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image: Campus NewsThe real story, says visiting writing prof, is in the details
>> Kotlowitz gets students to write beyond themselves.
The first assignment in the course Telling Stories: The Art of Narrative Nonfiction was to observe someone at work.

"The main point was to learn the importance of detail and being a keen observer," explains Alex Kotlowitz, the Robert Vare visiting writer in residence for 2002. "I've been at this for 25 years, and I'm still learning how to be a good observer, a good listener. I don't think it comes naturally for people at all."

Observing and listening is how Kotlowitz, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, caught widespread attention in his book There Are No Children Here (1991), a harrowing look inside the housing projects on Chicago's West Side. The message he left with his class: it's not all about you.

The 16 students in Telling Stories were required to choose topics that fascinated them, and-through the power of narrative-try to inspire the same level of fascination in their readers. The only rule: no memoirs allowed.

"Personal stories are like a good wine. With age, they'll get better," says Kotlowitz. "But more important than that, I really want students to engage with the world, to spend time with people they otherwise might not spend time with. I want them to go out and observe and report."

Subcultures were a popular selection: video game fanatics, hip-hop dancers who are entering a contest. One student wrote about an acquaintance who committed a murder in the eighth grade and had just been released.

"Writing is like any other craft," says Kotlowitz. "The more you practice, the more risks you're willing to take, the more willing you are to make mistakes, the better off you'll be. I want to get students thinking about their prose, precision of language, storytelling."
-Carrie Golus, AB'91, AM'93




 


  JUNE 2002

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