Why you should care
Because 564 yellow pages contain far more entertaining, revealing stories than Fifty Shades of Whatever.
It wouldn’t surprise you to see a pile of books on the office floor of writing professor Anne Fadiman. What’s odd, though, is that they’re not leather-bound volumes of Shakespeare or Romantic poetry but instead 12 copies of the New Haven Yellow Pages, freshly delivered, perhaps a tad soggy from the snow-battered Northeast. This year’s tome runs to 564 pages — and it is one of two key textbooks Fadiman assigns in her college class (Advanced Nonfiction Writing: At Home in America) of aspiring writers every year.
Fadiman is a decorated writer, essayist and reporter — having won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1997 for The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. Her cult-like following (I say with affection, as I am a card-carrying Fadimanite) consists mostly of Yale juniors and seniors (and the occasional precocious sophomore) — all voracious readers and hungry writers, some of whom have reported plenty and others whose writing is limited to their journals. The class has earned a reputation as an incubator-cum-salon that’s launched a generation of young writers and journalists in the eight years she’s taught the class. (Her alumni populate the New York Times, the New Yorker, This American Life, Harper’s, the Atlantic — you get the picture.)
How do they get their start? In the yellow pages.
It’s the novelty of transforming the yellow pages from a Luddite tome of irrelevence into a DIY storytelling kit.
The assignment: Find someone with an interesting profession in the New Haven yellow pages. Seek them out. Spend many, many hours with them. Learn what they do. Do it with them, if possible. Then, write.
You could say it’s one of the oldest reporting tricks in the book: Make a call, put in the time, write. But for most of Fadiman’s students — myself included — it’s the novelty of transforming the yellow pages (a mysterious artifact to many) from a Luddite tome of irrelevence into a DIY storytelling kit.
In an age where New Journalism’s (narrative-driven writing) ugly stepchild might be called New Narcissism, it turns out that all it takes to tell good stories is not, in fact, staring at tiny furniture for many hours but instead taking to the streets.
Fadiman’s is the kind of exercise that keeps the art of the profile — what she calls “the single most fun thing to read and write” — alive.
In eight years of teaching the class, Fadiman has seen nearly a hundred stories come out of the “infinitely fertile” yellow pages, each one a different perspective on what it means to work. (Only twice have students picked the same person.) There was the maker of glass eyeballs, the 90-year-old typewriter repairman, the bra-fitter; there are wedding dress stylists, strippers, llama farmers, tattoo artists, beekeepers, makers of explosives, birdwatchers, bakers (disclaimer: mine ), boat makers. In short, the assignment yields what great story-hunting should: a kaleidescopic landscape of Americans at work.
Writing about people and their work lets you ask the questions — the ones we all ask of ourselves: Why did we do the things we did?
The class grew out of Fadiman’s days at the iconic and now defunct Life magazine, where, at 33, she traveled the country writing a column called “American Dreamers” from 1986-87. Her focus? People who grew up obsessed with something and then, as adults, went on to actually do that thing. She culled her stories from the Kuskokwim River in Alaska to the upper Mississippi in northern Minnesota; from Lincoln-log lovers who grew up to build their own log cabins to monster-movie maniacs turned monster-makeup artists.
During her first year teaching, Fadiman tried to replicate the column for her students, calling the assignment ”Character and Context.” But when one student had trouble picking a New Haven resident to profile, she told him, “Why don’t you just look in the yellow pages?” Puzzled, he replied, ‘What yellow pages?’”
So, pragmatism rather than nostalgia for something arcane brought the assignment into being.
But in the end, what’s more important than teaching tomorrow’s literati the skills they’ll need is the philosophy behind the lesson. Because if you subscribe to the belief that everyone has one great story in them, and if you’re hungry to find and flesh out those stories, then the yellow pages are so much more than an assignment. They zap you like a curiosity-tinged cattle prod. They take you out of your bubble and into the world. They invite you to extract the stories from lives — from people — laid out in front of you.
“There’s nothing more fascinating than talking to someone who loves his or her work — especially if it’s interesting work, and it’s informed by the place where they do it,” Fadiman says over the phone. ”Writing about people and their work lets you ask the questions — the ones we all ask of ourselves: Why did we do the things we did? How did we become who we became? Seeing someone’s life and occupation laid out like that tells us so much. I’ve not only been writing profiles for years but also reading them for years — and I’m never bored.”
Neither are we.