Introduction: The Music of Ordinary Life

Welcome to the archive of published student work done over the years in my Literary Feature Writing class at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

I began teaching the class in 1996, after arriving as a journalism professor from a career writing for The Washington Post Magazine. The concept of the class was embodied in my book, Intimate Journalism: The Art & Craft of Reporting Everyday Life, which I have used, along with other books and readings, as a staple in the class. The simple idea was to have students complete an in-depth human interest story utilizing the concepts and reporting and writing techniques commonly described as “literary journalism.”

This collection includes only a handful of the scores of published stories done in the class, but they give you an idea of what even beginners can accomplish when their eyes have been opened to the possibilities of journalistic storytelling beyond the news and gossip of the day. The intelligence and commitment of my students amazed me from the start and still does. Their boundless curiosity has kept me feeling young.

I hope you enjoy them.

Walt Harrington

Slices of Life

“Don’t write about Man, write about ‘a’ man.”

– E.B. White
Essays of E.B. White

Slices of LifeThe music of ordinary life is everywhere around us. It can be hard to hear, through the traditional blare of robberies, car crashes, politics and scandal, through the too often angry, shallow and silly voices that screech away on social media. Yet, if you take a moment to listen, you will hear the music: Rabbi Isaac Neuman remembering the good even in the Nazi death camps; Charlie High mourning the death and praising the life of his wife; Gino Baileau struggling to establish his unusual sexual identity; Chike Coleman trying to take joy in every moment of a life debilitated by disease; Bishop Morris Paul Lockett preaching to his abjectly poor congregation; Charlie Sweitzer making a beautiful chair with his hands. These stories–and many more—are collected here in Slices of Life.

The stories appeared originally in The News-Gazette and grew from a collaborative effort between the newspaper and the Department of Journalism at the University of Illinois. The idea was to give aspiring student journalists in my Literary Feature Writing class a taste of real-world experience by seeing their stories appear in the paper and to give the paper’s readers more stories that might touch their humanity. The project was supported with grants from the Marajen Stevick Foundation and conducted with the encouragement of the paper’s publisher, John Foreman, and the help of features editor Tony Mancuso and The News-Gazette photo staff. For three semesters, my class convened at The News-Gazette building and included journalism students and the newspaper’s professionals. The effort resulted in the “Slice of Life” series that ran in the paper over almost a two-year period. A handful of stories collected here preceded that formal rubric but are still in its tradition. Some of the stories came and went with few comments from the public. Yet many evoked scores of web “Likes” from readers. The story of Rabbi Neuman alone recorded nearly 400 such “Likes.”

The field of journalism has a long tradition of humanized feature reporting and writing. In recent decades, the form has become more sophisticated by integrating drama, telling detail, scene-setting, conversational dialogue, drama, intrigue and emerging insight into its factual storytelling. Such stories are not collections of information but explorations of ideas through individuals—ambition, grief, hate, creativity, companionship, love (of people, music, birds), faith, excellence, growth. After more than 35 years of writing and editing such stories–from jobs at small local newspapers to The Washington Post to book writing and editing–my greatest joy is working with the bright-eyed kids in the Illinois journalism program, knowing that they will go out and someday do memorable journalism themselves. The boundless hope, enthusiasm and talent of my students keeps me young–and on my toes.

At their best, feature journalism stories are “tone poems” that evoke in us a richer understanding of the anonymous people with whom we mingle daily, people who at first glance seem different from us—richer or poorer, younger or older, more educated or less, gay or straight, religious or agnostic, black or white. What such stories are meant to do is remind us that beneath all of that we are much the same. So read the stories in Slices of Life and feel the sensation of being inside another human being’s skin— his hopes and dreams, her fears and ambitions, the yearning to live a meaningful life.

Because these people are us.

– Walt Harrington
Department of Journalism
University of Illinois

A Writer at Work

BY: Chelsey B. Coombs

(Originally published in The News-Gazette, June 21, 2014)

Amy Hassinger sits at her built-in desk, completely straight in her chair, between two floor-to-ceiling white bookshelves that hold titles such as The New York Public Library American History Desk Reference, Stephen King’s On Writing, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and many years of The Best American Short Stories anthologies. Early morning light streams through the window that overlooks her Urbana neighborhood and bathes her freckled face and short brown hair. Her chocolate-brown dog, Hachi, nudges her hand, but she ignores him and furrows her brow. Her husband is at work and her kids are off to school, and the only sound in the room is Amy’s pen scratching on a legal pad.

