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Turning the Weird Pro: The Craft & Practice of Narrative Journalism

Amaris Ketcham, ketchama@unm.edu                                 

Course Description

“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” – Hunter S. Thompson 

Gonzo, the art of hanging out, full immersion—the internal experience of external events and subcultures unfurls on the page in new journalism. Critics call it stunt journalism or playing tourist, but this research strategy involves using your life as an experiment, a baseline and leaping off point into a wider experience of existence through which the writer learns more about him- or herself and the surrounding world. In this course, we will investigate narrative journalism through readings, writing, and action. 

Turning the Weird Pro combines creative writing, journalism, and anthropology. The class will develop techniques for approaching the angle of journalistic 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-diet, becoming a guru, or befriending a ten-year old.

Readings and Texts

Reader will include Hunter S. Thompson (“The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved”), Gay Talese (“Frank Sinatra Has a Cold”), Susan Orlean (“American Male at Age Ten” and “Lifelike”), Herodotus (selections from The Persian Wars), John Jeremiah Silva (“Upon This Rock”), Joan Didion (“The White Album”), Phillip Gourevitch (“After the Genocide”), John D’Agata (“What Happens There” and selections from Lifespan of a Fact), Sarah Vowell (Selections from The Wordy Shipmates). 

Plus students will read Dave Eggers (Zeitoun) and John McPhee (The Pine Barrens). 

Craft essays: Aristotle (selections from Poetics), Lee Gutkind (selections from Keep It Real), Robin Hemley (“The Art of Immersion”), Dinty W. Moore (“On Becoming an Excellent Writer” and “On Publication, Rejection, and Being Stubborn”), Tom Wolfe (“The Birth of New Journalism”).

Films and Other Course Materials

Films: Kumare,Supersize Me.

Course Fee

None

Student Requirements

Requirements include attendance, active participation in discussions, a life experiment proposal, two papers, substantial research, public reading, and one life experiment.

About the Instructor

Amaris received her MFA in Creative Writing from the Inland Northwest Center for Writers at Eastern Washington University. Amaris has published essays, poetry, and short fiction in a variety of magazines, anthologies, and online venues. Her teaching interests include creative writing, fine arts, graphic design, and print and digital production. She currently serves as the Faculty Advisor for Scribendi, the Honors College and Western Regional Honors Council literature and arts magazine. In her free time, she is often occupied with open space, white space, CMYK and RGB, flash fiction/essays, long trails, f-stops, line breaks, and/or several Adobe programs running simultaneously.