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