Notes from the Green Couch

literary journalism

The recipients of the first annual Literary Journalism Fellowships, Mara Gordon (C'08) and Gabe Crane (C'08), read from their pieces at an event featuring comments and responses by editors Lee Eisenberg and Daniel Okrent

Monday, April 9, 2007

After the weekly three-hour Monday session of the Fellows seminar, Gabe Crane and Mara Gordon moved from the audience to the front of the room. The Arts Cafe

Notes from the Green Couch

transformed from a haven for Donald Hall's poetry into a hub for New Journalism, as the Writers House celebrated the first ever annual Lee Eisenberg Literary Journalism Fellowship. The Fellowship's first two recipients, Gabe and Mara, were joined by none other than former Esquire editor Lee Eisenberg himself, along with his "best friend...the most annoying person [he] knows," Dan Okrent - formerly the first ever Public Editor of the New York Times.

Before the spotlight shifted to the evening's honorees, Al Filreis shed light on the nature of the Literary Journalism Fellowship and how it came about. When Eisenberg approached Al with the desire to contribute something the writers of his alma mater in 2005, the Writers House spent the year designing this project, where two students would have the opportunity to write outside the curriculum and experience the journalism profession before ever receiving a degree. Eisenberg elaborated in his own introduction, describing how him, Gabe and Mara pretended they were "playing for keeps." Students had submitted official query letters from which Gabe and Mara were chosen; there was a built-in kill fee in the event their articles were not accepted; the two then delved into their respective topics during a process of intense investigative reporting; over the next several months, they worked with Eisenberg via e-mail, telephone, and even in person once, editing and re-editing their 4,000-word articles. This night was a culmination of a year of hard work - the reading of their pieces.

Mara read from her "Giving Medicine to the Poor: Can the next generation of doctors inject the profession with a bigger dose of conscience?" an article challenging the questionable relationship between pharmaceutical companies and university research institutions in the interest of getting direly needed vaccines to impoverished countries without relying on charities. After initially misplacing the sixteen loose-leaf pages of his article, Gabe read from his "Life on the Bulb: What happens when everybody wants a piece of the last good place on Earth?" delving into the world of an abandoned trash dump on the San Francisco Bay that now attracts an eclectic cast of characters. Whereas Mara grappled with a concrete ethical and sociological dilemma, Gabe observed the more abstract issues of categorization and belonging.

These respective ideals are representative of both Mara and Gabe as writers and people. A former news editor for The Daily Pennsylvanian, Mara struggled most with usage of the first-person voice and writing in a narrative style. Though "trying something new was hard," Mara's hard work paid off, as she earned the praise of Okrent, especially in regards to her portrayal of character - humanizing the presupposed antagonist to such an extent that readers did not look at him as a bad human being. The more poetic and self-proclaimed "describer" Gabe (who a month after this reading left to boat down the Mississippi River for the summer, blogging all the way) struggled most with the journalistic aspect - stringing together quotes, inserting factual information. In the end, he successfully balanced journalism and literariness, creating a "mosaic-like" piece profiling several regulars at the Bulb.

Eisenberg and Okrent, often joshing with each other throughout the event, provided the audience with a great deal of insight into the adversities a writer is confronted with through the eyes of two former editors, underscoring the issue of length. Writing 4,000 words is a difficult task no matter what; Eisenberg emphasized the need for direction when beginning such a lengthy piece while Okrent opined that overwriting in early drafts is good, because in that way, the editors can extract the basics - "the act of cutting compels to think clearer."

The event was followed, as always by a reception of "tasty food and drink." An excerpt of Mara's piece can be found in the Spring 2007 issue of The Green Couch.