Archive for August, 2016

John Hersey and the most acclaimed book of nonfiction in the twentieth century

August 31, 2016

If we weren’t reading The Color of Water this semester, we would be reading Hiroshima, the story of the atomic bombing of Japan. This book is often listed the most important work of journalism in the twentieth century.

Hiroshima is widely taught. I hope you have read it, but if you haven’t, find a copy. It is one of the those books where the writer lets the people he interviews speak, and where he stays out of the story. You see this kind of reticence in some of the stories we are reading, the Titanic account, for example.

A New Yorker writer has written an essay about Hersey, who was by all accounts a modest man who never reveled in his fame.

Hersey was on a Navy ship on his way to Japan to report the story when he fell ill and someone gave him books to read, one of which happened to be Thornton Wilder’s “The Bridge of San Luis Rey.” It was a novel that traced the stories of five people who are killed when a bridge collapses. “It struck my father that that would be a good vehicle for presenting the story of the people who were subjected to the atomic bomb,” Baird said. “He told me about getting the idea of using novelistic devices to structure his reporting. He wanted to put faces and names to the story. Prior to that, we had been at war with Japan, and everyone had this opinion of ‘the Japanese.’ He wanted to show their humanity in a way that people in this country could connect to—to convey the enormity of what had happened.”

The structure of “Hiroshima” was one of the things that resonated with readers. Its use of fictional devices, such as building to a suspenseful moment with one character and then switching to another, was radical at the time, and made it a precursor to the New Journalism of the nineteen-sixties and seventies. Hersey himself said that the profundity of the nuclear attack, and his consequent need to try to convey the reality of it to readers, forced him outside of journalistic conventions. With journalism, Hersey once said, the reader is always conscious of “the person who’s writing it and explaining to you what’s taken place.” He said he wanted to have “the reader directly confronted by the characters,” so he tried to write the piece in such a way that, as he put it, “my mediation would, ideally, disappear.”


Syllabus, Art of Narrative, JOUR 505 F16

August 25, 2016

Texas Southern University
School of Communication

JOUR 505 Art of Narrative
Fall 2016
Wednesdays, 5:30-7:50
MLK 119

Michael Berryhill

Because of the unexpected bounty of 40 graduate students enrolled in this class, I have decided to divide it in half.

Group A will include the first 20 names on the list: Adisa-Howard. It will meet Sept.1, Sept. 15, Sept 29, Oct. 13, Oct. 27, Nov. 10.

Group B will include the last 20 names: Hudson through Wilson. Group B will meet Sept. 8, Sept. 22, Oct. 6, Oct. 20, Nov. 3, Nov. 17.

Last meeting is December 1. I’m thinking we might all come together again

Teaching Philosophy:

I approach this class as an editor working with writers. I want each of my writers to come to me with story ideas and approach how to develop them. I want to see your writing as soon as possible to get an idea of how best to help you. I have lots of handouts and stories to work with.

Course Description

The Art of Narrative is one of three foundation courses for the new graduate degree concentration, Professional Communication and Digital Media. During the course of the semester, we will review the foundations of narrative story-telling in nonfiction, fiction and movies. The primary emphasis will be on prose, however.We will review research questions, main theme statements, narrative, scene, dialogue, background, description and observation. We will look at various approaches to opening a story. I will give you selected readings for class discussion.

This semester I want you all to order online The Color of Water, A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, by James McBride. It should cost a buck in paperback plus $4 mailing and handling.

For class readings we will read some masterpieces of journalism, many of them available on line. Students will be asked to find examples of good writing for discussion.

Each student will write at least 3000 words, either as a long form article or story, or as shorter papers. I will work with each of you in an individual way to see that your writing assignments reflect your strengths and witnesses. It’s very important that you submit drafts for revision And we will see if we can adjust your writing assignments to help you in developing your master’s project.

Goals, Objectives:

Goal 1: Understand and identify the elements of narrative writing.
Goal 2: Write 3000 words that demonstrate the application of the elements of narrative.

Opening meeting: Introductions, story pitches.

Week 1  Sept. 1 & Sept. 8: Voice.

Read “Start as Late as Possible” from the pages column. It’s the opening of McBride’s memoir of his mother. Read Harold McBride’s account of the sinking of the Titanic and Svetlana Alexievich on Chernobyl. These readings are about capturing other people’s voices. The readings are also aimed at helping you find your voice. You need to decide early whose voice you are going to use. Will it be someone else’s?  Whatever voice you use, it should be a natural one, not a phony one. Don’t use a voice that sounds fancy or melodramatic or pontifical. When you read the color of Water you will notice that James McBride alternates between his mother’s voice and his own.

Voice is linked to point of view. Point of view can shift. The narrator can tell he story from the writer’s perspective or from a character’s or multiple characters’ point of view.

Week 2 Sept 15 & 22: Narrative form.

