Mineral Wells Index, Mineral Wells, TX

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January 10, 2013

Slate: How to write a memoir

NEW YORK — There has lately been a rising backlash against the ubiquity of personal writing. Hamilton Nolan's anti-confessional diatribe in Gawker claims that journalism students are now taught only to write about themselves, which I can say as a full-time faculty member at a journalism school is patently absurd, but he raised some interesting points about the dubious rise of confessional writing over the last two decades and the market pressure, especially on younger writers, to make a splash, or at least publish something somewhere, by turning to their own, possibly limited, life experience. And then, of course, there were recent critiques of Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of "Prozac Nation," babbling incoherently about her pure heart in New York Magazine.

All of which leads me to believe it may be time to think methodically about what separates good confessional writing from bad confessional writing. It's dangerously cartoonish to say all personal writing is bad, and to automatically attack every writer who dares to delve into his own experience, but there are a million different ways to write personally and some of them are undoubtedly better than others. Here, then, are some basic principles I have come to over the years as both a professor and a writer:

1. The writer should turn her fierce critical eye on herself. (One of the great masters of this is Mary McCarthy, who was terrifying and brilliant in her critiques, even of her own pretentions and snobbisms.) It is always satisfying to read a writer who sharply and deftly attacks the hypocrisies and delusions of the world around him, but we trust that writer more completely when he also attacks himself, when he does not hold himself to a different standard, or protect himself from scrutiny. Take David Foster Wallace's famously dazzling essay, "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again." He obsessively, comically, gorgeously dissects everything around him on the cruise ship, but does not exempt himself from his high level satire:

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  • Survey results in legislation to battle sexual assault on campus

    Missouri U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill joined a bipartisan group of senators Wednesday to announce legislation that aims to reduce the number of sexual assaults on college campuses.

    July 30, 2014

  • An alarming threat to airlines that no one's talking about

    It's been an abysmal year for the flying public. Planes have crashed in bad weather, disappeared over the Indian Ocean and tragically crossed paths with anti-aircraft missiles over Ukraine.

    July 30, 2014

  • Sharknado.jpg Sharknado 2 set to attack viewers tonight

    In the face of another "Sharknado" TV movie (the even-more-inane "Sharknado 2: The Second One," premiering Wednesday night on Syfy), there isn't much for a critic to say except to echo what the characters themselves so frequently scream when confronted by a great white shark spinning toward them in a funnel cloud:
    "LOOK OUT!!"

    July 30, 2014 1 Photo

  • Can black women have it all?

    In a powerful new essay for the National Journal, my friend Michel Martin makes a compelling case for why we need to continue the having-it-all conversation.

    July 29, 2014

  • How spy agencies keep their 'toys' from law enforcement

    A little over a decade ago, federal prosecutors used keystroke logging software to steal the encryption password of an alleged New Jersey mobster, Nicodemo Scarfo Jr., so they could get evidence from his computer to be used at his trial.

    July 25, 2014

  • 072214 Diamond Llama 1.jpg Llama on the loose corralled in Missouri town

    A llama on the lam cruised Main Street Tuesday before it mistook a resident’s fenced backyard for a place to grab a meal and freshen up.

    July 22, 2014 2 Photos

  • Wal-Mart to cut prices more aggressively in back-to-school push

    Wal-Mart Stores plans to cut prices more aggressively during this year's back-to-school season and will add inventory to its online store as the chain battles retailers for student spending.

    July 21, 2014

  • The terrible history of passenger planes getting shot out of the sky

    What is more clear is that, if initial reports are true, this would be the deadliest incident of a civilian passenger plane being shot down in modern memory. In some instances, the causes of the disaster are still shrouded in mystery. Here are some of the worst events.

    July 17, 2014

  • 20110929_bowling.jpg Why fewer people go bowling

    Like other industries facing tough economic times, America's bowling centers are trying to reinvent themselves.

    July 15, 2014 1 Photo

  • NWS-HB0713-HowardMartin-004.jpg Airman laid to rest back home in Indiana six decades after death

    The mystery of what happened to a military transport plane that disappeared in the fall of 1952 into an Alaskan glacier was solved two years ago when a helicopter crew spotted the wreckage. But it took another two years to retrieve the remains of Airman Howard Miller and 16 other servicemen passengers. Saturday, Miller was laid to rest in his hometown of Elwood, Ind., with full military honors. Hundreds turned out for the funeral and burial services.

    July 13, 2014 2 Photos

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