Assignment for Wednesday – Ideas and Skydiving

As you know, Wednesday’s the deadline for your ideas and reporting plan. That means you need two potential story ideas. Each one should be mapped out as we discussed in class. That means:

  • Describe the idea in detail
  • Who are the potential characters?
  • A list of resources – web, associations, reference, news stories
  • Who you have already contacted and what did you learn? (You should have contacted someone)
  • How you are going to approach the story?
  • Potential themes & story arcs

Email me your ideas by 8 AM Wednesday. Include your name in the file description (for example, “Ben Final story ideas”). Also bring a printout of the ideas to class. In the meantime, come see me if you have questions, or are feeling lost. Don’t freak out. You don’t need to write the story yet – you haven’t done the bulk of the interviewing and reporting. It doesn’t need to be perfect. It just needs to have potential, and you need to like it, and it needs to be viable. Think of this as the first step in the ‘treasure hunt’, as Branch described it today. Right now you’re preparing your treasure map – to keep going with the analogy, at the risk of being hokey. You’ll be following that map in the weeks to come.

Also for Wednesday: Read this story .

It sounds like the particulars of how a feature comes together – the step-by-step stuff – might be valuable right now. This story is from last summer and, in the execution, is relatively simple. I’ll endeavor to go over the process in detail on Wednesday. We’ll also talk about the various other forms of interviewing you may need as you move forward.

See you then. Can’t wait to read (and hear) all your ideas.

Assignment for Monday

Good seeing you all (virtually) today.

The John Branch readings for Monday are posted on this site, under class readings. Please read all four. Two are short, one is medium-length and ‘Snow Fall’ is longer. As you read, note how Branch uses details, empathy and scenes in his work. His stories are also good examples of finding interesting ideas: two are dramatic narratives that promise lots of action (death in the wild) and two are small news items turned into features. Think on questions you’d like him to answer on Monday.

For background on John, here are a couple links:

Short bio here

Story about Branch’s background here

Ideas, Contd. 

In the meantime, remember to pair up and exchange your final project ideas with someone. Those of you not in class today should do likewise – email the ideas to a willing partner and provide each other feedback. The more of it you get, the better.

Between now and Monday, continue working on your ideas. Now’s the time to make sure you love (or at least like) them and that they are viable.

Interviewing Assignment

Hopefully the interviews went well today. I have no doubt your classmates are full of fascinating stories.

For Wednesday, please do the following:

  1. Type a word-for-word transcript of your 30 minute interview and email it to me by 8 AM Wednesday. Include your questions and your partner’s complete answers. It isn’t necessary to include verbal tics such as “um”. Even if you’re fast, you’re likely going to need to rewind the recording to be accurate. Expect transcription to take roughly 1 hour to 1:30 for this amount of recording, especially if it’s the first time you’ve done it. You may want to slow down the audio to 80 or 90% speed – many audio programs have this option. Or you can download a free program like ExpressScribe that allows control over the audio –
  2. Write a memo of 250 to 400 words about the experience and email it to both me and your class partner by 8 AM on Wednesday. Also bring a printed copy to class. Include three elements: A) your feedback on your partner’s interviewing technique. What did he/she do well? What did he/she miss? Did you feel comfortable? How would you describe his/her interviewing style and listening? What could he/she do better? Did he/she use tactics that we discussed last week (leaning in while listening, asking “what happened next”, etc? Also include B) Your thoughts on what it was like to be interviewed. How did it feel? What did you notice? And C) What were your mental (or written) notes during your interview of your partner? Did he/she do anything interesting, physically or facially, to expression emotion/anxiety/joy? Did anything they said make YOU feel something? This should not take too long. Don’t worry about making it “written”. Rather, focus on insightful and helpful. My hunch is that a number of you will have uncovered the beginnings of fascinating family stories.
  3. Turn in your further revised ideas, with a strong reporting plan, by 8 AM Wednesday and bring a printed copy to class. You need to have at least two ideas, even if you love your primary one. Circumstances change. Availability isn’t guaranteed. Cover yourself now so you won’t fall behind later. Make sure to include specifics: Who specifically are you writing about (an actual person, not “one policeman”)? What is your preliminary reporting plan (how will you do this?)? What are the potential issues? Who have you contacted already via email or phone, whether it’s an association or a research source or a story source (if you haven’t, now’s the time)? Why will this story be interesting to someone from Ohio? What is the story arc?

If you have any questions, let me know. I look forward to reading your transcripts. And I’ll be sending feedback on your first-person stories this week as well. Overall, they were very encouraging. Good luck!

