Creative Nonfiction: The Art of Subculture Writing | Isaac Eger | Skillshare

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Creative Nonfiction: The Art of Subculture Writing

teacher avatar Isaac Eger, Writer

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.



    • 2.

      Class Project


    • 3.

      Finding Your Subculture


    • 4.

      How to Get Invited


    • 5.



    • 6.



    • 7.



    • 8.

      Getting Published


    • 9.



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About This Class

Good writers know that everyone has a story to tell, even the seemingly boring and most unfriendly types. It’s your task as a writer to reveal the story, tell it honestly and originally, and find the common thread of humanity. 

Subcultures are a rich and limitless supply for writers. The trick to writing about these specialized groups is gaining access to their often hidden and private members and their passions.

In my class you’ll learn how to access and write about these people and places. 

This is a class for writers of all levels. The one requirement is a curiousity for the strange and diverse things that humans do. 

Meet Your Teacher

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Isaac Eger



Isaac Eger is a writer. His work has been featured in publications like The New York Times, GQ, Vice, Sports Illustrated,, and American Ways Magazine.

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1. Introduction: When people ask me what it is I write, I have a hard time giving a simple answer. I've written stories about a former NFL player who got his medical degree in Havana, Cuba. I've written about German loving Jews in Tel Aviv, Israel. I've written about psychic conventions where medium's help me talk to my dead pet and I've written about the violent mistakes of raising farm animals in the backyards of cities. I suppose it's easiest to say that I write about subcultures, although I'd like to say that I write about people. My name is Isaac eager, and I'm a writer. I wrote for The New York Times and I've been published in places like Vice G. Q. Sports Illustrated, American Airlines magazine. I'm currently working on a book about playing pickup basketball around the world. In order to write about subcultures, you have to access often unfriendly and private people in this class. I will teach you how to access these people in places. I will break down the different ways I approach my work. By taking you through the following steps, I'll teach you how to choose your subculture, how to get invited and inside which mode of participation or spectating you ought to choose . I'll teach you how to interview your subjects without treating them like animals in a zoo. I'll teach you how to write about some cultures and who you owe your writing to. Then I'll teach you how to get published. 2. Class Project: one of my favorite venues of subculture writing is the New Yorkers. Talk of the town each week is a foray into the different worlds that people inhabit. It could be about commercial actor who did, ah, spot for a diarrhea medicine, the Super Bowl. It could be about the intersection of people and animals and industry, whatever it is required that the writer be there and be present with their subjects. In my class, you will write your own talk of the town. It could be about anything It could be about the first day. It's warm enough for people to wear T shirts outside after winter. It could be about the old folks who practiced tight, she in a public park. It could be about the pizza delivery guy could be about anything. But what it does require is that you be there and be present, and it could take you halfway across the world, or it could be right outside your home. But what I want is for you to leave the computer behind and to be in the world, if only for a moment. You can't write this project with the help of Wikipedia alone after you submitted your article, I will personally critique and look at your work and give you notes. And if I see potential in the article, I will share my editorial and publication contacts to help you get your work published. 3. Finding Your Subculture: Before I go any further, I should say exactly what a subculture is. A subculture could be a single person or a whole group of people. It could be the guy working out in public could be the musician bus king in the street. It could be, Ah, whole bunch of people. It could be a group of skateboarders or ah, pickup basketball game. What a subculture does require is ritual in space and subculture. Writing is different from regular reporting. Beat journalists who cover politics or culture or sports have, AH, place at the table. Uh, they have press conferences arranged for them. They develop a rapport with the people that they report on. Uh, they deal with people who studied public relations in some culture writing. There's none of that. It's very informal. It's raw, it's flawed, it's intimate. And you're not going to deal with people who are familiar with reporters. Necessarily good subculture. Writing is really about interloping. It's about being where you don't necessarily belong. Now let's choose which subculture would be best for you to write about. I think there are two things you have to take in consideration. I think the 1st 1 is your natural talent, and the 2nd 1 is your genuine interest. Your natural talent could be anything it could be. You are capable of speaking at a language you studied, a topic that's similar or you have close connections with people that can help you get inside. Your natural curiosity is just Do you actually care about this subject? Do you want to know? Do you want to understand? I don't know if any of you have ever written anything that you found to be boring, but I'll tell you, it's excruciating toe have to write those stories. I started writing about pickup basketball because, well, first I knew that I would never play basketball professionally. And getting paid to write about playing basketball was the closest I ever get. I love basketball and I know it well and I'm good. I'm not great, but I'm good enough that I can play with just about anybody. And playing basketball around the world and in various places has helped me access people in places in a way that not playing basketball were doing. Something more formal wouldn't have. But in the end, the most important thing is your own sense, of curiosity. Do you want to get to know these people? Do you want to understand them? Do you want to know what makes them tick and why they do the seemingly bizarre things that they dio? 4. How to Get Invited: Now that you've chosen your subculture, the next challenge is how to get invited. How to get inside of this subculture. This is where proximity and exploration come into play, and it's important for you to just simply show up. I know we've all been in the situation where we were at a party or a bar, and we hear people that were not too close with or some acquaintances, and they're planning on doing something afterwards and you want to get invited. You