Lesson one: Life affirming journalism … courses

That thing people used to use. Photo by AppleDave via Flickr used under CC license.

Last year, I read a Medium post from ESPN storytelling wiz Kevin Van Valkenburg where he graciously posted his class’s narrative journalism syllabus. Hey, I should go through that myself … free learning … I thought. Well, I never did.

(In the meantime, I also stumbled across a Nieman Labs post with a course from Josh Roiland. I’ll start that one on a different day.)

This being a new year and all, I’ve been nagged internally for my failure to do this, so here goes in the spirit of January turned April’s get-it-done attitude I hope won’t fade by May. I’d love if others do the course along with me and put links etc in the comments so we can share thoughts and pieces. KVV recommended a 200–word answer to this:


When I get lost, or before I write a piece or think about writing a piece, or when I’ve given up on journalism and/or the bastards are getting me down, I pull up Chris Jones’s profile of Roger Ebert from Esquire’s 2010 Essentials issue. The story now holds a bit of larger meaning for the state of our industry. In a depressing sign of the times, David Granger, the legendary editor who oversaw Jones and one of the most enviable stable of writers in modern history, was fired last year and so went Jones, who’s won many awards, and the rest of Granger’s beloved writer treasures, Tom Junod among them. I can’t say how much this depressed me and which I immediately put into admittedly myopic terms — if these guys are getting laid off what does that mean for my future? The future of humanity? The future of the written word? Does it all become snapchat or meme-able in our increasing acceptance of the idiocracy?

I really don’t know, especially since the economics of the written word don’t seem to follow any logical playbook (see the entire newspaper and magazine industry as a whole, regardless of quality or number of eyeballs. They’re pretty much all losing money).

I’ll save the headier doomsday rants for another day. Let’s get back to enjoying the shit out of this Chris Jones piece.

I’d encourage you to click the link and read the piece first. You won’t regret it. Before I get to KVV’s question — why I love the piece—I’ll dissect it a little and pull out some favorite sections. I’m hoping it’ll focus me a bit on KVV’s question, which seems like an easy one, but, nevertheless, I’m having a hard time spitting out an answer.


For the 281st time in the last ten months, Roger Ebert is sitting down to watch a movie in the Lake Street Screening Room, on the sixteenth floor of what used to pass for a skyscraper in the Loop.

A lot in that first sentence. Why does the floor matter? The name of the screening room? The exact number of times he’s been there? (That’s a rhetorical question.)

Steve Kraus, the house projectionist, is busy pulling seven reels out of a cardboard box and threading them through twin Simplex projectors.

Getting the name of the projectionist = getting the name of the dog. Also, more details.

Unlike the others, Ebert, sixty-seven, hasn’t brought much survival gear with him: a small bottle of Evian moisturizing spray with a pink cap; some Kleenex; his spiral notebook and a blue fine-tip pen. He’s wearing jeans that are falling off him at the waist, a pair of New Balance sneakers, and a blue cardigan zipped up over the bandages around his neck. His seat is worn soft and reclines a little, which he likes. He likes, too, for the seat in front of him to remain empty, so that he can prop his left foot onto its armrest; otherwise his back and shoulders can’t take the strain of a feature-length sitting anymore.

Show don’t tell and foreshadowing. Remember, we don’t know what’s wrong with Ebert yet. Also hints at his resilience — “unlike the others…”

They hold hands, but they don’t say anything to each other. They spend a lot of time like that.


Ebert’s lasts almost certainly took place in a hospital. That much he can guess. His last food was probably nothing special, except that it was: hot soup in a brown plastic bowl; maybe some oatmeal; perhaps a saltine or some canned peaches. His last drink? Water, most likely, but maybe juice, again slurped out of plastic with the tinfoil lid peeled back. The last thing he said?

I’m sort of relieved there’s no “I asked” or “he told me,” which would have been totally fine in this circumstance but there’s a more delicate sensibility with this approach.

Seven years ago, he recovered quickly from the surgery to cut out his cancerous thyroid and was soon back writing reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times and appearing with Richard Roeper on At the Movies….

