Essay: Reading list

For each style of feature I will ask you to complete I will provide a few examples that we can discuss in class to help jog your creative muscles. Please read, listen or watch them before the day we launch each segment.


First up, essay, which we will formally begin on Monday, Aug. 31. Feel free to start reading at any time.

As you think about what works about these particular pieces, consider two factors we will discuss in class: Universal theme and transformative moments. In considering your topic and then working on it, keep one or both of those elements front of mind.

What I do not want — and grade will negatively reflect if you produce — is your autobiography, your life story or your college entrance essay. Instead, tell us, and your broader audience, something more compelling. Something unique. Something that fundamentally shapes who you are.

Nos. 1 is new to me but perhaps relatable for today’s generation growing up in the realities of social media. Nos. 2 and 3 are among my favorites. (No. 2 in particular I recommend reading in full book form, “Between the World and Me.” It’s terrific. If you don’t already know his work, Ta-Nehisi Coates should be essential reading.) No. 4 is a frank and revealing portrait of one person’s challenges with the important and often-misunderstood subject of mental health. And No. 5 is a recent piece I wrote.

1. My embarrassing picture went viral
Caitlin Seida, Salon

Excerpt: I don’t generally view my body size as positive or negative — it simply is. I eat right (most of the time) and I exercise (an inordinate amount), but it does little, thanks to a struggle with polycystic ovarian syndrome and a failing thyroid gland. I’m strong, I’m flexible and my doctor assures me my health is good, but the fact remains: I’m larger than someone my height should be.
None of this played into my decision to dress up as Lara Croft, one of the most kick-ass female video game characters ever. Croft is feminine but dangerous, well-educated but athletic, and she’s also easily recognizable, which makes a Halloween costume fairly easy. That picture was taken late in the evening — I was red-faced from the heat, my makeup was sweating off and I was lacking proper boob support (a problem the pixelated Croft has never confronted). But I was having fun, and seeing the image again on that website, I still thought it showed.
So I laughed it all off at first — but then, I read the comments.

2. Letter to my son
Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic

Excerpt: To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease. The law did not protect us. And now, in your time, the law has become an excuse for stopping and frisking you, which is to say, for furthering the assault on your body. But a society that protects some people through a safety net of schools, government-backed home loans, and ancestral wealth but can protect you only with the club of criminal justice has either failed at enforcing its good intentions or succeeded at something much darker.
I remember being 11 years old, standing out in the parking lot in front of the 7-Eleven, watching a crew of older boys standing near the street. I stood there, marveling at the older boys’ beautiful sense of fashion. They all wore ski jackets, the kind that mothers put on layaway in September, then piled up overtime hours so as to have the thing wrapped and ready for Christmas. A light-skinned boy with a long head and small eyes was scowling at another boy, who was standing close to me. It was just before three in the afternoon. I was in sixth grade. School had just let out, and it was not yet the fighting weather of early spring. What was the exact problem here? Who could know?
The boy with the small eyes reached into his ski jacket and pulled out a gun. I recall it in the slowest motion, as though in a dream. There the boy stood, with the gun brandished, which he slowly untucked, tucked, then untucked once more, and in his small eyes I saw a surging rage that could, in an instant, erase my body. That was 1986. That year I felt myself to be drowning in the news reports of murder. I was aware that these murders very often did not land upon the intended targets but fell upon great-aunts, PTA mothers, overtime uncles, and joyful children — fell upon them random and relentless, like great sheets of rain. I knew this in theory but could not understand it as fact until the boy with the small eyes stood across from me holding my entire body in his small hands.

3. Me and my girls
David Carr, The New York Times

Excerpt: To be an addict is to be something of a cognitive acrobat. You spread versions of yourself around, giving each person the truth he or she needs — you need, actually — to keep them at a remove. Let’s stipulate that I do not have a good memory, having recklessly sautéed my brain in fistfuls of pharmaceutical spices. Beyond impairment, there may be no more unreliable narrator than an addict. Recovered or not, I am someone who used my mouth to constantly create one more opportunity to get high.
Here is what I deserved: hepatitis C, federal prison time, H.I.V., a cold park bench, an early, addled death.
Here is what I got: the smart, pretty wife, the three lovely children, the job that impresses.
Here is what I remember about how That Guy became This Guy: not much. But my version of events is worth knowing, if for no other reason than I was there.

4. The person I’m supposed to be
Andy Blowers, NPR’s “This I Believe”

5. Gail Westry: The essential mentor I never met, Seth Prince

Excerpt: I’m back where I fell in love with journalism. In the room where I met and later fell for my wife. On the campus that inspired me. In the town I was raised in. I’m repaying the lessons and the listening, the stern kicks in the pants and the simple kindnesses that my mentors bestowed on me through the years.
I’ve been blessed with a great number of wonderful mentors. But in the past year one particular person has helped me find a new clarity, happiness and effectiveness in this job.
The oddity of it?
We never met. In fact, she died before I contemplated a career in journalism.
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