The reader loses sight of the argument and becomes absorbed by the trainload of names, dates and newspapers; the brain can only retain a limited amount of information.  Is it really beneficial to offer a two-hundred year rundown of the American press?  Wouldn’t that be better suited for a book?

In my opinion, Meyer does a poor job of concluding his argument, or defense of literary journalism.  He ends with a whimsical, feel-good paragraph, hardly touching upon his 11-page defense.

Turning this goal into tradition, for centuries newspapers have offered their readers a colorful, wrinkles-and-all family portrait.  There is a constant moral purpose reflected in the daily writing that looks back from the pages of our past, as the literary journalists form their perceptions and direct their pens.  The wrote, and write, to please their audience and thus themselves;  they write, and they read, and they write again.  This, every twenty-four hours.

 

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Blog Assignment 17 – A Scene in the Style of Crane

Night Moves

It was a night that grew frigid with the arrival of a brittle crescent moon.  The tall man and his dark-haired associate, sometime shortly after 11:00p.m., took to the two-lane street that lay directly West of the house from which they had just emerged.  The street, empty save two cars parked on its east bank, wore only the yellow light of a singular street light shining down from above.  The tall man moved into the yellow, as did his associate.  The latter held a white disc, about a foot in diameter, black writing peppering its center.

The associate said: “Let’s warm it up now,” paused for one second, as if visualizing the path of the upcoming disc flight, lunged deftly to his right and flicked the disc seemingly effortlessly.  The tall man nodded in approval as the disc gently hovered toward him.  With an audible slap, the tall man clasped the disc, sandwiching its smooth white surface between his hands, his palms separated by a half-inch of plastic.  “Nice one.”  Fog escaped hurriedly from the tall man’s nose and mouth before disappearing into the night.  He looked down at his hands, momentarily studying the white object between them.  He gripped the disc with his right hand, a tight-knuckled fist firmly holding its white edge, and directed his gaze upward, straight ahead toward the dark-haired associate.  The tall man’s right leg crossed in front of his left; his torso now angling to the left as well.  On the balls of his feet, the tall man drew back his right arm, fist still firm, disc parallel to the black ground.

Suddenly, a noise.  Bang! Another.  Bang! A third.  Bang!

Disc still in hand, the tall man, having glanced toward the direction of the noise, returned his eyes to those of his associate. It had come from a house some 20 feet behind and to the right of the associate.  It had come from outside.

Neither spoke.  Two, maybe three seconds passed.  The tall man took a small step forward and said, quieter than before: “That was an exotic noise.”

Exotic?” The associate responded quizzically.

Now a fourth noise, Bang!, followed instantaneously by the unmistakable sound of shattering glass, Crashhh!

The tall man and his associate, like startled bucks, bounded into the nearest yard. In the grass they moved slowly, leaves crackling underneath their feet despite tentative steps.  Crouched now in the blanketing shadow of a four-foot-thick live oak, the tall man and his associate watched the offending house.  A single white light shone from near its front door, illuminating a portion of the driveway and a slice of the flat-roofed carport.  Five seconds passed, then ten.

Suddenly, a figure emerged from the carport, walking with a purpose through the shower of white light and into the street, where it stoppeda man, full-bodied, head shielded by a baseball cap.  The tall man and his associate, cloaked, moved only to breathe.  Three seconds passed, then four.  Chirps sprung from somewhere within the carport, a woman’s voice, not distressed, almost cheery.  The full-bodied man, paused one more second, turned his head, owl-like, toward the voice and began toward it, slower than before, slipping back into the darkness.

The tall man and his associate, still stepping tentatively, reappeared from the shadows.

“Come on, let’s go in,” the associate said, just above a whisper.

The tall man and his associate walked past the live oak into the well-lit house and closed the door behind them.  The tall man immediately plunged, face first, into the slit between the window drapes.