want to get in there too? And how do you get yourself, like wiggle into this, uh, uninvited invitation? The simplest thing to do is just ask. But I think we all fear that kind of rejection. But this is where this is, ah, form of writing where that fear needs to be overcome. Andi Set aside, it's really just about simply asking in subculture writing. I believe in the power of Yes, I think it's really hard for people to say no, people have a hard time saying no when you ask them face to face e mails and phone calls very easily ignored and that it could be super frustrating when you're trying t o get a story done. So this is once again where being there is a very important factor in writing about subcultures. If you ask someone, I guarantee you they will more likely than not say yes. You also want to use the power of being a writer. There's a lot of social and cultural capital with this profession and don't be afraid to exploit it. When you tell people that you're a writer, I think people are inherently egoistic and they want to talk about themselves so they will invite you along and they will open up and talk about themselves. So when appropriate, let people know that you're a journalist, you're a writer and you want to explore this thing that they do. And you'd be surprised once again how that opens doors. But I think the most important thing to go into it with is this mindset of everyone has a story and everyone wants to tell it once again. I think people are naturally egoistic and they love talking about themselves. I know Ideo. So if you open that invitation, if you get that invitation by just being curious and asking people about themselves, you're more likely than not to get invited and get even closer to your subjects. So for your project, think about how you're going to get invited or how you're going to access your subjects. Are you going to just show up? Are you gonna follow them? Are you going to ask them directly? Are you going to ask in ahead of time? These are important things you need to kind of consider to eventually get access to your subjects. 5. Interaction: now that you are inside of your subculture, there are ways of interacting and accessing with them further. The first is direct participation, and the second is at a spectator. I'm gonna take you through two of my favorite New York Times articles that I wrote where I used each of these methods to interact and access my subcultures. The 1st 1 was direct participation, and it's an article called I Got Next. It was about exploring New York City through pickup basketball. What I did was I would just bike around and take the subway to whichever basketball courts I could find or were recommended to me. And I would just show up as a basketball player with my shoes and my shorts and everything . And so I I was just one of the subjects I was doing, the same thing they were doing. I was participating with them, and I didn't tell them I was a writer right away. The one time I did do that in Brooklyn, I was inundated with requests to be put in the article. Kids would hand me their mix tapes and they really hand it up, and so that really affected the way they behaved, and I couldn't really get any good writing out of it. It's kind of like that rule in physics, the observer effects where, by simply observing phenomena, it alters their behavior. So the benefit of direct participation is that you will get people in their most natural state, and I think that you can get a lot of good writing ends and material out of that. The 2nd 1 is as a spectator, and the article I wrote was called a passionate place for tennis players, and it was about the regulars who populated the tennis court in Central Park. I was sent there originally to kind of investigates the cronyism and the local sort of corruption that happened when allotting time for tennis players. But instead I discovered just these really lovely people. And one in particular was this French woman named Len, who was a recent widow, and her relationship with this young, uh, tennis coach named Yaya, who had dreams of being a professional tennis player. And now he was just a tennis coach and they just had a really wonderful relationship together, where, after her husband died, she stopped playing tennis and Yaya came and brought her back to the court. And so ah, lot of unexpected things happen when you're just spectating. And in this regard, I told people that I was writing right away. I let them let it be known that I was there reporting, and what I would do is I would just show up every morning at about six in the morning in the West Side, the Upper West Side and I would spend all day there under that for two weeks straight, and eventually I did get a lot of information and a lot of good material out of these people. In that story, I wrote that in the third person and as a spectator, you as an observer, you do get that sort of top down approach, and it can make it seem or authoritative, whereas in the direct participation aspect of writing, it's more like Gonza journalism, where you yourself become a part of the story. And so in that story and I got next, I wrote that in the first person, and it was about about me as much as it was about my subjects. So when you're working on your projects, um, it's helpful. If you decide beforehand whether you were going to directly participate or if you are just going to spectate, one isn't better than the other. It's really a matter of preference and how you like to write. But those are the two ways that I would recommend approaching your subculture and writing about it. 6. Interviewing: So now that you're interacting and close to your subjects, I think it's important to know how to interview without interrogating. And that means not treating them like there's some lab rat. Um, when I interview people, I like to make it like a conversation. A Z informal is possible. I think it's important to create a kind of intimacy with your subjects. Andi shed your writers skin and just be a person with them because, like I said, you were being a writer will affect their behavior. And so it's important to try and make it feel more natural. My methods of doing that, our first by talking about myself. I think that instead of just having a list of questions that you're checking off and you're getting the person to answer, you have a meandering conversation. You let it go where it pleases and you talk about yourself and you tell stories that make using vulnerable to, and that will help the person you're talking to open up. I think it's also important to organize your recording devices and ah, friendly way to. For instance, if you're sitting across from someone, don't put your phone or your recorder directly in between you, I would put it off to the side. The same goes for if you're taking down notes in the note pad, almost bring it to the side or under the table, but out of you so that you're still making as much eye contact with possible with your subject. The other thing is, don't be afraid to tell someone or encourage someone to say some things off the record. Some people will be afraid to share stories because they are they're embarrassing or they might get them in some legal trouble, or or whatever. You can tell someone before you start interviewing them that whatever they want to be stricken off the record, you will perfectly respect that. What I've found is that by letting people talk about it and when they tell a story and they're afraid to tell it, or they're reluctant to tell it, letting them tell that and then decide after the fact, if they want to keep it, will usually change their mind and let you keep that story just cause, especially if it's a good story. 