I wrote my first story when I was seven years old. To be precise, I wrote it on June 25, 1997—probably right around the time I was learning in school how to write the date (and record it on every piece of paper I encountered). It was a story about the kinds of things most seven-year-olds are consumed by: an adventuring brother-sister duo and enchanted woodland creatures. Reading it again now, I’ll say that the dialogue needs some work but the spelling is—for a seven-year-old, at least—excellent.
Seventeen years later, I’m on the cusp of beginning graduate school, where I’ll formally study writing at an advanced level and learn, among other things, how to make enchanted woodland creatures really come alive on the page. I’m headed to New York University this fall to pursue a master’s in journalism, and I’m so, so excited. It has not been a straightforward or consistently smooth path up to this point, but it has been peppered with question marks and exclamation points, short and sweet sentences, and fewer full stops than I imagined. It’s been a path distinguished by stories and adventures, by people and experiences. These days, I am at a beautiful juncture—turning on the balls of my feet to begin down this fork, I feel its shift, the significance of this new chapter. But before I begin walking (let’s be honest—I’ll be skipping), I need to say thank you. I am deeply grateful for everyone and everything that has led to this new chapter, to all my chapters. So, allow me to stretch this writing metaphor to its breaking point so I can say: thank you, thank you for shaping my narrative.
I learned a few things while visiting graduate schools and having interviews last fall. I learned there are many, many people out there who care about compelling storytelling and powerful writing. I learned that journalism is part philosophy, part science, and all about the art of the question. I re-learned that listening is supremely underrated. I reluctantly learned that, like it or not, it’s time for me to join Twitter (you can find me at @natpatlamp). But what I really took away from my visits and learning about journalism programs is that I cannot WAIT to be in an academic environment surrounded by storytellers. And while I am for the most part confident in my potential as a writer and journalist, I am aware of my inexperience. But it’s an invigorating awareness, and I am ready to jump in, make the mistakes I am usually so uncomfortable making, and have my writing and ideas torn apart and then built back up, becoming sturdier, smarter, and more clear.
Throughout the day I spent at NYU last fall meeting with professors and students and sitting in on classes, my brain was ON FIRE. I could barely sit still, I was so excited by everything I was hearing and seeing. I couldn’t take notes fast enough. (Note the “[omg]” in the top corner of one of the pages in my Moleskine…)
“It’s a tough time to be a journalist,” my father’s friend says to me when I tell him about the master’s program I’ll soon be starting. “Seven Reasons For Optimism About The News Business,” the Wall Street Journal informs me. “What if you don’t make enough money to travel?” one concerned friend—who knows my top priorities in life—asks me.
Sometimes, when I hear these things, I turn to my favorite hackneyed spin-off of the famous WWII morale poster:
I’ve done a lot of writing since the days of my “Magic in the Woods” series. In my college writing classes, most of my pieces that went through workshop explored real people and places, and I quickly gravitated toward narrative nonfiction writing. From my thesis research in Ghana to writing personal essays to authoring articles, I was learning that the best writing communicates true stories that capture people’s imaginations and use information to enlighten.
I had my first taste of reporting as an intern at The Vienna Review in Austria during the summer after my semester in Ghana and before my senior year at Elon. The highlight of that experience was covering and co-authoring a front-page article on the XVIII International AIDS conference. I’ll never forget running around Vienna, covering the story alongside my good friend and reporter Hannah as we got caught up in the excitement and optimism that was palpable amongst these doctors whose work was contributing so significantly to finding a cure for AIDS.
Journalism is a cornerstone of a healthy democracy. Good journalism, I believe, is a kind of public service; reporting the news truthfully and effectively is a privilege. I feel so fortunate that the thing I am most passionate about in this world is writing. As a journalist, I’ll be able to couple that passion with my desire to be part of something bigger than myself—to report the truth in a compelling way, to tell stories that need to be told, to be a voice for others.
And journalism inspires change. Sometimes it’s a small change, a shift in a paradigm of thinking or a fresh perspective on a current event. Other times it’s huge, structural change, the kind that impacts a broken system or a corrupt government or a group of people who are finally being heard. Making known what was unknown can be powerful, and telling people’s stories in order to improve a life or lives is, I think, an honorable duty.
