Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Due Date Extended to Midnight Monday, December 11

December 5, 2017

I’m extending the deadline for the final drafts to  Midnight Monday, December 11.

If papers need thorough revisions I will let you know. I must submit grades by Monday December 18.

I wish I had the energy and money to throw a big party. But I want to talk about the Master’s projects. I just reviewed about 10 of them, and I learned a lot about the traps students have fallen into.

We will also watch a short documentary by one of our best graduate students that can give you a sense of how to shoot a documentary.




Some wisdom from J-Z

November 30, 2017

Watch the new J-Z video from the New York Times. It is very good. Check it out.

He talks about what he learned in therapy. I can’t summarize it yet. Just watch it. Only about thirty minutes long.

CM 501 Narrative Structure

November 29, 2017

CM 501, Narrative Structure

Dear Students,

Many of you are taking JOUR 505, my class in narrative writing and will be ahead of students who have not yet taken it. . For this section of CM 501 on master projects, my ambition is to teach the distinction between writing essays and writing narratives. Another way to say this I that I’m focused on teaching the art of telling stories. So the part of your qualifying exam is going to be about the difference between writing an essay and telling a story. Here is a quiz that I want you to take on your own. Print it out and bring it class on November 29.

Narrative writing is all about action and reaction. You can learn how to write by seeing how professionals do it.

I have also attached some answers that past graduate students have written that will serve as models.

We will go over the fundamentals of narrative writing and get you ready for the narrative part of the test of CM 501.

If you want to learn more about narrative writing, consult my blog called Art of Narrative,

Michael Berryhill

Chair of Journalism



Quiz on Narrative, CM 501, Media Projects


Read the first four paragraphs of the story and answer the questions below. Use the back of the quiz to write your answers.

The One Left Behind By JOHN ED BRADLEY

He came home at last, driving an old car packed with clothes. It was November 1964, and he somehow had managed to make his way back to Plain Dealing, La., without running off the road and finding a ditch. His breath smelled of cigarettes and his clothes reeked. If he looked as if he didn’t care anymore, it was because he didn’t. Behind him, in Alabama, where he’d been living for the last 17 years, were an ex-wife and their four young children, a well-paying job as a pharmaceutical rep and a grand house on a waterfront lot with sweeping views of Mobile Bay. Behind him, too, were losses more difficult to quantify, like his notion of the future and what it might hold.

He had suffered a heart attack in the last year, and yet at 45 he seemed resolutely opposed to making even the slightest adjustment to his way of living. He would drink and smoke all he wanted.

His name was John Joseph Pershing Holland — Purr-shun, to those who’d loved him the longest — and he once said that he preferred a hot beer to a cold one because it provided a better buzz. Even when he had a home with a refrigerator, he kept his beer in the trunk of his car.

The place where he’d grown up, Carterville, wasn’t a town so much as a curve in the road halfway between Plain Dealing and Springhill, in the northwestern corner of the state. Pershing attended high school in Plain Dealing, population 1,100, and many of the town’s older residents remembered him as the finest athlete they’d ever seen. If Pershing wasn’t the best, they would tell you, it was only because they’d also seen his identical twin brother, Woodrow, play.

  1. Circle the words that establish the story in time and place.
  2. Does this story provide an essay opening or a narrative opening? What is the difference? (Two or three sentences)
  3. True or false: a better opening would be to start with the births of the twin boys. Explain your answer in two or three sentences.
  4. Explain how the writer describes an emotional problem for the character through action and reaction in the opening. (Two or three sentences)



Narrative: Is the opening of The One Left behind an essay or a narrative?

A narrative opening describes an action and sets the story in time and place. An essay opening describes ideas. Essays argue. Narratives seduce. –Michael Berryhill

This is definitely a narrative opening because it is telling us about the character. We are not learning about any theories, principles or concept. We are learning about a character, the needs, issues and attributes of the character.

A narrative opening takes the reader by the hand, unveils the character and sets the story in time and place. An essay opening tells the reader what to think.

We know it’s a narrative because it immediately sets the story in time and place. An essay opening usually summarizes the topic that will be discussed.

Narrative opening creates an ambiance rather than simply stating facts or opinions.

An essay opening has no action, and a narrative opening has action.

A narrative opening engages the senses, such as hearing and smelling.

An essay would state the argument and begin discussing the point to correspond with the main topic sentence.

A narrative opening does not need to argue or prove something; it just tells a story.

Narrative opening transports the reader.

An essay opening is more persuasive in nature.

A narrative opening tells the events of a story. An essay opening has a thesis statement.

An essay opening is more like a thesis; a narrative opening describes an event.

An essay opening usually has a thesis statement.

Essay opening doesn’t focus on action.

