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College Writers Exit ‘Bubble,’ Experience the Upper Valley

  • Some of the "40 Towns" writers and editors look at maps of the area towns they wrote about in an undated photograph. Sitting left to right are Katie Kilkenny, Assistant Editor Danny Valdes and Madison Pauly. Standing left to right are Lindsay Ellis, Assistant Editor Kelsey Stimson and Kendall Madden. (Dartmouth College - Eli Burakian)

    Some of the "40 Towns" writers and editors look at maps of the area towns they wrote about in an undated photograph. Sitting left to right are Katie Kilkenny, Assistant Editor Danny Valdes and Madison Pauly. Standing left to right are Lindsay Ellis, Assistant Editor Kelsey Stimson and Kendall Madden. (Dartmouth College - Eli Burakian)

  • Some of the "40 Towns" writers and editors look at maps of the area towns they wrote about in an undated photograph. Sitting left to right are Katie Kilkenny, Assistant Editor Danny Valdes and Madison Pauly. Standing left to right are Lindsay Ellis, Assistant Editor Kelsey Stimson and Kendall Madden. (Dartmouth College - Eli Burakian)

For his class in literary journalism at Dartmouth College, Nate Kania put himself out of his element.

In search of a story early last spring, he drove down to West Lebanon, where he spotted a woman panhandling at the entrance to one of the plazas. He grabbed a coffee and a muffin for the woman at the plaza, then went over and sat down with her. Right away he was met with a fierce, but friendly character. A man driving by handed over half a pizza, Kania wrote.

“I love the old hippies,” the woman tells me. She offers me some pizza. “Help yourself if you’re hungry. No way I’m gonna be able to finish all that.” By now, I’ve reduced my coffee to an empty Styrofoam shell, and the wind has blown it away. I open the pizza box. Little Caesars. It’s warm pepperoni. There are five slices. I take one. I’m eating a homeless person’s pizza.

It isn’t the kind of experience one might usually associate with a Dartmouth class, particularly an English class. But that’s the point of 40 Towns, an online literary journal started by professor Jeff Sharlet for the express purpose of sending students in his creative nonfiction class outside the college’s cocoon and forcing them to play for higher stakes. Publication, at www.40towns.com, is a great motivator.

“I’m also in favor of terror and shame,” said Sharlet, a highly decorated investigative journalist and Dartmouth’s first tenure-track professor in nonfiction writing. “People are going to read this; people out in the world. It’s also online and it’s not going to go away.”

For its first, and so far only issue, 40 Towns writers have gone speed dating in White River Junction, spent time at the Shady Lawn Motel, chatted up some of the crustier regulars at Lebanon’s The Fort truck stop, followed a woman who rides her Harley with the Vermont Patriot Guard Riders, got to know the enigmatic actress and counselor Faith Catlin and profiled two women who were getting out of prison. The stories on 40 Towns are less about the facts than they are about the texture of life in the Upper Valley.

“This is going to be the publication that I wanted when I got here,” Sharlet said.

For the course, students read works by Joan Didion, James Agee, John McPhee and other masters of literary journalism, Sharlet’s preferred term for the type of writing he wants students to produce. While it lacks a set form, literary journalism is characterized by immersion in the subject’s world, deep reporting, stylish writing and a distinctive voice and point of view.

The students also subscribe to the Valley News, which they are told to read less for the page one news than for the small details — news briefs, classified ads, calendar listings and other minutiae that might yield a story idea.

Sharlet assigned students to turn their gaze away from campus after a couple of false starts. At first, he thought he would have his creative writing students find stories at Dartmouth, but it didn’t work, he said.

Eva Xiao, a Dartmouth senior who served as editor of 40 Towns, said it’s hard to get perspective on Dartmouth from the inside. “I think your perception might be warped a little bit,” she said. “It’s like if I tried to write about my sister, it would be hard to be honest,” because of their familial bond.

So Sharlet sent them out into the community, and eventually felt he had to find a life for their writing beyond the classroom. “These students would write great things, and then it disappears,” he said. Every term, he added, “somebody writes something that I envy.”

The regional focus of 40 Towns — the title is a reference to the 40 towns that surround Lebanon and Hartford, an area similar to the Valley News’ coverage area of 46 towns — is what makes it interesting, Sharlet said.