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Blog Assignment 16 – Drift by Morris Markey

Morris Markey (1899-1950) was a writer for The New Yorker magazine during the first half of the 20th century.  Markey’s pieces, from what I understand, often took a look at a particular section of, or activity happening in New York City.  Markey was an early advocate of some of the technique’s we’ve discussed associated with literary journalism, such as the use of “I” or “we” in his stories.

At a glance, “Drift” is a short piece that describes the process of burial for the pauper dead of New York City.  Markey begins his story in an office building, following one Detective Sergeant O’Keefe as he works, trying to identify and/or organize the dead he sends to be buried at Hart’s Island, New York.  Markey also explores the process of delivery of the bodies to the island and gives a bit of its history and current (1920’s) tradition.

However, “Drift” can be analyzed in much more detail.  In particular, Markey uses many elements of literary journalism throughout “Drift.”  In my opinion, Markey pays very close attention to word choice throughout the story.  Let’s consider some examples and what impact Markey’s word choice has on the story and the reader.

“This was Wednesday, and burial day, and Number 48,227 was not alone in receiving the attentions of the busy workers.  In the vast room, there were more than a hundred who lay beside him in long ranks.  None other of these, however, were touched with the air of mystery that lay upon him.  Their names were known, for they were the pauper dead gathered from all five boroughs of the city” (94).

In my opinion, Markey’s word choice here conveys a sense of anonymity for the dead, both in name and in journey.  Though it’s obvious that “Number 48,227” is without a human name, the surrounding language seems to cloak indentification of the other bodies and mirks their individuality.  We have a “vast” room where some large number of bodies, “more than a hundred,” “lay” beside the main mystery body.  Although Markey tells us “Their names were known,” to the reader the bodies are simply the “pauper dead gathered from all five boroughs…”  Notice the vagueness of the word “gathered.”  It gives no sense of how these dead got here, nor how long they’ve been here, only that they are here, in a group.

Markey’s word choice also influences his image choice.  Throughout “Drift,” Markey is careful to describe the color of many of the story’s objects.  Some examples:

“…the old red building…” (93).

“…on pale-green paper…” (93).

“The craft was… painted black” (95).

“Across its bows was written its name in white letters…” (95).

“The grass is green” (95).

“A priest in black vestiments…” (95).

Some of the colors of the objects clearly carry some weight.  Those who come in contact with the dead are painted or wearing black, such as the boat and the priest from the above quotes.  Hart’s Island is covered in green grass, connecting death with life and fertility.

Markey also uses adjectives throughout “Drift” that befit descriptions of life and/or death.

“…water that hid its eternal filth…” (95).

“…Beekman Place seemed quite immortal…” (95).

“…ghostly company” (94).

Another nice feature of Markey’s writing that I noticed was his use of varying sentence length.  Like a great journalist, Markey clearly knows when and how to drop the hammer sentence.  Some examples:

“Down in the cellar, the attendants prepared Number 48,227 in accordance with the release that the Medical Examiner’s Office had furnished.  The release meant that Number 48,227 had not been identified as a criminal from the voluminous records of fingerprints and measurements.  It also meant that the hope of identification by relatives or friends might be given up.  They sewed him in a sheet” (94).

“Some had crept with solitary misery into the city hospitals, and died there.  Some had died in the dreadful squalor of the tenements.  Some were dead-born infants from Bellevue next door.  A division was perceptible in the ranks of this ghostly company.  Some, about a third of the number, lay apart from the rest, and small crosses were imprinted on their shrouds.  They were the Roman Catholics” (94).

“Drift” is more pleasurable to read because of Markey’s careful attention to sentence length and reading rhythm.

There are also noticeable traits of traditional journalism found in “Drift.”  Markey answers some of the questions his reader might have with quotes, which I must assume were noted during interviews.

“…it is on this day alone in all the year that music sounds across the silent green, for the veterans always bring a band.

‘Last  year,’ said the superintendent, ‘they had twelve pieces.'” (96).

“Drift” ends (its penultimate paragraph) with a beautiful image decribed by Markey.

