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February 26, 2008

Creative nonfiction journalist to teach writing course

For students who believe their Sosc readings are tiring, Jonathan Harr, this year’s Robert Vare Writer-in-Residence, thinks they should try nonfiction writing and reporting.

“Nonfiction is exhausting,” said Harr, a journalist who has contributed to The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine. “You have to follow people around and you have to get access to them, which is not easy to do. And it doesn’t always go the way that makes for an interesting story.”

Harr says that he hopes to teach University of Chicago students how to find and create those interesting stories this spring in his class, The Craft of Narrative Nonfiction, which he is teaching through the University’s Creative Writing department.

Alumnus Robert Vare (A.B. ’67, A.M. ’70) created the Writer-in-Residence program in 2001 to bring nonfiction writers and journalists to

campus to work with students to hone their writing skills. Vare, a former editor at The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine, is now senior editor of The Atlantic Monthly.

Vare says he founded the program after learning about the variety of courses and writer-in-residence opportunities for poetry, playwriting, and other forms of fiction.

“I truly believe that nonfiction deserves to be treated on an equal basis with the other art forms because I do think it can be an art form,” Vare said. “This course is something I wish I had had when I was a student in the ’60s —there was really no course like this.”

Although he never took a formal, narrative nonfiction writing course

while at the University, Vare said that his Western Civilizations course taught by John Weintraub really sparked his interest in the genre.

“Weintraub taught Western Civ as a great narrative. He said that you can look at history as the story of mankind,” he said. “For me it was about understanding a great body of knowledge in the narrative form. And so I would say that I really started to respond to writing that practiced that kind of thematic narrative structure.”

Vare personally selects each year’s writers-in-residence from journalists he has worked with in the past. Vare, who has known and worked with Harr at The New York Times Magazine and The New Yorker, approached Harr in 2000 with his decision to fund a writer-in-residence program at the University of Chicago and asked Harr to participate.

Harr, the best-selling author of A Civil Action and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction, said he deferred Vare’s requests several times because he was living abroad and working on other projects but decided in August of 2007 that this year would be a good time to teach at the University.

“I think that Jonathan [Harr] is one of the most important practitioners of narrative nonfiction working today, and I think that A Civil Action is one of the most important books of the last 15 years,” Vare said.

But Harr didn’t always write investigative pieces, and he said a desire to write novels was what first prompted him to become a writer.

“I started out wanting to write fiction and novels, and that’s what I started doing when I was in my late teens and early twenties,” Harr said.

During that period of time, Harr said, “I was driving a taxi cab [in New York] and I was writing a novel that really wasn’t very good. I came to the conclusion that the only way I was going to make some money [would be] to go into journalism.”

To Harr, what primarily distinguishes fiction from nonfiction writing is not colorful characters or detailed narratives, but the facts.

“[Nonfiction] is truth; it’s real people. You don’t screw around with the facts, because they are what they are. And I always use people, I never make up names, composites, dialogue—It’s what I see and what I report,” Harr said.

Harr does acknowledge the limitations of this approach to story telling, however.

“You know, if you wanted to write the story about the Federal Reserve, and their deliberation on whether or not they should raise rates, and who the characters [in that story] are,” Harr said. “A journalist will never get access to it, will never get inside of it. And maybe fiction is the way to approach that [kind of story].”

Though fiction also requires writers to conduct enough research to give their stories verisimilitude, Harr said it does give writers the liberty to invent and imagine how to fill in their information gaps.

Nonfiction writers have to work a little harder to pull together facts for their stories. Harr remembers one investigative piece he wrote for the New York Times Magazine about a plane crash that challenged him to find alternate sources. As he explained, the National Transportation Safety Board denied journalists access to information on their deliberations over the crash.

“I ended up writing the story even though there was more detail I might have wanted because a clever nonfiction writer will find sources,” Harr said of the piece. “Even in non-fiction, you can get into places you’re supposedly not allowed to and write accurately about it.”

Harr said that another one of the challenges of nonfiction magazine writing is developing relationships with sources because he does not

regularly cover a police or politics beat as do newspaper reporters.

Unlike him, Harr said, these reporters develop regular contact with their own sources, who divulge information for their own reasons: “In

the case of what I do, it takes a long time to develop that level of trust, [to convince sources that] you don’t have an agenda, you just want to know what happened.”

Vare says that he hopes students who aspire to be professional writers will take this course.

“I hope it will give them a big leg up in terms of understanding the process of writing creative nonfiction, and I also hope that, on another level, it will make them better readers. People who take the course will understand when they read works of non fiction what went into writing them.”