“I think it’s exotic,” Sharlet said of the Upper Valley. “This place is more this place than almost any place we’ve been in the United States.” Even a town like Woodstock, which has a high proportion of second homes, is interesting because of its wealth, he said.

Because the students enter the Upper Valley from what has long been called “the Dartmouth bubble,” that safe, well-appointed space is generally present in their writing. Lindsay Ellis, who spent hours at the counter at The Fort, described talking to a table full of older men, some she knew, some she was just meeting:

It might be because I’m far from the people I recognize, or because their mo vements are so much bigger than I remember. Maybe it’s because I’m so overwhelmed by their combined ages that I cannot pretend to hold my own. But for the first time at The Fort, I don’t want to order food or linger at the counter. I want to drink my cup of coffee and drive away and re-enter the College-On-The-Hill’s bubble that feels so far from the Americana décor and country music and ever-present smell of bacon.

In leaving the bubble, the Dartmouth students were walking, some of them for the first time, into squishy territory about class, journalism ethics and voyeurism. As Sharlet noted, a reporter’s access to sources is easier going down the economic ladder than up, hence all the stories about the homeless, about a truckstop, about a transient hotel in White River Junction, about people looking for companionship. Ordinary, vulnerable people.

“In a lot of ways, I don’t really like the piece that I wrote,” Xiao said of her experience trying speed dating. She changed the names in her story, but still, “if I had been someone at that event and I read my piece, I wouldn’t have been so happy,” she said. She wouldn’t have said to the people at the speed-dating night the kind of words she wrote about them, but then a writer is in service to her readers, not her subjects. That’s a challenge in a small community, where readers and subjects are often one and the same, and you can count on running into the people you write about at the grocery store.

The insulation of the Dartmouth bubble changes that transaction. Xiao, a computer science major, isn’t likely to run into any of her speed-dating partners and the aim of her project is to sharpen a point of view:

I’m not sure if he considers me as a potential match or if these five minutes are just an opportunity for him to flirt with someone two generations younger than him. In any case, I can’t take him seriously. Especially at the end of our five-minute session when he suddenly puts on a pair of enormous glasses that cover half his cheeks. They remind me of photos of my parents from the ’90s.

Xiao’s unease about her writing is a sign of an active conscience, something all the work in 40 Towns displays. Nate Kania felt a certain kinship with Tecumsah, the free-spirited homeless woman he wrote about. As a creative writing major, he feels a bit footloose and uncertain about his future, and expressed his doubts in his story.

“I just sort of kept going back to her,” Kania said. When Tecumsah and her two dogs moved up to Vermont’s Mad River Valley, Kania drove up there. He found her drinking and smoking pot in a cemetery behind a supermarket and followed her to a party with some of her friends. He’s honest about his own experience and about hers.

He realized that his buddies on campus were drinking and taking it easy in their off hours, blowing off steam. “The sun shines on everybody,” Kania said, laughing at how pat, and how true, that phrase is.

Sharlet is working on a book this term, so 40 Towns is taking a break. There are a few stories in the works. Kania will start work this winter on a creative nonfiction thesis set in the Upper Valley.

40 Towns will be a success if it sends students into the writing business. Journalism is a way for a writer to keep afloat and independent, outside the academy, Sharlet said. Dartmouth already has pathways into finance and politics, but writers need some experience.

The existing paths lead into bubbles of their own. Kania is a creative writing major, but he’s taken “a healthy dose” of economics classes. In his story, he jokes that he’ll probably go work in finance and hate himself for it. He grew up in a leafy Boston suburb. He’s on Dartmouth’s heavyweight crew. His dad worked for an offshoot of Bain & Co., the high-powered consulting firm.

At Dartmouth, “you do sort of get a sense that maybe not a majority, but a vocal group of people are in it to make money,” Kania said.

“I think it’s like any kind of elite culture. Your worries are kind of scaled differently,” said Xiao. Her fellow seniors might have consulting jobs lined up, but they want to be at one of the top three consulting firms. “When we graduate, we’ll be in the same elite strata.”

But through writing, they’ve broken out of the bubble, and maybe, Xiao said, they can find a way to keep interacting with people on the outside.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3219.