Essay opening lacks visual detail.

Why not open with the birth of the twins instead of Pershing driving home to die?

The opening started at an important time in the story. Starting at the birth would have made it long and dull to get to the point in the opening.

The birth of the twins has nothing to do with the message the author wanted to convey.

The birth of the twins would have been irrelevant to Pershing’s tragedy.

Since the story is not about a baby who is the main character, it would be inappropriate to narrate the story from childhood to adulthood. Sherifat Adisa

The story is primarily about Pershing, not the twins.

Starting later allow the writer frame and explain the story line.

The story opens by dropping us in the action.

Starting with the birth of the twin boys would make it difficult for the story to get to the relevant action. It’s better to start in media res, in the thick of the action

It’s more interesting to start as late as possible and then provide the back-story.

Describe the action and reactions in the opening.

His life was destroyed by his actions. Because of his actions he lost his wife and home.

With the first sentence we know the character was running away from a problem.

His reaction is to give up on all the major responsibilities in his life. He leaves his family, home, career. He even gives up on his health.

He left behind a family, job and his whole life.

The writer shows that the character doesn’t care any more about the things and people that used to be a part of his life.

The writer lets you know what Pershing was leaving behind.







Writing with details, not generalizations

November 16, 2017

This is the hardest thing to learn when you’ve spent most of your education writing essays and making generalizations. You’ve got to show people in action. You can’t just say,  “We were pulling apart. Things were not good between us.” You have to dramatize the story with action and dialogue.

Consider a simple principle: drama is about action and reaction. Describe action and reaction.

So here is a sample what I mean:

I had been warning her that I couldn’t put up with her tantrums any longer, so when she threw a glass about a foot from my head that shattered against the bedroom wall, I left. I had already been looking for apartments, and I had my eye on an apartment near Buffalo Bayou with a view of the water and places to walk.

I had been talking about the marriage in group therapy, and after I described our problems one evening, I ended with the phrase: “But I love her!”

One of the members, a writer, stood up and wagged his finger and said: “Just because you love someone doesn’t mean you have to live with her.” And so I  enjoyed the quiet of living alone without someone yelling at me.


Some tips on style

November 16, 2017

Get rid of cliches: healthy relationship, new beginning, youth of tomorrow, shadow of myself, literally killing me, bite off more than I can chew, actions speak louder than words, lifestyle, particular, killer

Eliminate pompous connecting words: therefore, consequently, however, moreover, furthermore

Put people in the sentences 

It can be seen that she had always been fond of her dad.  She was fond of her dad because….

Get rid of qualifiers: slightly amazed, somewhat put off, fairly good, awfully bad, extremely focused…



How to write a profile

November 15, 2017

1) Make sure you talk to someone who has something to say. They don’t have to be famous or successful. They have to have lived a while and learned something about life. They have experienced successes and disappointments, and will have some wisdom and emotions to share about that. You’ve you’ve got to do a lot of interviewing of the subject. Make sure this is someone who is available and willing to spend several hours with you.

2} Look for clues to your subject’s life in the pictures and objects in the room.

Some of the interview must be in person. You want to see your subject in his/her environment. If you were to interview me in my office, for example, you would see a picture of me and my wife taken in Lyon, France a couple of years ago. (What’s special about Lyon to me? I spent a year teaching there.) And a picture of my daughter. And my two favorite graduate school professors. And a postcard of a drawing made by my wife, who is a professional artist. And a drawing of my former editor at the Houston Chronicle, Jack Loftis, who died not long ago. And a bunch of index cards for the movie script I am adapting from my book about Texas prisons. And then all the books on the shelf. And the woodcut of a black man at the end of his rope in the jaws of a shark, a tribute to the famous nineteenth century painting, Watson and the Shark . That image is related to my book about a man in prison who is at the end of his rope.

Some of these visual details can be used to tell the story of the person you are interviewing. Some may be relevant to the theme of the story, some maybe not. But you need to establish the background of your character, her interests, history, relationships.

3) For your introduction you need to start as late as possible. Don’t start with when the subject was born. Start with what makes her interesting now. Develop that theme for about 600 to 750 words.

Take the story deeper into  your theme for the subject and when you are at about 2000 words, go all the way back to the beginning. You’ve got to hook the reader on your theme about the person.

For example, a student who is working on a project about her 100-year-old grandmother might start with her biggest complaint: her loss of autonomy. She can’t cook for herself, she can’t drive herself, she is dependent on others, and this is hard for her. Go deep into that topic and contrast how she is now to the way she used to be. Then go back to her beginnings and bring the story back to the present.

4) Prepare for the interview. Have a list of questions. Your subject will digress and so will you. Come back to the questions. Use the profile questions at the end of Blundell handout.  Print the list for profiles and go over it and determine which research questions are most likely to apply. Be prepared for surprises and unexpected answers.