Re-Created Memory Assignment

Yesterday we talked about the art of interviewing and in particular how to mine for details and search out a narrative in someone’s life. For next Monday, your assignment has three parts:

  1. Keep working on your ideas. Take the feedback you received from your peers, and in class, and begin honing in on two (or three) story ideas. If you don’t love any of your ideas yet, search out new ones. If you love your idea but it’s potentially difficult or could fall through, make sure you have others. In the next day, you’ll each be receiving individual feedback from me on your ideas (and the revisions you made to them). One thing to keep in mind: There’s nothing wrong with starting small, with a story that you know is a story. Remember, Mooney wrote his story based on a newspaper report about a good night of bowling. It’s an enormous advantage to already know your characters and your arc. Second, now is the time to do your advance work. You don’t want to wake up in mid-October and realize you don’t really like your idea. That means you should be making phone calls and sending emails and doing all the other pre-reporting we discussed. At the same time, map out your stories: Who are the characters? How would you report it? What’s the theme? The narrative? Your resources? The pitfalls? We’ll be discussing your (further-revised) ideas again next Wednesday, and the final ones are due September 28th, so be ready.
  2. Read the packets from James B. Stewart’s “Follow the Story”. Consult them as you conceive your ideas and do your pre-reporting and initial interviewing. Some of it doesn’t necessarily concern your projects – sources and the like – but it’s all good background to have as you move forward.
  3. For Monday, you’re going to write a re-created first person memory. This should be a fun one, as it allows for creativity and writing flourishes. More important, it’s an exercise in re-creating scenes/narratives and interviewing, all of which are essential skills that apply to many facets of life. Here’s how it works: You are going to, in essence, interview yourself/research your own life. The details you’ll need to make this good are no different than the details you need to write a narrative nonfiction story. You can pick any memory so long as it has narrative elements. Your goal, as always, is to make us feel something. That’s done through specificity/story arc/characters. Try to ape Sullivan if you like, or your favorite nonfiction essayist.A number of you struggled with show-not-tell in your observed scene. In this assignment, try to do as little telling as possible. That means you’ll need details, and to get those you may need archival information (old emails, photos, letters, keepsakes) and/or you may want to interview other characters involved in your memory (a friend, your mom, your brother, whomever). It’ll be great practice for what’s to come.

    In choosing your memory, you have an advantage: You know it will have a beginning-middle-end, and you know who one character is (you!). A few ideas: The closest you came to dying, the first time you fell in love, the first time you realized your parents were fallible. Those of you who are considering writing in the first person for your final project, this is a great opportunity to try out the core of your idea, or one scene from it, and see if you enjoy it (or feel comfortable writing about it, or can remember enough, etc).   Your memory pieces are due to me via gmail on Monday at 8 AM. They should be no shorter than 500 words and no longer than 700. 

  4. Resources: The New York Times Magazine once provided tips for writing its “Lives” column, the 800-word personal essays that run on the back page. Almost all the tips apply to this assignment (and writing in the first person in general) :      If you want to see examples, the Times has an archive of 471 of the Lives essays. Browse through to see what the writers do:
  5. Finally, at the risk of making this post way, way too long, a couple suggestions on how to make sure you have a narrative, if you’re stuck. First: You can never go wrong if you start with the simple device of “When I was X years old, X happened that created X situation.” So, for example: “One day when I was nine years old, my mother came rushing into the house and yelled, “The dog has run away!”  In one sentence we already have three characters (you, your mom, the dog). We have action, dialogue and conflict (will the dog be found? How will the family respond?). That’s very simple, but you get the idea. Second, you can start right in a scene. So, for example “The wave rose in front of me, a gray, roiling curtain of water at least forty feet high. I gulped, closed my eyes and tried to flatten my body against the cold sand.” Again, we already have action, details, character and conflict. Good luck!

Idea Revision Assignment

Today, you received feedback from one of your peers on your four story ideas. From what I heard, most of it was quite good. Your classmates are perfect sounding boards – think of them as representative of the audience you’re hoping to reach.

For Wednesday, your assignment is take that feedback, and what we learned today in class, and revise your ideas. Try to make all four of them compelling. No half-baked musings. Pretend you’re pitching these to an editor, or telling the idea to someone over coffee, attempting to get her excited. Convince her (us) of why it’ll be good, and different, and why we won’t want to stop reading. Make sure it has potential for a narrative arc, good characters, a deeper theme, action and all the other elements we’ve discussed.

To do this, you’ll need to do research. Some of you already have. Great. Do some more. Make use of the library/internet/Nexis.