“The Riverside was leaving for the city.  It turned slowly, and headed toward the spires that were lost in the haze above Manhattan” (96).

The image of the boat leaving Hart’s Island for Manhattan draws comparisons between the dead on the island and those living on the larger island, Manhattan.  However, Markey seems to describe both as somewhat anonymous, “lost,” as though without identity or defined destination.  He describes the city as shrouded in a haze which cloud its buildings and those within them.  The dead, on Hart’s Island, have already been described as being covered with dirt “to cover them from the bright day” (95).  Both dead and living share this common image in “Drift.”

As for my literary journalism assignment, I think I’d like to do a fly-on-the-wall piece.  I was thinking it might be an interesting story to follow around a graduate student for a day and see what goes on in his or her daily life.  I think there is a common misconception that the life of a student at a university consists of class for “an hour or two” and then a nap, some TV watching and some drinking to end the night.  I think that many would be surprised at how busy graduate students can be and how much a student accomplishes in one day.  Furthermore, the term “graduate school” is hazy to most people (think Tom Wolfe’s rant on grad school in his famous New Journalism article) so I imagine readers would be interested to see what exactly is involved in grad-school life.

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Blog Assignment 14 – Gary Smith: Sports Writing at its Finest

“Blind Sided by History”

1.  Gary Smith specializes in writing stories that take a look at the Bigger Picture.  In writing “Blind Sided by History,” I believe Smith wanted to describe the situation revolving around “The Little Rock Nine” from a totally different viewpoint than a textbook would offer.  Major events are much more easily analyzed, compartmentalized, and altogether understandable when viewed years after they happened.  I believe Smith wanted to get a feel for the in-the-moment thoughts, emotions and confusion of those who witnessed and lived through that tumultuous school year.

2.  Throughout the piece, Smith compares the 1957 Little Rock High football team with the 2006 team, noting the evolution in mindset that these young people from Little Rock have gone through in 50 years.  Other narrative threads that run through the piece:

  • Regret – many of the football players from the ’57 team regret not having befriended or protected the integrated black students.
  • Courage – the ’57 players certainly had courage on the football field, but many did not have the courage to stand up for the black students being picked on or insulted.
  • Confusion – many of the ’57 players had forces pulling them from both sides – their inner-self telling them to do one thing and a friend, or parent, or a crowd telling them to do another.

3 + 4.  Perhaps Smith’s greatest tool as a literary journalist is his exploration of the inner experience.  That’s what “Blind Sided by History” is all about.

On some of the ’57 players reactions to returning to Little Rock High in 2007:

“But if they pulled up in front of Central High, they’d shake their heads and feel like 17-year-olds again…”

“The ol’ boys would be anxious as they walked from their cars, the way the neighborhood’s changed.”

On the chaotic situation surrounding the school during the first days of integration:

“His heart felt as if it would bang its way out of his chest… Johnny’s mind raced.  What if one of those nutballs out there had a gun?  What if they branded him as what he was — a sympathizer — for not walking out?”

“What you need to understand, Johnny could tell the 2006 team, is how confusing the moment is, if you’ve never shone a light on your own shadows.  Thunderclouds of anxiety, fleeting glimmers of rationalization: Miss West can’t teach with this mob outside… We can’t learn anything today anyway… Nobody can blame you, not in this madness… Gotta stick with your buddy…”

5.  Gary Smith is one of the most well-known sportswriters in America.  He has worked for numerous newspapers and magazines including the Wilmington News-Journal, the Philadelphia Daily News, the New York Daily News, Inside Sports, Time, and, most notably, Sports Illustrated, where he has worked since 1983.  Smith has won the National Magazine Award for non-fiction a record four time and was a finalist for the prize ten times.  Most of his work is available for free online at http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/.