Take, for example, a few of this year’s Pulitzer Prize winners and nominees. Winning the Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting, Will Hobson and Michael LaForgia of the Tampa Bay Times relentlessly investigated and reported on “the squalid conditions that marked housing for the city’s substantial homeless population, leading to swift reforms.” Jason Szep and Andrew R.C. Marshall of Reuters were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for “their courageous reports on the violent persecution of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority in Myanmar that, in efforts to flee the country, often falls victim to predatory human trafficking networks.”
And then there’s Mark Johnson’s evocative piece about a group of first-year medical students in their anatomy class and the relationships they develop with one another and the nameless corpse on the table. The story was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing this year. Enhanced by multimedia elements, it’s emotional, thought-provoking, and full of detail. “What a remarkable achievement in storytelling,” wrote Wanda Garner Cash, a professor at the University of Texas School of Journalism, about Johnson’s piece. “This will be a textbook example of how to use varied platforms to inform—and enthrall—readers.”
As I read and become so absorbed in these kinds of incredible stories and impressive writing, I am reminded why I love this craft. One of the best pieces of advice I was ever given is this: “Do the things that incline you toward the big questions.” (And it wasn’t even directly given to me. It was given by George Saunders to the 2013 graduates of Syracuse University. But when I read those words, they resonated so much they felt like this revered writer was sitting across from me, squinting as he peered into my soul—“that luminous part of [me] that exists beyond personality”—before telling me exactly what I needed to hear.) I’m still figuring out what my big questions are. But I’ve found my means of arriving at them.
A different kind of NYU adventure
When my father was in his late thirties, he spent two days a week commuting from Columbia, Maryland to New York City. He had three small children and a wife who worked part-time for the government. When he wasn’t working for a Fortune 50 company in the DC area, he was in NYC getting his LL.M (Master of Laws) in Tax at New York University.
“It was absolutely insane,” my father says when I ask him about this period of his life. “I’d never do it again.”
On the mornings he would head to NYC, Dad would leave our home in Columbia, Maryland at 5:00 a.m. He’d drive his ’65 Mustang to the Amtrak station, park, and make his way to the early morning train.
“I’d have to spend the night in the city,” he recalls. “So I’d have two huge shoulder bags—one had a rolled-up, deflated air mattress and my green Army blanket. The other held thousands of pages and forty pounds of the Internal Revenue Code. I carried those two bags around with me all day and night.”
When the train stopped in Philadelphia, hoards of people got on. “I would permit myself to have breakfast and read the Wall Street Journal until we got to Aberdeen,” Dad says. “Then I’d start studying. When we hit Penn Station, I’d lug myself to the subway, take it to Union Square, get to NYU and be in class by 9:30 a.m.”
Dad says it wasn’t easy being a part-time graduate student (and by this point, he had already earned both his J.D. and M.B.A.—as a full-time student). On the nights he had class at 9:00 p.m., he would have to take the 3:00 a.m. train back to Maryland. “I’d go next door to one of the NYU graduate dorms,” he recalls. “On the first floor, there was a student conference room. I couldn’t lock the door, but I’d go in there and set up my air mattress and sleep until 2:30 a.m. My little alarm clock would wake me up and I’d pack up and jump in a cab from Greenwich Village to Penn Station. I’d fall back to sleep on the train, arrive in Maryland at 5:30 a.m., get home while it was still dark, shower, have breakfast, and leave for work.”
Even though it wasn’t exactly an easy period in his life, Dad tells stories about his NYU days with a smile. Education is extremely valued in my family, and it was hearing stories like this one growing up that helped instill such values in my siblings and me. I feel so fortunate that I’ll be able to be a full-time graduate student at NYU and only sleep on conference room floors when deadlines are looming. And Dad’s just glad I don’t already have three kids in another state to commute home to.
Literary Reportage & “Pearls Before Breakfast”
NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute has ten concentrations; the one I’ll be in is called Literary Reportage. As a journalism graduate student, I’ll spend two years studying and authoring literary journalism and narrative nonfiction writing. More specifically, I’ll be producing a body of work—profiles, essays, articles—around a certain idea or subject that I’m particularly interested in and passionate about (more on that in another post). That was one of the major things that attracted me to this concentration—a significant amount of time to work on a project, take chances, fail, rework, and shift direction without it being a waste. Lit Rep students are asked to not just cover beats, but create them; we’re urged to participate in our stories and to experiment with different forms.
