Emily Bazelon ’93 LAW ’00 returned to her Yale roots on Thursday afternoon in a Pierson College Master’s Tea, sharing with current students lessons on the importance of creative writing in nonfiction fields.
In an hour-long conversation with a small group of Yale students, Bazelon, a reporter for The New York Times and author of the bestselling nonfiction book “Sticks and Stones,” discussed the importance of writing for a broad audience and the challenges involved in writing about social issues, in particular sexual assault on college campuses.
Bazelon, who currently teaches a seminar in creative writing to students at the Yale Law School, said it is important for law students to know more than just legal jargon. This is essential, she said, for them to reach a wider range of readers.
“There’s a famous discontent with the law school genre,” Bazelon said. “The idea behind what I want to teach is translating their legal expertise into writing that people who are interested, but may not know as much about the topic, can also absorb.”
Upon graduating from Yale, Bazelon traveled to Israel on scholarship to work as a freelance writer and later returned to the United States to write for a small California newspaper. Unhappy with her job there, she said, she decided to return to Yale to pursue a law degree.
Bazelon said she rediscovered her love for journalism during her time at the law school.
“I went to law school, but then realized I wanted to keep writing about people,” she said, adding that she initially struggled with making her legal training relevant to her journalism. Only later did she find a way to strike a balance between the two disciplines, she said.
When asked about the challenges of reporting on sexual climates and assault on college campuses, Bazelon mentioned the mistakes made in the Rolling Stone piece titled “A Rape on Campus,” about an alleged rape case at the University of Virginia. This incident, she said, served as a reminder to reporters on basic journalistic techniques: checking facts and listening to more than one side of the story.
Bazelon said she learned how difficult it is to report on issues relating to sexual misconduct through writing her own piece on an assault case at Stanford University for the New York Times Magazine, published in February.
“These processes are very opaque. They involve a lot of private information, which I don’t think should be made public,” she said. “But the lack of transparency is doing everyone a disservice because schools won’t explain how they arrived at their decision.”
However, Bazelon encouraged students to overcome the fear of making mistakes while reporting. She said that while it is important to take certain precautions to ensure clarity and factual accuracy while writing, fear of harsh criticism should not inhibit the writing process.
“You can’t write or produce anything with that fear sitting on your shoulders — you have to just go for it,” she said.
Students interviewed after the tea said they found Bazelon’s talk refreshing and insightful.
Adam Jenkinson ’18 said Bazelon’s talk offered him advice on how to approach creative and nonfiction writing from varying perspectives and on several platforms. He said that because he is interested in creative nonfiction writing, Bazelon’s insight was pertinent to him.
Sophia Kecskes ’17 said she was glad to hear that Bazelon thought there may not always be more than one side to a story, and that journalists should be able to decide what is factually right or wrong while reporting.
“I’m glad that journalists can recognize that and are not just committed to being as unbiased as possible,” she said.
Bazelon’s husband, Paul Sabin, is an associate professor of history at Yale.