Then think through your idea: How would you execute it? What are the potential strengths? The pitfalls? Think about that now, before you get stuck halfway down a road to nowhere.

If one of your existing ideas isn’t any good – or two or three of them – get rid of them. Come up with new ideas. This process, of looking around the world and seeing stories and deeper meaning, is part of what will be valuable to you to take away from this class. It applies to almost any discipline – curiosity is an invaluable skill.  Look for small stories that puzzle you, or surprise you, and investigate whether they could become bigger stories. Look into controversial topics – like the example of the egg donor story – and think of how you can turn them into a narrative.

Put in the work now and your future self will thank you current self, believe me.

Send your revised ideas to me by 8 AM on Wednesday, at my gmail address. Then bring a printout to class. We’ll be talking them through in class again. Afterward, as usual, I’ll be providing email feedback individually. In this case, I’m interested in ALL of your ideas, not just one good one you may have. It’s the process that matters. I’m also interested in how you revised, and how creative/ambitious you’re trying to be. If you’d like to talk, I’ll be in my office Wednesday morning and around after class as well. I encourage you to come in, especially since I won’t be on campus next week.


The first reading below may help limber up your thinking. It’s an interview, not a story. As you’ll see, he’s quite a character. What I want you to notice is how he finds these stories in unusual places, and twists ideas around to make them more interesting. I don’t necessarily expect any of you to write the type of story Newman wrote – though it’d be fine if you did – but use it as potential inspiration.

The second reading is actually a video. It’s short – six minutes. It’s science-y but powerful. Keep it in mind as you think on ideas. It’s a theme we’ll come back to in every class: It’s the story arc that carries power. Take advantage of that. Keep it in mind at all times.

  1. The Art of Humorous Nonfiction – A Beer in Brooklyn with the King of the A-Heads –
  2. Video: The Neurochemistry of Empathy, Storytelling and the Dramatic Arc, Animated –

Story Ideas


For Monday, your assignment is to come up with four story ideas. Each should be thought-out, researched and have the potential to be The Story that you write this semester – provided you had the time/resources, etc. That means the ideas should have all the elements that we talked about in class today (and that I’ve included below, further down in this post). Consider this an exercise, however, not the drafting of your final ideas (though if one of these becomes your final idea, great). I want you guys to think big for now. Don’t worry about access that much. Worry about creativity.

Write each idea up as a story pitch, including what it’s about, who your main character might be, why it’s interesting to someone halfway across the country and how you envision doing it. Each pitch should be 100-150 words long. For these to be good, they should each take some effort. Don’t settle for something easy. Be prepared to argue for your ideas in class on Monday.

To get you thinking broad, I want the four ideas to fall into the following four categories:

  1. A story idea based around a topic/concept/phenomenon, with your plan of how to attach a narrative. For example, a feature about the Cascadia fault and the imminent danger it presents, written using the narrative of the big Japan earthquake as a trigger and laying out the history of the Cascadia fault as a detective story. It could be about any of a thousand other topics – immigration, pollution, race relations, the slow death of traditional rock music – so long as you have a story & character to attach to it.
  2. A real-time, observed narrative idea. This is where you go follow/observe someone, the way Saslow did. Helps to have an indelible character.
  3. A re-created event with a discernible beginning-middle-end. Like Costello.
  4. A first person story. Something you witnessed, understand, or went through that has larger resonance and, of course, a narrative.

Email them to me by 8 AM on Monday and bring a print-out, this time with your name on it, to class.


The two stories we read for today’s class were complex – big ideas that had tricky execution. For next week I want you to see how easy this can seem. Of course, it’s the skill of the writer that it *seems* easy, but it can also be relatively simple. The first story in particular is one of those 15-word news items in a local paper, expanded to feature length.

The second is, in theory, a very simple first-person story: Guy goes to Disney World with friends/family and gets high. But, as you’ll see, it’s about so much more.

  1. “The Greatest Bowling Story Ever Told”, by Michael Mooney, D Magazine
  2. “A Rough Guide to Disney World”, by John Jeremiah Sullivan


Here’s a rundown of what we talked about in class today, to provide a basic checklist/framework as you move forward.


  1. Either it’s new to the reader or is a new approach/angle to a familiar subject
  2. There is tension/conflict
  3. A beginning-middle-end arc
  4. Colorful characters
  5. Action
  6. Most important: Will people care about this? Or can I make them care? Their lives are busy. They are not teachers who need to read your work. Grab them by the shirt and don’t let them go.

NOTE: Anything that seems inexplicable is usually a story. If you ask yourself, How in the world did that happen, it’s a story.How in the world did Donald Trump become the frontrunner? How in the world did a tiny college produce an NBA player? How in the world did Uber go from a small app to worth billions of dollars? Those are all stories.