7. Writing: So now you've gotten all your leg work done. You've gotten all the information you need to write your story. Now comes the writing port. And this is where I think you're going to test some of your morals and ethics because you have to ask yourself the question. Who are you writing for? And the answer to that question always is the reader you are not writing for the people that you interviewed. So what will happen is you are going to potentially put these people who you met and became friends with and who you gained your trust. You're going to write about them and perhaps paint them in a less than favorable light. That's just part of the deal you're going tohave to right as truthfully as you possibly can . And that means sometimes hurting the feelings of your subjects. I've been in this position where I wrote a story about the owner of a pedi cab business in a small beach town, and he was very anxious and cloying and, uh, the same time it is very nice and accommodating, but it was very clear to me he wanted me to make him look very good But in my writing, if I was being honest, uh, he didn't look so good. And neither did his company. And so while I was writing it, I had to remember that this wasn't an advertorial for this business, man. This was a story about petty cabs on this small island and all the weird stuff that happens . So he probably didn't like the way that it turned out because he wouldn't return my calls afterwards. But that's part of the deal. And I have to emphasize that when you write it, however you write it, I always think about your reader. 8. Getting Published: All right, So now you finished your essay. The next logical step is to get published. This can be a very frustrating and sometimes futile effort. But I suggest you try it. And if your essay I think fits somewhere your projects, I will be sure to do what I can to help you get published. But on your own, I think the first things to consider our don't necessarily aim for the top tier publications submitting to places like The New York Times and The Washington Post in The New Yorker and Atlantic and Harper's all those places very, very competitive, very hard to get in. But what people tend to forget is that there are thousands and thousands of local publications and every town in towns throughout the United States that are looking for writers. The state of the publishing industry today, especially the magazine industry, is pretty bleak. A lot of magazines have to lay off employees or they're not full time employees, and so there are very few staff writers, and there's lots of opportunity to get published. So my suggestion is to look at your local publications. Oh, if you've written about your subculture, it means that the very physical thing it exists in the town, and so chances are a magazine will show some interest in publishing it. The other advantage of local publications is that they're still in print, and getting a byline getting published in a glossy magazine feels very good. And so I would recommend instead of trying to, uh, get bylines in national publications. Think local first. In order to get in touch with editors, it's important to have a direct line of communication. Sometimes you can get staff writers, email or phone number, and you can talk to them and they'll give you three editors address. But oftentimes you'll have to find it scouring the Internet, sometimes online in the contact information of the bottom of the Web page. You'll find email formats or context that will let you pitch and contribute. But it's important to remember that editors, when you do get a hold of them, are some of the busiest people on earth. On top of that, they have 80 HD, and so sometimes it requires gentle reminders to them. When pitching, I would suggest writing a very brief, summary ization of your story, perhaps including the essay. If it's totally finished but 3 to 4 sentences, you know, just a regular elevator pitch. And that way the editor won't be exhausted if you go on and on and we'll just ignore your email if the editor doesn't get back to you right away, Um, it doesn't mean that they rejected you, sometimes just slips their mind, So I would suggest every couple of days or so. If you haven't heard back, send a gentle reminder that you are looking forward to working with them, and you want to know the state of the article that you've written when submitting to different publications. Consider the publications tone the angle if your article will fit in it. For instance, if I write a story about pickup basketball, I'm not going to submit it to home living That really won't fit subculture. Writing is inherently specializing. You're going to start focusing on subcultures that fit within a particular purview, and that's a good thing. It's important to create your own niche that way. You have previous bylines that you can show to editors, and you will get more work that way in Italy, more likely that they'll accept your work. And don't be afraid to take leaps of faith. Submit to, uh, top tier publications. When I was in Tel Aviv, I noticed that there were German flags flying everywhere. This was during the 2014 World Cup. Um, I couldn't believe it, that there were these Jewish Israelis who were rooting for the German national soccer team . My grandmother, who was Jewish, wouldn't even set foot inside of a Mercedes, so I thought that was kind of peculiar. So I collected all of my editorial contacts, and I sent about two dozen emails pitching this story and within an hour actually had heard back from the editor of G. Q. And he thought was a good story. He told me, Write about it that night and send it in the morning and I did, and I got a pretty cool byline out of it. 9. Epilogue: Now that you have all the tools necessary to write about your subculture, it's time to go outside and to do your class project to write your talk of the town subculture. Writing is rich. There is no limit to the amount of things that can be written. The first and most difficult step is showing up once you're there. Once you observe, once you interact, you'll see how easily this story comes. I can't wait to read your essays and to find out which subcultures you guys have discovered and remember that I will give notes and feedback. And if I see potential in article, I will more than happily share my editorial contacts with you so that you can get your piece published. Thank you for watching and good luck.