She is a writer at work.

“Writing, for me, was always really hard,” she says. “I wasn’t one of these star writers who just right out of the gate was winning all the prizes and, to me, it was — and still continues to be — a real effort. But it was one of the only things I did that I felt fully, completely engaged in.”

At age 41, Amy is the author of two novels, “Nina: Adolescence,” which was called “truly penetrating” by, and “The Priest’s Madonna,” which Library Journal said was “marvelously written and researched.” She has finished the “umpteenth set of revisions” on her newest novel, a three-year project, and is “letting it sit for a couple weeks” before sending it to her agent. She teaches in the University of Nebraska’s low-residency MFA in Writing Program and the University of Illinois’ Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, and is raising two kids. She’s busy.

Continue reading

Turning a Pipe Dream Into Reality

BY: Ryan Weber

(Originally published in The News-Gazette, July 6, 2014)

John-Paul Buzard builds what was for centuries the most complex machine civilization had ever introduced to the world. The modern world would issue in bigger, louder, taller and faster machines: steam ships, cars and telephones, and, later, airplanes and computers, including the black 4-inch touchscreen that constantly chirps in John-Paul’s pocket. Yet for all that these machines can do, they still can’t achieve what John-Paul’s can.

His machines speak the voice of God.

“The sound of a pipe organ,” he says, “is just the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard.”

John-Paul builds church pipe organs. He has spent most of his life carrying on a centuries-old tradition that has seen its prominence fade. Organs are expensive and few churches can afford them today. But he carries on, believing that nothing else can affect people like his machines.

“The organ,” he says in his soft, thoughtful voice, “has a way of touching people’s souls.”

John-Paul, 59, was 5 years old when his dad told him there was no money in building organs. He was 6 when he knew he wanted to do it anyway, 13 when he assembled one from scrap wood and old spare pipes for a science fair, 16 when he played one at a recital, 21 when he met his wife, who today plays organs for a living, and 25 when he received his master’s degree in organ performance. At age 30, he opened John-Paul Buzard Pipe Organ Builders in a then-desolate and crime-ridden downtown Champaign.

Continue reading

A Stronger Bond

BY: Stephanie Kim

(Originally published in The News-Gazette, July 12, 2015)

Darrell Price was especially tired one night after a long day at work, and his wife, Peggy, noticed. She knew it was hard for him to juggle two jobs, one as a DeWitt County assistant state’s attorney and the other caring for her. Many a husband would leave his wife, she remembers thinking that night, because of that burden.

“Do you hate me because this happened?” she recalls asking him.

“No,” he quickly responded.

“How? Isn’t this a tortuous life for you? I mean, wouldn’t you rather just leave?”

“Well, if I didn’t love you, I probably would.”

Despite her fears, Peggy knows Darrell’s love is complete. Most days, she sees beyond her suffering. Yet today has been one of those days when she feels sorry for the way their lives turned out. Since she fell down the steps in front of St. John’s Catholic Newman Center on the University of Illinois campus in 2005, her body has never been the same. She has had three knee replacements and two spinal surgeries, which have left her body full of metal and rods. After she fell again in their Urbana home in 2009, doctors discovered a connective-tissue disorder that now confines her to a wheelchair.

Continue reading

Isaac’s Journey

Isaac’s Journey

BY: Emily Siner

(Originally published in The News-Gazette, January 13, 2013)

Author’s Note:

When I first started talking to Rabbi Neuman, I noticed his way of speaking: philosophical, well thought-out, and at times very grand. I could tell he was used to giving sermons. I didn’t use a recorder – I had decided I didn’t want to use many direct quotes – but I would write down certain words or phrases he used that really resonated with me. Then, when writing the story, I incorporated his own words into my writing, even if I didn’t put direct quotes around it. That way, it was his voice telling the story, as if he was sitting down with the reader just as he sat down with me.