  1. A concept/topic/idea – Then you must attach/find a narrative. If you need to use the word “about” – as in “it’s a story about homeless people” –  then it is a topic, not a story.
  1. Start with an event/incident – start small and see if it holds up as something broader. What’s the specific incident you want to write about. Does it offer the opportunity for a larger narrative? Is there action? Can you get access?
  1. Start with a person you want to write about, preferably a great character. How do you make a narrative out of their life, or one part of their life? What tells a story?
  1. Use your advantages. What do you know about? What do you care about? Who do you know? What matters to you? Think back to the Love/Hate/Scared exercise we did. Emotions = stories.


  1. Re-Created – Like Costello. Advantages: Know characters, dramatic arc, etc. Much of the great narrative nonfiction is written this way. Disadvantages: Takes lots of research to nail things down.  Can have limited resources.
  1. Observed – Like Saslow. Advantages – Can be limitless opportunity to report. Immediacy. Chance you will witness something profound/interesting. Takes advantage of your reporting skills in different ways. Disadvantages – Can be harder to find a narrative/arc/conflict-resolution. Chance nothing will happen
  1. Topic-Based, like Schulz. Goal is to explain a complex idea through a narrative. Doesn’t always have the same story elements. Often 30% narrative and 70% exposition. Advantages: Not as reliant on narrative, can really go in depth on conceptual stuff. Best ones are like Moneyball, which had an idea surrounded by great characters and action. Disadvantages: Challenging to take complex ideas and make them appeal to readers.
  1. First-person – Advantage – Relateable perspective. You are the expert on your own life. Natural narrative. Allows for ambitious writing. Disadvantage – Can be tedious, boring. Often your life is nowhere near as exciting as the people you’d write about. Simple test: What about my experiences might interest someone else? Or, what about my experiences do I find puzzling?

Potential Pitfalls to Consider with Any Idea:

  1. Access?
  2. Unlikeable protagonist
  3. Nothing happens
  4. Too small/local – no broader resonance

A Final Thought

Nearly every good story is, in the end, about human nature. Keep that in mind as you go. Happy hunting.

Observed Scene Assignment (and readings)

Assignment #2:
Write an observed scene. It should be 500-600 words long. At the bottom, include a list of five narrative story ideas based off the scene. It’s due next Wednesday, September 9th, at 8 AM. Please email it to me in Microsoft Word, at my gmail address, and bring a printed copy (without your name on it) to class.
For your scene: Go somewhere interesting. Pick a boring place and you’ll get a boring scene. Stay there for over an hour – longer is better. More people is better. Action is better. Riding a bus line from start to finish is an example. Or going to a football game and walking the stadium during the game.
Use all your senses. Smell, hearing, touch. Use your ability to interpret actions and notice telling details. Listen for dialogue. Weave it all into your writing. The finished piece doesn’t need to have a beginning-middle-end but it certainly can. The goal is to put the reader * there *  and make her feel something using only description. As always, think cinematically.
Readings: Before class, please read the following two narrative features and be prepared to discuss them. They represent two more potential story forms for your project. While Costello is an example of a narrative that was reconstructed after the fact, Saslow’s story is a great example of an observed narrative. Meanwhile, Schulz’s story about the Cascadia fault – AKA ‘You’re All Going to Die’ – is a good, recent example of taking a complex concept and attaching a narrative to it.
1.“Life of a Salesman”, by Eli Saslow, Washington Post

2. “The Really Big One” – by Kathryn Schulz, The New Yorker, July 20, 2015

Good luck. Excited to see what you produce.

H.O.M Assignment

A core element of this semester will be talking to strangers, so let’s get to it right away.

For your first assignment you need to produce your own Humans of McMinnville portrait.

The only rules:

1) It has to be someone you don’t know

2) It can’t be another student


  • Tell them who you are and why you’re doing it.
  • Ask if you can take their picture.
  • If they say no, that’s fine. Move on.
  • If they say yes, take their picture and then take out your notebook or digital recorder and ask questions about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. Strive to get at something deeper: a mini-narrative. Make us feel something.
  • If, afterward, you realize that the story doesn’t work, try again. Do so until you find a character and story that are compelling. It may take 5 people. Don’t settle.
  • Then choose a quote or block of quotes that you think sums up your portrait and attach it to your photo. Maximum of 250 words.
  • Email me the photo and quotes (in a format I can display in class) by WEDNESDAY AT 8 AM.
  •  Print out a hard copy, without your name on it, and bring it to class.

Good luck!