Read War of Words by Laura Secor. The subtitle is “A woman’s battle to end stoning and juvenile execution in Iran.” This story moves very briskly through about from 1974 to 2009. It contains hardly any quotations or scenes. It is purely narrative writing, which is to say, it describes “And then what happened, and then what happened.”  It is full of dates and places. It situates the story in time and place again and again. Many sentences start with a date: In 1974, in 1993, in 2009, etc.

Also read “Set the Story in Time and Place” and “James Salter, Narrative.” Salter’s piece is an excerpt from his novel in which he describes the history of the Pacific campaign against the Japanese during World War II. This narrative is setup for a scene.

You need to know the difference between narrative and scene and how they work together. For that, read the excerpt,  “R.V. Cassill on Writing Fiction.”

Let’s also take a look at how script writers use forms. I’m posting an excerpt from Syd Field’s book on screenplays and Christopher Vogler’s work on mythic structure for story tellers and screenwriters. Either or both are be helpful. And the Six Box story form by Walter Dean Myers.

Once you know something about story-telling forms you are likely to find some way to use them to help you write. The key thing is this: Don’t make up your own form. Use the forms that are in use. Do it the way successful writers do it.


Week 3: Sept. 29 and Oct. 6 The basic feature story form. Read Joyce Carol Oates on Ali, and The One Left Behind.  For structure, look at Feature Form: the Middle Way and Feature Story Form.



Week 5 Oct. 27 and Nov. 3 “Death of a Poet”

Week 6 Nov. 10 and Nov. 17 DRAFTS DUE



LAST MEETING: Dec. 1 Perhaps in a big room. To be determined.









A profile of James Baldwin from Writer’s Almanac

August 2, 2016

The key reason I subscribe to the Writers Almanac is short profiles such as this:


Today is the birthday of the American novelist, essayist, and activist James Baldwin (books by this author), author of Go Tell It on the Mountain. Baldwin was born in Harlem, New York, in 1924, the oldest of nine children in a family that was dominated by his strict, religious stepfather, a Pentecostal minister with whom James had a difficult relationship and who brought his son into the ministry when he was just 14. Those were the early days of the Harlem Renaissance, but still, as Baldwin recalled in a 1984 interview with the Paris Review, “Given the conditions in this country to be a black writer was impossible. … My father didn’t think it was possible – he thought I’d get killed, get murdered. He said I was contesting the white man’s definitions, which was quite right.” So the ministry it was, at least for three years, by which point Baldwin felt his faith had gone.

When his stepfather died in 1943, James left home, a period he writes about in the titular essay of Notes of a Native Son. He then immersed himself in the international, artistic atmosphere of Greenwich Village, making his living as a dishwasher, busboy, factory worker or waiter, working multiple jobs at once and writing in the moments around them.

An important moment for Baldwin came when he and his friend, the modernist painter Beauford Delaney, were standing on a street corner in the Village, waiting for the light to change. Baldwin recounts in TheParis Review that Beauford “pointed down and said, ‘Look.’ I looked and all I saw was water. And he said, ‘Look again,’ which I did, and I saw oil on the water and the city reflected in that puddle.” In that moment, Baldwin felt he’d been taught how to see, and how to trust what he saw, felt that from that moment on he could see the world differently than he had before.

When he was 24 and beginning to recognize his own homosexuality, Baldwin expatriated himself to him France with $40 and not knowing a single word of French. He hoped to find himself in a larger context, somewhere he could see himself as more than “merely a Negro; or, merely a Negro writer,” a move that would also allow him to escape American prejudices toward blacks and homosexuals. In Paris, he found the distance he needed to write about his personal experiences and the struggles of black Americans from the point of view of not “merely a Negro,” or a victim, but as a man, thus resisting the easy categorization of his work as that of a “black writer.”

In the ’60s, Baldwin returned to the United States to take part in the civil rights movement. He became friends with Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X, and because he didn’t see himself as a public speaker, used his ability to craft stories and essays to write about black identity and race in The Fire Next Time and No Name in the Street. One by one, Baldwin’s outspoken friends were killed and, following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Baldwin was sick at heart. Unable to escape the pain of his loss, he fled again to Europe, which remained his home until his death in 1987. Despite his grief and the anger of the times, despite the harsh tone of his book If Beale Street Could Talk, which some reviewers criticized for sounding bitter, Baldwin always remained an advocate for universal love and brotherhood.

James Baldwin’s influence on other American artists, whether of spirit or love or style, is undeniable. He and the poet Langston Hughes were responsible for getting the singer Nina Simone involved in the civil rights movement. Maya Angelou, remembering Baldwin in The New York Times after his death, said that he “set the stage” for her to write I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. He told Angelou she was “intelligent and very brave,” introduced her to his family as one of their own, saying she was his mother’s newest daughter, and was, in Angelou’s words, “my friend and brother.”

Toni Morrison, in her goodbye and thank you in The New York Times, wrote that James Baldwin gave her three gifts: “a language to dwell in, a gift so perfect” that it seemed her own; “the courage to live life in and from its belly as well as beyond its edges”; and his tenderness and vulnerability and a love that made one want to be worthy, generous, and strong.