Experiment 2, Stage 1

Proposal and Genre Analysis: How to Write Literary Journalism

For my second experiment, I want to do a more research-y but still creative piece about the history of protest songs being misused and reappropriated. After talking with Julie about my first experiment cycle, I realized that I needed to do a lot more research (about Bruce Springsteen and the ‘80s and the ‘60s and protest songs and basically everything) before trying to write fiction based on “Born in the USA”. I think that protest songs are super interesting as cultural products, “Born in the USA” stands out because it seems way more like a protest song than the other songs on the album. I want to do more research about a few questions I have related to protest songs and “Born in the USA”:

  1. What is a protest song? How have American artists from different genres interacted with and shaped this type of song from the 1940s to the present?
  2. What are the other well-known protest songs about the Vietnam war, and how are they similar to or different from “Born in the USA”?
  3. Through what platforms did protest songs gain popularity (TV show appearances of the artists, concerts, music festivals, etc)?
  4. How does “Born in the USA” comply with and defy general conventions about protest songs?
  5. How have protest songs been used for means outside of their original purpose (to protest a war)?
  6. What makes some protest songs more likely to be reappropriated (lyrics, instrumentation, etc)?
  7. How do protest songs account for and describe patriotism?

I think that answering these questions through research will guide me toward a more specific topic for a piece of writing. I feel pretty familiar with researching because I write for the Michigan Journal of Political Science and so I’ve written a number of pieces that incorporate cultural research and analytical thinking. While my original piece was also a research article, it was much more straightforward and specific. I’d like this second experiment to be broader in scope, and more casually written–more in the style of something you might see published in The Atlantic rather than in an academic journal. I like writing academic-style research papers like the ones I write for MJPS or my origin piece, but I want to move away from that genre into something a little been more casual.

Since I wasn’t exactly sure what genre this fit into, I decided that “creative nonfiction – literary journalism” fit best. Purdue OWL describes this genre as follows:

“Literary journalism is sometimes called “immersion journalism” because it requires a closer, more active relationship to the subject and to the people the literary journalist is exploring. Like journalistic writing, the literary journalism piece should be well-researched, focus on a brief period of time, and concentrate on what is happening outside of the writer’s small circle of personal experience and feelings.”

(https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/753/03/)

While I didn’t have a term to describe this genre when I was first brainstorming, I think this comes pretty close. I did some more research about literary journalism and found some good advice that I think will lead me in the right direction:

  • What type of lead do I wish to use?
  • What is the story about?
  • What are the themes?
  • What major points do I wish to make?
  • What facts do I have? What facts do I still need?
  • Are my facts verifiable?
  • Who have I interviewed? Who must I still  interview?
  • How do I want to organize the essay? By topic? Chronological order? Logical order?
  • What are my own views on the topic? How do I wish to incorporate my views into the essay?

(https://davehood59.wordpress.com/2010/03/29/how-to-write-a-literary-journalistic-essay/)

These questions will help me organize my writing and guide me toward being broad without being unfocused, which I think will be the main challenge of this genre.

I also found some good guiding tenets of literary journalism (and creative nonfiction in general):

(https://www.poynter.org/news/breaking-creative-nonfiction-part-1-basics)

I also thought it was important to read a piece of literary journalism. I read Noreen Malone’s “‘I’m No Longer Afraid’: 35 Women Tell Their Stories About Being Assaulted by Bill Cosby, and the Culture That Wouldn’t Listen” (https://www.thecut.com/2015/07/bill-cosbys-accusers-speak-out.html), which a super interesting and powerful piece. I liked the way Malone organized it, and I think I’ll need to be thoughtful (like she was) about the best way to organize my piece, because it seem like it would be easy for it to get rambly and unorganized.

After looking more into this genre, I feel like I have a good base understanding of how literary journalism might work for the topic I’m thinking about. I feel a little bit overwhelmed by the amount of research I need to do in order to answer my guiding questions, but I’m also excited about experimenting with this genre.

Experiment 1, Stage 2: how to write a short story

My origin piece is a paper I wrote about Bruce Springsteen and his role in American culture and politics. For my first experiment, I want to turn the paper into a short story. Obviously, I can’t turn the whole paper into a short story, because there are many different sections and trying to shove them all into one short story would be way too chaotic.