-Emily Siner

Some things he wants to remember; some things he tries to forget.

Isaac Neuman remembers a pretty woman who prepared the meals for the supervisors at St. Martin’s cemetery, an early Nazi camp in Poland. She took a liking to Isaac. “Stomarek,” she called him, a reference to the “one hundred marks” he had tried to hide from his captors. When they found the money, he had received a vicious beating. “Hey, Stomarek, come here,” she said and handed the 18-year-old leftovers from the supervisors’ meal. She would do this for him over the next year and a half. When he talks about her today, his eyes light up and his face breaks into a smile.

He laughs when he recalls a man named Joel Zolna, who sat next to him on a train to one of the last camps where he was imprisoned. The train slowed down as it curved around a mountain. Isaac was too weak to jump and run, and Joel couldn’t flee with his identification numbers painted on his coat. Isaac’s coat had the numbers sewn on, so he ripped them off and switched coats with Joel, who jumped off the slowing train and escaped. After the war, Joel would take Isaac out to nightclubs and concerts.

These are things Isaac, who is 90 now, wants to remember. He wants to remember every person who did something to lessen his pain.

“Sparks of holiness,” he calls them.

They lit the world in its darkest days.

Continue reading

Genetic disorder means daily battle with calculated risks

Genetic disorder means daily battle with calculated risks

By: Megan Graham

(Originally published in The News-Gazette, August 1, 2012)

Author’s Note:

I tried not to make this a story of “disabled young man lives every day to the fullest even though he may die soon.” Because the story is not about how he looks to a tragic future. The story is about how he looks to the present moment, how he wills himself to wake up in the morning when has no idea how many moments will be left. The story is about a loneliness that he can’t fill because people are afraid of making him sick and maybe afraid of getting close to him. Mostly, it’s about permanently living in that space between childhood and adulthood—a space he may never truly be out of. Going forward, I know I have a lot more to learn. I need to ask the questions I want the answers to, not the answers that a subject gives me. I’m glad Chike and I had the opportunity to spend so much time together, even though I think his story was exhausting for both of us. It was hard for him to tell, and it was hard for me to hear. But it was worth it for me. I hope it was equally worth it for him.

– Megan Graham

In his old room in his parents’ home, a pretty house in the Cherry Hills subdivision of Champaign, Chike Coleman is poking through his shelves. He wants to find a Blu-ray disc, one of the beloved movies he bought in a half-off online sale from a site that sells independent films.

He moves aside tens of his prized jazz CDs, the Soapbox Derby trophies and the Hardy Boys books. The shelves are filled with 25 years of memories: books he has loved, model cars done in candy-colored lacquer, his University of Illinois diploma.

His high school and college friends — most 25-year-olds, for that matter — no longer live in the dust of their boyhood belongings. But after his fleeting years of collegiate freedom, Chike moved right back into this room, with its boxes of waterproof dressing and nonstick pads and bandages, bottles of hydrogen peroxide, soap-free cleanser and Clindamycin gel.

“It’s just kind of waiting,” he says. “Just like everybody else. Except your wait feels a lot shorter than everybody else’s.”

Chike glances at a photograph of him leaning back casually in his wheelchair, royal blue graduation gown draping his chest as he smiles broadly. He looks normal. He looks healthy.

Yet these are two things Chike will never be.

Continue reading

The longings of … a beautiful boy

The longings of … a beautiful boy

By: Christian Gollayan

(Originally published in The News-Gazette, June 10, 2012)

Author’s Note:

I learned that intimate journalism could be more than just reporting the facts or gathering sensory details. When I was able to sift through my subject’s facade and get to the heart of who he is – his goals, longings and fears – and put that down on the page, I think that’s a part of intimate journalism, too.

– Christian Gollayan

He’s 6 feet tall barefoot, 6-feet-5 in his Jeffrey Campbell heels. He loves Lady Gaga and Andy Warhol and beautiful women who don’t care about what other people think.

He loves vodka. He takes it straight up, pursing his lips, keeping a composed face. It makes him feel as if he’s made of plastic; it’s reassuring. If he can keep a strong face after a shot, he can keep a strong face after anything.

Continue reading