Jaed Coffin’s goal is to aim for the big idea when he’s working on a writing project, often immersing himself in his subjects’ worlds. And he didn’t expect anything less from his students, who he urged yesterday to do their subjects’ stories justice by giving readers the big picture.
There was a lot to take away from Coffin’s presentation YOU CAN’T MAKE THIS SH*T UP!: An Introduction to Immersion/Literary/Longform Journalism. Yesterday was also the second day of the Stonecoast MFA summer residency, which started with a tour of the Stone House for first semester students by journalist and author Sam Smith, who spent his childhood summers living in the Casco Bay waterfront estate.
I came back this year as a fourth semester student, who for the last six months worked on my third semester project (a creative collaboration with a comic strip artist that produced a comic book) while starting a new job and promoting my debut poetry collection in addition to getting married.
And I’m still charged from Friday’s Flash Faculty Reading, where Dolen Perkins-Valdez, author of the novel WENCH, peeled our wigs back with a short story she hadn’t published yet. The award-winning writer, who’s also a former University of California postdoctoral fellow and graduate of Harvard, is guest faculty at this residency. I enjoyed talking to Perkins-Valdez about married life (she’s going on nine years) and appreciated her insights on parenting.
Just as priceless was my first day in the cross genre workshop Explorations in Masculinity, co-facilitated by David Anthony Durham and Jaed Coffin. What’s interesting is there are only two guys in this workshop of seven students. Yesterday, we started our workshop in a room at the Stone House, where we have all our workshops and presentations.
This grand estate is striking with its multiple stone porches and fireplaces. The beautiful stained glass, wood, and tile work are as breathtaking as the ocean view from each room. On the extensive grounds of the Stone House are rocky pathways to harbor vistas, nationally renowned heather gardens, and historically organic farmland.
I was glad that Durham and Coffin took the workshop to the deck behind the house, where our conversations flowed from different male archetypes presented in Twilight and Harry Potter, to the dominant-submissive theme in contemporary literature. We also talked about so-called traditional male types that over-populated action flicks. Coffin asked us if those guys even existed.
That question about the truth was a great lead up to Coffin’s presentation on literary journalism, or what he called narrative nonfiction. “To me, it’s the least pretentious term,” he said. It’s also a form of long journalism pioneered by writer Gay Talese, who wrote the most memorable profile of Frank Sinatra for Esquire more than four decades ago.
As the story goes, Talese came to Los Angeles to profile Sinatra. “The legendary singer was approaching fifty, under the weather, out of sorts, and unwilling to be interviewed,” according to Esquire’s editorial note. “So Talese remained in L.A., hoping Sinatra might recover and reconsider, and he began talking to many of the people around Sinatra—his friends, his associates, his family, his countless hangers-on—and observing the man himself whenever he could.” This resulted in the 11,000-word article “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” that Esquire published April 1966.
Coffin used the profile as a great example of the three-part zoom functions used by literary journalists. At 1X (wide frame): the writer captures the subject’s environment, atmosphere, regionalism, culture, subculture, race, identity, and class. The writer zooms in to 2X (narrow focus), where they capture the subject’s home, community, family, past, genealogy, origins and lore. Then, at 3X (narrower focus), the writer zooms directly on the subject. At this focal point, the writer captures the subject’s eyes, ears, speech, charms, patterns of behavior, clothing, and so on.
Talese does that throughout his profile of Sinatra. That long-form of journalism is defined by an Esquire editor as “a work of rigorously faithful fact enlivened with the kind of vivid storytelling that had previously been reserved for fiction.”
That struck a chord with Coffin, who at 18, knew he wanted to be a writer. At first, he tried his hand at fiction. “The first novel I tried to write [then] I got 25 pages into it and lost myself,” said the Stonecoast instructor, whose passion followed him from undergrad at New England’s Middlebury College through graduation, when he moved back home with his mom and took a job as a lobsterman while he worked on his writing. “I kept using reality as an amplified spring-board,” he said, to do the type of writing he wanted.
Then the literary inertia pulled him to nonfiction when writing the truth became beneficial. “Most of the time truth is better than fiction,” Coffin said. “The social aspect of nonfiction is why I’m in the game. Nonfiction has this beautiful social element. You get to be out in the world.”
Coffin’s explorations took him from Brunswick, Maine, to his mother’s native village in Thailand, where he became a Buddhist monk after his junior year at Middlebury College.
He captured that experience in his memoir A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants (Da Capo/Perseus), which is a tale of displacement, ethnic identity, and cultural belonging. According to the book jacket, it’s also a record of Coffin’s “time at the temple that rain season–receiving alms in the streets in saffron robes; bathing in the canals; learning to meditate in a mountaintop hut; and falling in love with Lek, a beautiful Thai woman who comes to represent the life he can have if he stays.”
The other benefits of writing nonfiction are just as alluring. “You make a lot of money and get to hang out with people,” Coffin said. “You also get to use every skill that fiction writers and poets use.” He’s currently working those skills in Roughhouse Friday (Riverhead/Penguin), his forthcoming book about the year he fought as the middleweight champion of a barroom boxing show in Juneau, Alaska.
Though he loves the adventure, Coffin advised it’s not a prerequisite to writing narrative nonfiction. “Do not feel like, because you have a domestic life, you cannot do literary journalism,” he said. “Reality, on its own terms, is strange and full of conflict. You just have to be patient enough to dig up the conflict.”