 

6.  From what I read in Ben Yagoda’s article, “How Gary Smith Became America’s Best Sportswriter,” Smith spends hours upon hours with the subjects he is writing about.  It surely appears that he spent time with both the ’57 football team and the ’06 football team for this article, conducting interviews and watching players from both teams interact with each other.  Smith clearly also did some background research about Little Rock Central High School, the events of the ’57 school year and some of the key figures of the school during that time.

 

Question for class:

Gary Smith’s stories often deal with gray areas, in between the black and white areas of fact and fiction.  Often the stories focus on complex issues that may have no solution or no resolution.  How does Gary Smith go about addressing such issues?  Do you think Smith tries to make sense, as best s/he can, of these complexities, or does he leave them be, as unanswerable questions left unanswered?

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Blog Assignment 13 – Immersion Journalism and the Like

Posit what you believe the writer’s purpose is:

Although I cannot say for certain what purpose Ted Conover had in writing Coyotes, from the snippet I read this week I would argue that Conover is trying to shed some light on the personal lives of illegal aliens in the United States.  Illegal immigrants, such as those Conover worked with and profiled in Coyotes, are generally thought of as at the bottom of the socioeconomic totem pole in the US.  A faction generally thought of in passing, Conover lends a lot of perspective on the individual personalities of the men he’s working with and covering as a journalist, but also highlights sweeping differences between Mexican and US culture.

It seems that Dennis Covington had similar goals in mind when writing “Snake Handling and Redemption.”  Here, Covington immerses himself alongside a group of people marginalized by mainstream society.  These snake-handling preachers and worshipers are generally considered crazy or fanatical for their practices.  By detailing the personalities and backgrounds of certain individuals involved in these little-recognized practices, Covington illuminates the purpose behind the religious snake-handling.  Moreover, Covington actually participates in one of the congregation’s events, and thus, lends a first-person perspective on the emotional and physical results of the practice.  A recovering alcoholic, Covington lends the piece a genuine perspective on the topics of salvation, recovery and faith.

Describe the plot line and any narrative threads that run through the story. In some of these I am especially interested in word choice.

The snippet from Conover’s Coyotes follows Conover and seven of his immigrant co-workers on night out on the town.  The group first goes to McDonald’s and then to a local bar.  Conover strikes up a conversation with the bartender, a woman from El Salvidor, who seems to take an immediate liking to the writer.  It quickly becomes apparent, however, that what the woman is really interested in is a Green Card, and sees Conover as a means to that end.

Throughout the piece, Conover discusses differences in culture between Mexican men and men from the US.  Included in the differences are the topics of power, pride, social status, and gender-related differences.  Conover certainly payed close attention to his word choice while writing this story.  Many of the words he has chosen can be directly related to the narrative themes listed above, for example:

“My friends were my passport, and I had no trouble…” (333).

“Unless you were looking for a hooker, you met women somewhere else, someplace less sinful” (333).

“…to a citizen of that proud but very poor country to the south, norther neighbors could be very powerful rivals indeed” (334).

Dennis Covington’s piece, “Snake Handling and Redemption,” begins with a look at Covington’s own fascination with snakes, beginning when he was just a boy.  He then gives detailed information about the poisonous snakes commonly found in the Appalachians, where the story takes place, and about the motivations of snake handlers.  Finally, Covington takes a trip to a mountainside church where he observes and eventually participates in a religious snake-handling ceremony.

Certain narrative threads run throughout Covington’s piece, including: wilderness, personal salvation, spirituality, fear, with particular attention paid to the five senses.  Covington, like Conover, also chooses his words carefully and to great effect.  When discussing snakes, Covington’s precision in word choice is particularly striking:

“The timber rattler is also, to me, the loveliest of the rattlesnakes…” (394).

“…its head is finely defined… the tail is velvety… perhaps that too is a source of its beauty: a dangerous animal, exquisetly made…” (394).

About the church where the snake handlers congregate: “As you approached the church along the dirt road during summer heat, the oak grove looked like a dark island in the middle of a shimmering sea of gold and green” (397).

