Posted by: Mark Wollemann: On the move | February 9, 2014

The power of words


I can’t believe my good fortune. Really, I am one lucky fella. Let me explain.

I’m teaching a class this semester in literary nonfiction — narrative journalism. I’m helping (hopefully) students learn to use their reporting skills and instincts to elicit deep and detailed stories from their interview subjects (rather than grabbing a couple of quotes on the way to banging out a story on deadline). The most recent assignment I gave them: Visit with a family member and learn something about an important object or family conflict that you’ve never asked about. I wanted them to write only a few paragraphs — the goal of the assignment was to practice gathering scenes, learn to be active observers, ask followup questions, dive deeply into a topic. I wanted them to ask questions that might be uncomfortable, but necessary to the story. To listen for the anecdote, the scene, to draw out the meaning behind something and reveal the story beyond the story.

They get it.

I’m sitting here on a Sunday afternoon reading fascinating stories about incredibly powerful (and sometimes deeply personal) moments in their families’ lives. Regrets about a Leningrad apartment handed back to the government; memories of a college student in 1980s Russia forced to pick potatoes but finding joy by dancing with classmates after a hard day in the field. There were broken families and longing for what might have been; reconciliation; cherished objects shattered by rambunctious boys that remain in the china cupboard because of the powerful memory it generates. A funny story about a parrot, a poignant story about how two chairs — a pair in every sense of the word — serve as a fitting symbol to a couple that would seemingly be lost without each other.

That’s just a sampling of the powerful personal stories these students produced.

By the end of the semester, I’ll be sitting on what I hope will be a treasure trove of 5,000-word narrative stories. The instinct among journalism students I think, when given such a lengthy assignment, is to add to the complexity, the density of the story. To seek more sources, more numbers, more facts. My goal — my challenge, really — is to remind my students this semester of the power of simplicity. We will delve deeply into these stories, yes. We will report detail, nuance, scene. We will ask lots and lots and lots of questions. We will spend a ridiculous amount of time on all of this. But when we’re done, I’ll remind them of these short little stories that revealed such large and over-arching truths.

When I sit back years from now and try to remember the stories students produced, I’ll remember these. Not the meetings stories (however important). Not the event stories (however important). Not the breaking news stories (however important).

I’ll remember these because they had heart. So, yeah, I’m a pretty lucky guy these days.


  1. I want to read these stories! It would be marvelous if you could get your students’ permission to publish them as an anthology at the end of the semester. (PS: You really are one lucky fella — and your students are lucky to be learning from you, too.)

    • Definitely hoping to curate some of the “best-of” for our website. … Curating, though, means editing. Damn, that means work. But, yeah, it’s on my “to-do” list.

  2. Those stories sound amazing and your post makes me wish I were taking this class with you, as I’ve always wanted to (and keep trying to teach myself) to write creative nonfiction and this sounds like such a good exercise… It also reminded me of this project –, have you seen it before, by any chance? I did an interview with the photographer/storyteller, and I think she manages to beautifully capture and tell very touching stories, in the space of just a few lines.

    • I’ll check out the “things and people” site today. Thanks, Kate!

  3. This is from your maturing self, Mark. Escaping on your bike from snapping dogs scared you. These student responses stirred you on a different level.

    These experiences you share here obviously meant as much to your students as you.

    The wordless dogs– likely have already forgotten you on your bike. (But how can I know?)

    Thanks for sharing! Ava Dale

  4. As always, Ava Dale, thank you for reading and sharing. Hugs to you from both of us!

  5. This sounds like a wonderful writing project. [No wonder there wasn’t time to Skype this past weekend.] I am very proud you that you were able to get your students to look so deeply into their memories. Thank you for sharing.

    • Not THEIR memories, but interviewing others and pulling these stories from them. Reporting. It was an amazing semester!

  6. aw, so nice.

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