For decades, English professor Fred Strebeigh ’74 has taught how to write nonfiction and helped cultivate a generation of journalists from Yale.
On Wednesday, a crowd of acclaimed journalists who once took his class gathered in the Branford Common Room to discuss their development and priase Strebeigh, who recently retired from the University. The event was sponsored by the Poynter Institute, the English Department, Creative Writing at Yale and the Paul Block Journalism Program.
With around a hundred Yale community members in attendance, the panelists — ProPublica reporter Ava Kofman ’14, New York Times critic Wesley Morris ’97, National Public Radio Correspondent Yuki Noguchi ’97 and New Yorker writer Sarah Stillman ’06 — discussed what they learned from Strebeigh.
“Fred Strebeigh has been what I call ‘the true north’ of writing at Yale for decades,” English professor Richard Deming, who directs the University’s creative writing program, said at the event.
During the discussion, Kofman said thinking about how she learned to write is difficult, because, in her view, she is still learning to do so. This theme — that writing as an ongoing learning process — echoed throughout the evening. All speakers stressed that even as professionals, they wrestle with words every day.
“It’s a very rewarding profession and one that will continue to challenge you,” Noguchi said.
Some panelists, like Morris, said they particularly struggled with writing in their first year of college. Morris emphasized that Yale taught him how to read, but not how to write. For her part, Noguchi said writing felt “like a black art” at first.
All panelists agreed that Strebeigh’s class fundamentally changed their understanding of language. It helped them recognize that writing was not just a “pure vehicle for information,” but a continuous, ever-evolving process, according to Noguchi.
“How we were conveying whatever truths we had surfaced were just as important as the truths themselves,” Kofman said.
Stillman also said she seeks to produce writing that reflects the emotions she experience in the process of reporting. Strebeigh uses the word “snaps” to describe these reactions.
Stillman told the audience that Strebeigh taught them that they write to “a community of readers” and evoke those “snaps” of reactive emotion.
Ultimately, the four writers emphasized Strebeigh’s enduring impact on their careers.
“I will conclude just by saying that the humility that I feel I have as a writer, the joy that I get in writing, the fear of the process and the seriousness with which I undertake it, all of those things come from you,” Morris said, addressing Strebeigh.
Strebeigh currently teaches ENGL 454: “Nonfiction Writing Voice and Structure.”
Jack Tripp | firstname.lastname@example.org