Words relating to the senses: “acrid-smelling,” “carnal,” “clamor, heat, and smell.”

Thoroughly discuss the techniques the writer used and identify the elements of literary journalism you found and
offer evidence from your story to support these descriptions of the elements.

Elements that are prevalent in Ted Conover’s Coyotes include:

Scene-by-scene construction: There isn’t a vast amount of action in Coyotes, but there are a number of scenes presented.  The scene construction really provides atmosphere for the story, atmospheres that seem to characterize certain facets of Mexican culture – shared personal space, bars being hangouts for men only etc.    for example:

“The five of us, his old friend Dogie, and one-armed Luis, all piled into his ’69 Chevrolet Impala, four in front and four in back” (331).

“… we walked toward the squat little bar, with the old neon sign on top advertising ‘Rita’s Elbow Rest’ – there were a couple of pickup trucks in the parking lot, and it looked like a real redneck hangout” (332).

“There was not a blue eye in sight.  A full-size pool table dominated the floor, illuminated by a light hanging directly overhead; everything else lay in its shadow…” (333).

Status details are also prevalent in Coyotes.  These details give a little more color to Conover’s Mexican cohorts, and their way of life.

“Perhaps it was Martin’s jokes, or the bright ranchera music on the AM radio” (332).

“…no one on earth seemed more adept at avoiding men’s eyes than the Mexican and Central American women I had been around in the past few months – and with the men as aggressive as they were, it was a necessary survival skill” (333).

“There was not a blue eye in sight” (333).

Dialogue also plays an important role in Coyotes.  From dialogue within the piece, we get a glimpse of the motivation of the female bartender that Conover is talking with, which can be extended more broadly as the motivation behind a certain social segment.

Do you have wishes?” she asked.

What do you mean?”

“You know, things you wish would come true?”

“Well, sure I do.” I take such questions too literally; I started giving it some thought, but she interrupted.

“I’ll tell you what my wishes are…. You know what I would like?  What I would prize most of all? A green card!” She beamed at me, at the thought.

After this exchange, the element of the author’s reflection comes into play:

“But my bubble suddenly burst.  Why had she said this?  She had tipped her hand much, much too soon.  I was disheartened, deflated.  Instead of seeing in me the things I thought she had, she had seen in me a ticket.  I wasn’t a sex object, but something sexier: a green-card object, a hollow marriage object, a means to an end.  I took another swallow of beer, and it tasted bad” (335).

In his moment of reflection, Conover spells out certain differences between him and the El Salvidorian bartender.  While Conover seems to be searching for genuine love, the woman is instead searching for a way to become a US citizen.  The two obviously share different priorities and different immediate life goals.

Elements that are prevalent in Dennis Covington’s “Snake Handling and Redemption” include:

Status detail, which gives a clearer picture of the snakes being discussed within the story, as well as the terrain of the setting, and physical traits of characters being observed.

“It was a speckled king [snake], big and black, freshly shed, with yellow speckles from head to tail, as though a paintbrush had been shaken lightly over it” (392).

“It was miles from nowhere, in the middle of a hay field south of Section, Alabama – home of Tammy Little, Miss Alabama 1984.  The nearest dot on the map, though, was Macedonia, a crossroads consisting of a filling station, a country store, and a junk emporium” (396).

“Children were racing down the aisles.  With high foreheads, eyes far apart, and gaps between their front teeth, they all looked like miniature Glenn Summerfords” (399).

Reflection plays a particularly important role in Covington’s story.  Covington, in fact, seems to be searching for answers, or perhaps perspective on his own issues relating to his own personal battle with alcoholism, particularly, the loss of self.

“I didn’t stop to think about it.  I just gave in.  I stepped forward and took the snake with both hands… I felt no fear.  The snake seemed to be an extension of myself.  And suddenly there seemed to be nothing in the room but me and the snake.  Everything else had dissapeared… all gone, all faded to white…and I realized that I, too, was fading into the white.  I was losing myself by degrees, like the incredible shrinking man” (402).

