I decided to pursue a master’s in nonfiction writing part-time knowing that the idea of getting a degree in “writing” is a pretty silly thing to do. Many writers and journalists I’ve admired subscribe to the belief that writing isn’t something that can be learned in school — study other things, experience other things. That was always the advice. I had mixed feelings about the bachelor’s in journalism degree I earned for this reason. But when I moved to DC two years ago with some savings and spare time, desperately seeking a creative outlet, I reasoned I could indulge in a program like this as long as I was earning my keep working full-time. I missed writing the occasional narrative news features that newspaper reporting had allowed, and thought I’d be writing more of the same in class, things I could pitch to alt-weeklies and the like.
This did not happen. I had no good ideas, because sitting in a cubicle for 8 hours a day and being brand new to a city is a surefire way to end up with no ideas. So my reporting efforts in that first class fell flat. Most of my classmates had other goals; most of them chose to write personal essays for class assignments. This disappointed me greatly. I’ve always loved the art of writing; spending hours tweaking sentences until they’re just so, plotting out story and paragraph structure, playing with words. But personal essays outside the context of college applications felt self-indulgent; to spend time writing them would make me just another navel-gazing self-important millennial. Much like this:
A corner of the internet has been thinking about this a bit lately. Last month, a writing professor named Susan Shapiro had an eyebrow-raising op-ed in the New York Times, which discussed the signature assignment for her students — a personal essay on “the most humiliating thing that’s happened to you.” What’s truly troubling here from a publishing industry and future-of-nonfiction perspective is found in the very first paragraph of Shapiro’s piece, where she describes encouraging a Bosnian immigrant to chronicle his Muslim family’s betrayal by their neighbors during the Balkan war. “It led to his first clip and a second career,” she boasts.
The marketability of the confessional essay is the very first thing Shapiro mentions. The redemptive value writing these essays can have for both their authors and their readers who recognize their own stories in these pieces — something my writing professor brought up whenever I questioned “using the word ‘I’” in my work — comes second. The path to writing success that Shapiro is selling is only symptomatic of the current marketplace, as Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan writes in “Journalism Is Not Narcissism.”
The demoralizing truth is that there is a huge appetite for first-person essays of this sort. The pages of Salon, and Slate, and Thought Catalog, and XO Jane, and women’s magazines, and lowbrow-masquerading-as-highbrow publications like parts of the New York Times, and Gawker Media are absolutely overflowing with them.
Nolan admirably encourages aspiring journalists to look outside themselves for stories about “the billions of people in the world who have interesting stories” if they’re spending good money on journalism classes.
Shapiro teaches writing, not journalism. Like many of my classmates, her students presumably come to her classes wanting to be creative writers. These aren’t the same students who enter journalism programs because they saw “All the President’s Men.” Sure, there’s some overlap. Certainly most journalists and writers I know can’t be neatly placed into “muckracker” or “soulful writer” boxes, but if many of Shapiro’s students just want to write pretty sentences, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that.
But if students are entering actual accredited journalism degree programs, being assigned Shapiro’s “most humiliating thing” first person essays, and being told that’s what the biz is all about these days, that’s a problem. Nolan is right: students who pay for a journalism degree should not be set on that path, at least not exclusively. Think Progress’ Alyssa Rosenberg weighs in here, and she’s right, too:
“Young journalists should get the same lesson in confessional writing as they do in all else: why does it matter to anyone but you? The answer that they’ll want to consume your special snowflakeness is almost never true…”
A small dose of narcissism is, of course, part of the drive to see one’s byline in print. And blogger and editor Ann Friedman, elegantly makes the point that no journalism — even journalism about, yes, other people with “real stories” — is without perspective.
Writing is writing. Should practicing it, in any form, really be discouraged? I’m no longer sure I see what’s wrong with the practice or existence of first person narratives — if they’re well done and speak to something universal. Many of the first person pieces littering the internet do not. What the internet really needs is first-person pieces like Kelley Benham’s sure-to-win-a-Pulitzer “Never Let Go.” The fact that it probably won’t get it is another post entirely.
When I return to the classroom next week, I will try to write in first-person without eye-rolling or irony. After all, no one is obligated to read about my special snowflakeness.