The Writing Life

When Elisha Cooper ’93 applied to Fred Strebeigh’s nonfiction writing course in the fall of his senior year, he had no intention of turning writing into a career. He’d taken another writing course — Daily Themes — the previous spring and liked it well enough to try another, but unlike many of his fellow applicants who could boast of masthead titles on student publications and prestigious summer internships, Cooper hadn’t so much as published a single article during his entire time at Yale. In fact, he barely got into Strebeigh’s course at all.

“He didn’t let me into the class at the beginning, I had to beg my way in,” Cooper said. “Everyone else in the class had written for the Daily or the Herald. For three years I didn’t do anything in writing.”

Following Strebeigh’s advice, Cooper published two of the pieces he wrote for the course in The New Journal — one about a road trip to Dartmouth with fellow members of the football team, the other about the New Haven Brewing Company. “At some point, writing just kind of clicked,” Cooper said. “In [Strebeigh's] class it started becoming something very serious.”

By the end of the semester, his newfound interest in writing had taken a permanent hold, and he began to consider pursuing it as a career.

“I decided I wanted to work for a magazine,” Cooper said. But he set his sights high. He didn’t want to work for just any magazine, he wanted to work for The New Yorker. “I made calls and wrote letters and just bugged them. Eventually, I found out there was an opening in the messenger department, and so while all my classmates were applying to law school and Goldman Sachs, I was writing to the head of the messenger department at The New Yorker.”

At The New Yorker, even grunts running memos between editors’ desks must have journalism qualifications, and so Cooper’s break came when he sent in the pieces from The New Journal that he’d written for Strebeigh. He was hired, and six months later became the assistant to the art editor. After two years, he landed a contract to publish his first book, “A Year in New York,” an illustrated journal of his first year in the city. He has subsequently published ten more books, ranging from illustrated memoirs to children’s books.

It’s easy to read Cooper’s story as a testimonial for Yale’s nonfiction courses, to think that all it takes is one semester in the classroom to be hired by a magazine like The New Yorker. But just as important as his Cinderella-like success is the fact that during his semester in Strebeigh’s class he was taught how to improve his writing.

Nonfiction writing lies at an odd junction between expository writing and storytelling. It is imbued with a level of creativity not present in the academic writing that all Yale students engage in. But since it relies directly on real world events and experiences, it doesn’t exist in the same realm as writing stories or novels. It seems at once accessible and intimidating. Because of the amount of creativity required, it is also surrounded by an aura of unteachableness.

But, while Yale’s writing professors admit that talent does play a part in crafting nonfiction, they also firmly believe that many aspects of writing can be developed. “I think writing can be taught and that you can get better at it,” said Steven Brill, who teaches a journalism seminar and founded American Lawyer and Court TV. As far as the role of talent is concerned, he poses this analogy: “You can’t turn me into Alex Rodriguez, but if you put me in a batting cage for four or five hours every day, I’d be a better hitter.” Above all, Yale’s nonfiction courses succeed in improving students’ writing because they present writing as an academic discipline. By juxtaposing writing with the study of renowned works of journalism, they force students to practice and hone their craft, and then, by encouraging students to publish their work, they place them in a position to pursue writing professionally.

Although Yale offers a number of nonfiction courses, it’s difficult to place them all under the heading of a specifically structured program. In the Blue Book, nonfiction courses are listed alongside fiction and poetry courses under the heading “Courses in Writing,” a section of the English department offerings. Every year, an average of four students choose to pursue the Writing Concentration in nonfiction, an option offered to English majors who want to complete a major writing project during one semester of their senior year. Aside from this option, though, there are no guidelines to studying nonfiction at Yale. Students can pick the courses that fit their unique interests on an ˆ la carte basis.

Nonetheless, many students follow a sort of progression when taking these courses. Most take “English 120: Advanced Modern Prose,” an introduction to nonfiction writing, during their freshman or sophomore years. If they want to pursue the subject, they can then choose from a number of advanced nonfiction courses. Strebeigh’s “Nonfiction: Voice and Structure” and Brill’s journalism course are taught every year, while this spring Lincoln Caplan, a former editor at U.S. News and World Report, will teach an advanced nonfiction seminar and Anne Fadiman, the former editor-in-chief of American Scholar, will begin her three-year tenure at Yale by teaching a course on personal essay writing. Plus, the residential college seminars include one or two nonfiction courses every year, usually taught by distinguished alumni or visiting journalists.