“I knew then why the handlers took up serpents.  There is a power in the act of disappearing; there is victory in the loss of self.  It must be close to our conception of paradise, what it’s like before you’re born or after you die” (402).

If we consider the twelve-step program of recovery from addiction, a loss of self, as well as a spiritual awakening,  are important steps to recovery: (condensed)

1. Admit we are powerless over alcohol.

2. Came to believe a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps

One more reflective quote from Covington:

“It’s not often you get a second chance at life like that.  And I remembered the births of my girls, the children Vicki and I had thought we’d never be able to have.  Looking around at the familiar faces in the congregation, I figured they were thinking about their own wildernesses and how they’d been delivered out of them.  I knew I was still coming out of mine.  It was a measure of how far I’d come, that I’d be moved nearly to tears in a rundown Holiness church on Sand Mountain, but my restless and stubborn intellect was still intact” (400).

Give a brief biography of your writers:

Dennis Covington, 61, is a journalist and writer from Alabama.  He attended UVA, studied fiction writing and later served in the Army.  Covington has spent time as a war correspondent in El Salvidor, a special correspondent to the New York Times, and is now Professor of Creative Writing at Texas Tech University.

Ted Conover, 52, is an immersion journalist and author from Okinawa, Japan and raised in Denver.  Conover has spent time working along side migrant workers, riding trains with hobos, and spent a year as a rookie correctional officer at Sing-Sing prison.  The latter-most immersion birthed a book, Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing, that would earn a place in the Pulitzer Prize finals.

Discuss how the writer researched and reported the book and discuss the ethics of immersion.

To write Coyotes, Ted Conover lived and worked with Mexican immigrants in Mexico and the United States, eventually crossing into the United States via the services of a hired smuggler.  Conover’s fluency in Spanish helped him fit in with, and report accurately, the immigrants he was to write about.  Certain ethical issues arise in this type of immersion journalism.  Not only is the undocumented crossing from Mexico to the United States illegal, it is very dangerous.  Conover literally risked life and limb, not to mention imprisonment, to write this story.  Some would also argue that Conover is at fault for participating in daily interaction with illegal immigrants and not “blowing the whistle” on this kind of illegal activity.  But, personally, I find it hard to overlook the fact that these immigrants are above all searching a better life in the United States, willing to risk imprisonment or death for that search.

Dennis Covington’s immersion in his story “Snake Handling Redemption” is a little less total, but perhaps just as dangerous.  Covington first discovered snake-handling churches through an assignment to cover a murder trial, that of Glen Summerford, a preacher accused of attempting to kill his wife with rattlesnakes.

Again, I’ll raise two ethical issues present in “Snake Handling Redemption.”  Like Coyotes, Covington’s personal health is at risk for the story.  If something were to go even slightly wrong in one of these snake-handling ceremonies, Covington could be maimed, or die.  Is death a worthwhile risk for a good story?  The second issue is that Covington might have a personal bias for the subjects of the story.  Their goals seem aligned with Covington’s, that is, they share a desire to search for personal salvation, a faith in a higher Power and a shared sense of loss of self.  Might some of these similarities numb Covington to more rational concerns, for instance, why must these snakes be poisonous?  What about the fact that so many of these preachers have been bit by these snakes?  Is this sense of loss of self everlasting, or only temporary?

 

Finally, ask one question that the class can attempt to answer both in class and on your blog.
Question:

Might personal bias present an ethical issue for these particular immersion journalists, or immersion journalism in general?  Do you see it as problematic that Dennis Covington, or Ted Conover might be portraying his story’s subjects in a favorable light because of shared personal beliefs or problems?

It seems that Dennis Covington, especially, has reason to portray his story’s subjects in a favorable light, as they seem to be searching for the same salvation that Covington seeks.  Clearly, personal bias is abominable within the realm of traditional journalism, but in relation to immersion journalism, or gonzo journalism, the line seems hazy.

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