For my research about how to write a short story, I came across a lot of similar advice. From a website called
“The Write Practice”, I found this infographic (https://thewritepractice.com/how-to-write-a-short-story/):

 

 

So, there’s that. I don’t know, that timeline ( and basically all of the stuff I found) seemed super unhelpful. I think part of this is because I’m in two classes where we’re reading metafiction, and so regular short stories just seem boring to me right now. Like, where is the self-consciousness about the construction of a narrator?? Anyway, there are still some aspects of the short story genre that I think I need to take into consideration, even if I do attempt to make some sort of metafiction-y and unconventional short story inspired by what I’ve been reading in my other classes.

So, how do you write a short story?

  1. character: most short stories have characters, and Springsteen’s songs, while they are about places, are also really about the people to whom certain places have value. Creating fictional characters is an important aspect of the writing process, and one that might happen before a writer begins or emerge organically as the story unfolds.
  2. create a mood: a good short story will use characters and setting to create a world that has a particular emotional landscape. This is particularly important in short stories, because there is limited space (compared to a novel) to develop themes.
  3. story arc: generally, a short story will have a beginning, a period of rising action, a climax, and period of falling action, and a conclusion. However, authors often play with this basic setup in order to emphasize narrative tension.
  4. simplicity: short stories are usually pretty simple in terms of number of characters, plot, and themes. This is mostly because of the limited length of a short story (although there is not set length). Obviously, simple doesn’t mean bad or not complex, but the type of multiplicity that you can often see in novels is just not feasible in most short stories.

I read some short stories to see how well these conventions apply to actual examples in the genre. The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry seems to fit pretty well (characters, mood, story arc, simplicity). However, some more recent short stories were less clearly attuned to these conventions. The Yardman by Bonnie Jo Campbell is way less interested in a story arc. Instead, Campbell focuses on language to create a mood and develop characters. Lastly, Cat Person by Kristen Roupenian has all of these conventions. I found that it was not the adherence to or divergence from convention that made a short story appealing, but rather the author’s use of language to create a self-contained and absorbing world in a short space.

This makes me think that the challenge of creating a short story will be to render my created world in a way that resonates with the reader. In another class I’m taking right now (English 317), we are reading a lot of Rust Belt literature, which I think has some similar ideas/themes as Bruce Springsteen’s music (relationship between work and identity, loss of employment, etc). I think that looking deeper into how those writers struggle with these topics will be a major part of my next step (the annotated bibliography).

 

Introduction!

Introductions are hard–it’s not the same as introducing yourself, but something more challenging and potentially more meaningful. An introduction is the beginning of something, the promise that after this there will be chapters and chapters to come. If I had to distill myself into a list of ten things about my life right now that are most important (which I guess I do), this would be them:

I am currently floundering (a little): I’ve already switched three of my classes since the beginning of the term because I realized maybe I want to be an English major instead of American Culture. Or both!? I don’t know. We’ll see. It’ll be fine.

I get up early four days a week: This seems trivial, but I’m in four 8:30s and I’m not used to getting up early so my schedule is kind of ruling my life right now.

I’m living in Boston this summer with my best friend: I’m so excited! We just signed a sublease and (kind of coincidentally) I looked at the lineup for Boston Calling (a music festival in May) and my absolute favorite band, Big Thief, is playing. Seems meant to be. I still don’t know exactly what I’m going to be doing in Boston, but I’ve been frantically applying for internships and I’m hoping it’ll all work out.

My birthday is February 4th: …and my mom and my aunt are coming to Ann Arbor to take me to the Folk Festival for my birthday, which I am super psyched about.

I just sent my best friend from high school a birthday card: Why don’t people send more letters? I’m getting very into sending letters. I even bought stamps. I think I’m going to singlehandedly bring back letters.

I always have a cold: I will be the first to go down if Contagion happens.

I like oatmeal: I sometimes have oatmeal for every meal. I’m not proud of it, but I’m not ashamed, either.

I like to read: I really do. I’m obsessed with Jennifer Egan! She seems like she is probably the coolest person and she is also an amazing writer.

I just ate a banana: self explanatory. I love bananas because they come with their own wrapping, and finding a container and lid that match is basically an Olympic sport at my house (my housemates and I have taken to yelling “tupperwhere’s the lid?!” while we are looking).

I want to be a better writer: this seems more like a goal than something that belongs in an introduction, but it’s why I’m taking this class and it’s also something I think about a lot.