Although they are offered within the English department, non-fiction courses tend to cater more to non-English majors than their fiction and poetry counterparts, which sometimes give English majors preference in the admission process. Rather than having a common major, nonfiction students usually share a demonstrated interest in journalism, and many are active in student publications. Most major campus publications are represented in Brill’s course: editors and reporters from the Yale Daily News and the Yale Herald, the editors-in-chief of Rumpus and The New Journal. But Brill also makes an effort to populate the class with students who aren’t as firm in their resolve to be journalists. “I look for people who want to take the class and who are clearly committed to doing journalism, or for people with eclectic interests outside of journalism who might want to be journalists,” he said. Last year’s class included a retired professional ballet dancer who was interested in becoming a culture writer and a resident at Yale-New Haven Hospital.

Even though they deal with different genres, the courses take similar approaches to teaching. None of Yale’s nonfiction courses focus solely on writing. Instead, writing is assigned in conjunction with readings by masters of a particular genre. “I believe strongly that students can learn to write wonderfully by learning to read wonderfully,” Strebeigh said. “The only shift from reading normally to reading as a writer is learning to look for craft, carpentry, strategy — writing techniques that you as a writer find fascinating and want to experiment with yourself.”

The tradition of integrating reading into writing courses stems back to when William Zinsser, who later turned his nonfiction course into the bestselling book “On Writing Well,” taught at Yale during the 1970s. “Bill taught one of the great nonfiction courses here,” Strebeigh, who studied under Zinsser, said. “His method was very straightforward. He would put a great work in front of us, make us look closely, and show us what was worth trying to follow or improve upon. What made it so nifty was that all around Yale we were doing close reading, but Bill was the person to show us that we could emulate very good writers instead of just analyzing or critiquing.”

Strebeigh terms Zinsser’s method “close reading for craft.” The technique is so effective because, as Strebeigh noted, it links writing to students’ previous academic work. “The courses de-mystify writing,” said Flora Lichtman ’05, who took Strebeigh’s course her junior year and is currently taking Brill’s journalism course. “They take an academic approach to something that has been de-academicized.”

Zinsser’s legacy at Yale, however, extends far beyond the structure of its nonfiction classes. In January, Anne Fadiman will become the first Francis Writer-in-Residence, a position created and funded by one of Zinsser’s former students, Paul Francis, who went on to become the chief financial officer of priceline.com. According to Strebeigh, Francis intended for the position to be occupied by “a Bill Zinsser for the 21st century.” Like Yale’s other nonfiction professors, Fadiman plans to use Zinsser’s method in her spring semester personal essay course “Writing On Oneself.” Students will read pieces dealing with a particular theme, such as love or angst, and then write personal essays on the same topic. “Reading these works will place students in the same chain of being occupied by the authors we’re reading,” Fadiman said. “I hope they’ll see they’re facing the same challenges and solving the same problems as the authors we’ll be reading.”

Surprisingly, given the opportunities the nonfiction program can create for students, only a handful of Yalies pursue jobs in journalism each year. According to Yale’s Office of Institutional Research, 50 members of the class of 2002 (the most recent year for which statistics are available) pursued careers in communications upon graduating; this includes students who went into advertising, radio and television in addition to journalism. Philip Jones, the director of Undergraduate Career Services and an assistant dean of Yale College, offers one possible explanation for such small numbers. “Often times, initially [journalism] doesn’t pay very well,” he said. “For some students that’s an issue.”

But of the few students who do go into journalism, many quickly find places on the mastheads of top magazines. Landing a job at a newspaper or magazine can be extraordinarily difficult. When openings, which are few and far between, do come along, they are rarely advertised. And, unlike many larger companies, publications don’t recruit on campus. As Jones explains, “The number of people hired is very small, so it’s not economically sensible to send people to lots of campuses.” Even so, less than six months after graduating, members of the class of 2004 have already found jobs at the New Republic, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. And recent Yale graduates write for and edit The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Los Angeles Times and Variety, remarkable feats considering the small number of Yale students that enter the field each year.

A large part of the reason that so many nonfiction students land solid journalism jobs upon graduating lies in the close relationship between the courses and undergraduate publications. The two have a symbiotic relationship: students in the nonfiction courses produce above-average pieces for the publications, and the publications publish them, providing the students with clips — pieces of published work that they can present to editors at newspapers and magazines when seeking jobs.