I’m excited to learn about the different forms my writing can take. Radio, for example, is a place where you can tell a certain kind of story in a certain kind of way. What constitutes a phenomenal NPR piece? What literary and auditory nuts and bolts are in play there? And I’m fascinated by the way long-form journalism is creating a name for itself on the Internet—publications like the New York Times and National Geographic, among many others, are producing incredibly visually appealing and well-written long-form pieces that pull readers into the story and keep them there, scroll after scroll. (This piece and this piece and this piece are great examples.)
And I’m looking forward to being trained in the basics of reporting and research. I so enjoy the research process and learning the background, facts, and figures that provide valuable context to narrative. I’m also looking forward to learning more about how ethnographic and anthropological methods can inform literary journalism.
In terms of form, I’m most interested in feature writing, magazine writing, essay writing—similar forms, different names. Many writers out there have strong opinions regarding what box to put variations of long-form writing in, and the writers reading this will understand the blurry line between creative nonfiction and literary journalism and why this genre of writing has been the subject of much discussion and discourse lately. In his keynote address for the International Association for Literary Journalism Studies conference held in Finland last year, Robert Boynton told a story about when he found this kind of writing, “a form of journalism capable of bringing the ideas I loved to life.” (Disclaimer: Robert Boynton is the head of the Literary Reportage journalism program at NYU and will be one of my main professors.) He says he knew then that “whatever this writing was, it was what I wanted to do.” The labels for this kind of writing are not as important as what this kind of writing does, or attempts to do; how it operates, what it communicates, how it is effective and significant.
The best way I’ve found to describe the kind of writing I will be focusing on for the next few years is by naming authors and publications. Think Truman Capote, the New Yorker, and Joan Didion. Think Erik Larson and Katherine Boo (especially Behind the Beautiful Forevers). Think Harper’s and Gay Talese. Remember that interactive New York Times online piece “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek” that took readers by storm (no pun intended) in 2012? Or that lighter piece, “Pearls Before Breakfast,” about a world-class violinist who, as an experiment, played beautiful music in a D.C. subway station filled with unheeding commuters? (That piece won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing.) What these writers are known for and what many of these pieces have in common is how they combine the best of standard journalism and prose fiction. How they convey extensively researched and detail-oriented reporting through an elegant, stylistic lens. Literary reportage—or whatever you want to call it—is accurate and compelling, as delightful as a short story and as informative as hard news. It’s a kind of intellectual and emotional writing communicating stories that connect readers to things larger than themselves.
So, that’s the kind of writing I’m captivated by and will be delving into while at NYU—and beyond!
The end. And also the beginning.
This was a lengthy post, and it was a long time coming. But you know what? This really isn’t the end or the beginning of anything. They say it’s a journalist’s job to go out and learn something new every day. That’s pretty much all I need in a job description—or in life, really. From that first short story I wrote as a dimply seven-year-old to studying journalism as a graduate student to whatever may come after that, this is all part of what I hope will be a life full of writing and inquiry. It is here that I’ve found my home.
Robert Boynton, in his aforementioned keynote address, so perfectly explained it like this:
“When I greet the new group of Literary Reportage students, the first thing I do is welcome them to the house of journalism. It is a big house, I explain, with many differently shaped and designed rooms. The rooms have names like ‘blog post,’ ‘feature,’ ‘essay,’ ‘foreign report,’ and ‘book,’ and the house seems to grow by a room or two every year. In order to have a long and enjoyable career, I continue, they must find one room they truly love, and decorate and design it so that it reflects their very best attributes. In addition, they need to find a few other rooms where they feel comfortable, since one can’t live in a single room forever. Each of the rooms has a different function, and must be maintained in a way that makes sense for it. Sometimes we move to the living room, invite our friends over, and have a noisy party. Other times we want to be alone, so retire to the study to ponder a single subject in peace. And then there are times when we have a small dinner party, and then retire to the porch to continue a particularly intense conversation with a single interlocutor. The variations are, potentially, limitless.”
Thank you, readers, for being here. I can’t wait to have you over to the house.