5) The most well known question to close an interview: Have I failed to ask a question that you think is really important for this story? Stories have been completely changed when a writer asks this question and gets an unexpected answer.


Plan B: Set the fiction idea aside and write nonfiction.

November 14, 2017

The problem with writing fictional stories is that they must be based on close observation. Fiction must be convincing. It must feel observed even though it is made up.

Stories can’t be based on ideas for a story, because the ideas are too often predictable and detached from what really happens in life. The freedom of making stuff up is actually a problem if you haven’t observed life closely. That’s why I am recommending Plan B: Nonfiction.

Write a profile of an interesting person. Chances are this will be an older person, someone who has seen some things, confronted some problems, suffered and persevered. This person might be an old aunt or uncle, a grandmother or grandfather.

Above all, this profile should be about someone who is willing to talk to you, at length. You should pick someone you are curious about, and who is willing to help you. You will need several hours of interviews to do this well. I don’t recommend recording the interviews because it would take too long to transcribe. I recommend handwriting the notes, and then typing them so they’re readable. Along the way you should get some exactly quotations when your subject says something emotional or full of opinion. But background doesn’t need to be quoted. You don’t need to quote:  “I was born in Pensacola at the Naval Air Station hospital.”

Don’t start out with a theme. Discover the theme by talking and listening and observing closely. Be open to twists and turns. Don’t decide what the story is immediately. You must discover the story. Go back and forth with your subjects.

People tend to meander when they are interviewed. Things pop up all of a sudden. See where those detours go before you bring your subject back to the story line: And then what happened to you in middle school? By all means get a chronology, but don’t get stuck with it.

Describe the person, how she or he lives and dresses and talks and laughs. Observe your subject.

Get people to tell you stories. See if you can get them to open up. It helps to find a person who likes to talk and has some stories. (That’s what happens when you get old. You are full of stories. You are trying to figure out what happened to you, because you didn’t understand it at the time. This is called perspective.)

See if people can remember happy and sad moments and if they can describe what happened.

You can make a list of questions based on the final six questions in William Blundell’s principles for research, linked in the righthand list of pages.  Use the part where he explains how to use the basic research questions to write a profile.

By this I mean literally use the questions. Don’t just glance at the questions and then wing it. Write them down in an order, and come back to them. Figure out which questions will be the most useful


Pro-Publica Fellowships

November 14, 2017

ProPublica has just advertised a great fellowship. It’s sponsored by Google, one of the wealthiest companies in the world. Check this out if you have any investigative story you’ve been thinking about.

As a Google News Lab fellow at ProPublica, you’ll sit among and work with some of the best data and investigative journalists on the planet, doing data analysis at the highest level and turning it into compelling interactive and visual journalism that changes the world.

The team you’ll work with stands at the crossroads of many disciplines, including data science, infographics design, programming and journalism. Fellows who are already familiar with at least two of these areas will hone their existing skills and learn new ones at ProPublica over their 10 weeks in the program.

In order to be considered, you must be a current undergraduate or graduate student, and be eligible to work in the United States. Fellows will receive a stipend of $9,000 and a travel budget of $1,000 from Google during the 10-week program, which runs from June-August. For more details, read about the full Google News Lab Fellowship program.

Writing with details

November 9, 2017

Writing is about creating a world in which action happens. You can’t create this world without close observation: watching and listening. Listening to how people talk. Watching what they do.

Of course you could make it all up. But how would you make it up if you didn’t observe it somewhere. Creative people are observant. There was a story today about the movie actor Bill Pullman, who studies limps. He watches how people move. He’s gathering material. Writing description is hard. That’s why I see so little of it in the proposals so far.  You need to flesh them out.  Make them real.  It’s hard to make stuff up. Better to work from experience. That’s why I love the detail in Doneisha’s story about the Keystone Beer.  There’s a lot of information in that. It’s specific. It’s real.


Read “Death of a Poet” for next meeting

November 3, 2017

The link is in the right-hand column. The early sessions were drawn from Judith’s journals.

The story within the story is how this woman gathered a circle of friends around her. the key was not to be sentimental. It had to be real. That’s what writing has to do. Not portray a wish. Portray the way the world really is.

Here’s another story I highly recommend from the New York Times, The Lost Children of Tuam.  It is about an Irish woman who was willing to look at the awful truth in her own small town. Very moving. Notice how the story ends with its beginning.

In order to write better, you must read closely. See how these stories are put together.

One other thing. Work on description. Notice description. You must observe. You must write with details. Dan Barry is a master of establishing his story about Ireland in a place. in Tuam.

But also notice how he describes his central character.