Furthermore, the classes provide publishing opportunities for students who lack the time or energy to write for publications outside of classes. When Abigail Reider ’06 arrived at Yale, she had no interest in writing. “In high school I was editor of our school paper — I got burned out on that,” she said. But taking English 120 last semester reignited her interest in writing, and this semester she decided to enroll in Brill’s journalism course. “My plan is to write things for writing classes and publish them in campus publications,” Reider said.

Because many of the students taking non-fiction courses are the editors of various campus newspapers or magazines, they have excellent opportunities to convince their classmates to submit pieces to their publications. “Our February issue is going to be great,” said Lichtman, who is the editor-in-chief of The New Journal. “We’re going to have so many polished pieces that people have produced in writing classes first semester.”

While many students in writing courses publish their pieces in student publications, others aim higher. Every year The Atlantic Monthly sponsors the nation’s most competitive undergraduate writing competition and publishes the winning pieces in an issue of the magazine. Prizes are awarded for fiction, nonfiction and poetry, and although in recent years Yale students have placed in all three categories, they consistently dominate the nonfiction prizes: in the past three years, Yale students captured 12 of 29 nonfiction prizes awarded. Michael Curtis, a senior editor for the Atlantic who oversees the contest observed, “Year in and year out, our twenty or so [nonfiction] finalists have always included as many as ten Yale students.” He added that all readings for the contest are done blindly. “We don’t know anything about the writer of a piece until we’ve made the final selection,” he said.

Curtis believes Yale students excel in the contest for a variety of reasons. He noted that many of the nonfiction winners write for Yale publications and therefore have extensive experience in the genre. But, according to Curtis, what stands out most about the Yale students’ entries is their subject matter: unlike many of their peers, Yale students don’t write exclusively about themselves. “They’ve obviously been encouraged at some level by someone to come out of themselves and act as journalists,” he said.

Strebeigh and Brill both acknowledge the importance of having clips when applying to jobs in journalism. “I think all of our nonfiction teachers urge students strongly to be writing for publications all the time they are sitting in our courses,” Strebeigh said. “The combination produces huge opportunities.”

Brill, however, goes a step farther than just helping his students publish clips. “I’m frustrated by American journalism,” he said. “I wanted to set up a program at Yale to get really good ethically motivated kids into journalism.” He acknowledges that his class is difficult, but his students have incentive to work hard: “If they do well I’ll help them get jobs in journalism forever. The purpose of this class is to give them credentials. Then, if they want to go into journalism, they can.”

In spite of the career-related opportunities made available to students in nonfiction classes, not all students emerge from them wanting to commit their lives to journalism. Some decide to pursue other interests and perhaps return to writing later. During his junior year, Gabriel Kuris ’03 took a Branford college seminar on writing humor pieces from Mark O’Donnell, a co-author of the musical “Hairspray.” During the class, Kuris wrote a piece entitled “Instructions to Everything,” a parody of the instruction manuals and advice that have come to dominate modern life. O’Donnell was so impressed by it that he encouraged Kuris to submit it to the New Yorker. After several months, Kuris received a letter from The New Yorker accepting the piece, but the magazine never followed up on publishing it. Two years passed and then, last January, after Kuris had graduated and was preparing to move from New York to Los Angeles, the same editor from The New Yorker who wrote him the initial letter contacted him again. She had rediscovered “Instructions to Everything” while cleaning out her files and wanted to publish it immediately.

“After the piece came out, I made a lot of great contacts,” Kuris said. “I signed with an agent, and had meetings with great editors.” The piece attracted a wide array of attention outside of the publishing world as well. In rural Oregon, anarchists erected an elaborate model of a living room overnight in a public park as a criticism of bourgeois American life, leaving only a copy of “Instructions to Everything,” as a calling card. And, most gratifying of all in Kuris’ mind, Rebecca Boggs is currently teaching the piece in her section of English 120, the first writing course Kuris took at Yale.

“It floored me when I found out because English 120 meant so much to me,” Kuris said. “If a professor at some random college had put my piece on the syllabus, I would have found it flattering, but for it to be English 120 at Yale really made it special.”

But in spite of the success of “Instructions to Everything,” Kuris, who began studying at Harvard Law School this fall and has plans to go into international development, doesn’t intend to pursue writing, at least for now.

“My friends thought I was crazy for not going into writing after ‘Instructions to Everything,’ was so successful. But I want to do something else first,” he said. “I think it’s hard to be a good writer without much life experience.”

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