I find this one of the hardest things to do — condense time in a way that isn’t laborious for writer and reader. This graf contains seven years of medical history but in a way that shows what’s important to Ebert — writing reviews.

Out there, his voice is still his voice — not a reasonable facsimile of it, but his.
“It is saving me,” he says through his speakers.

In this living room, lined with thousands more books, words are the single most valuable thing in the world. They are gold bricks. Here idle chatter doesn’t exist; that would be like lighting cigars with hundred-dollar bills. Here there are only sentences and paragraphs divided by section breaks. Every word has meaning.


Even the simplest expressions take on higher power here. Now his thumbs have become more than a trademark; they’re an essential means for Ebert to communicate. He falls into a coughing fit, but he gives his thumbs-up, meaning he’s okay. Thumbs-down would have meant he needed someone to call his full-time nurse, Millie, a spectral presence in the house.

We have a habit of turning sentimental about celebrities who are struck down — Muhammad Ali, Christopher Reeve — transforming them into mystics; still, it’s almost impossible to sit beside Roger Ebert, lifting blue Post-it notes from his silk fingertips, and not feel as though he’s become something more than he was. He has those hands. And his wide and expressive eyes, despite everything, are almost always smiling.
There is no need to pity me, he writes on a scrap of paper one afternoon after someone parting looks at him a little sadly. Look how happy I am.

…He would love nothing more than to be holding court in a corner of the room, telling stories about Lee Marvin and Robert Mitchum and Russ Meyer (who came to the Eberts’ wedding accompanied by Melissa Mounds). Instead he’s propped on a chair in the middle of the room like a swami, smiling and nodding and trying not to flinch when people pat him on the shoulder.

There’s a certain breeziness here that matches Ebert’s outlook on life. And I love the ability of omission — it is an ability — for example not mentioning the name of the friend below to keep the piece on point.

Ebert silently declines all entreaties from the fussy waiters. Food arrives only for Chaz and a friend who joins them. Ebert writes them notes, tearing pages from his spiral notepad, tapping his fingers together for his words to be read aloud. Everyone smiles and laughs about old stories. More and more, that’s how Ebert lives these days, through memories, of what things used to feel like and sound like and taste like. When his friend suddenly apologizes for eating in front of him, for talking about the buttered scallops and how the cream and the fish and the wine combine to make a kind of delicate smoke, Ebert shakes his head. He begins to write and tears a note from the spiral.
No, no, it reads. You’re eating for me.

I love this:

Roger Ebert is no mystic, but he knows things we don’t know.

To the assignment —pick a piece and say why you love it — I find that all the stuff you might do if deconstructing this in a class turns out to be fairly predictable, in a good way: the structure is simple and the scenes are well-done but not elaborate. At the end of the day, I love it because it’s about a Chicago larger-than-life archetype, who embodies my city’s optimism and hard work. I love it because the writing is fresh, clear and unsentimental. Ultimately, I love it because it’s a piece about Roger Ebert, who wasn’t destroyed by the thing that destroyed him but, rather, elevated by it.

Chris Jones does what the greats do: he gets out of the way and lets his story do the talking, even when he doesn’t have a voice. He let his theme of how sickness and impending death has, at least in some ways, liberated Ebert. He lets his subject speak to the rest and lets the complexities be what they are.

The key to any piece, and life in general, is structure. KVV himself, though, writes in another post about the poem and song “A Boy Named Sue.” Like this Ebert profile, it showcases some of the basic that Jones has internalized as well as anyone. As KVV writes:

In summary, this song is just a great roadmap for how to tell a story:
1. Establish characters
2. give me revealing details
3. establish motive and tension
4. show the characters in motion
5. more rich scenery detail
6. give us dialog, characters talking to one another
7. make the story all the more memorable by finding an ending that’s not what you think it might be.

Next time, hopefully next week…


After the Sky Fell by Brady Dennis. (new link provided). Now get out there and fill up a blank page.

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