Story and photos by Austin Hicks
During winter term last year, my J-100 Media Professions course welcomed a visit from Peter Laufer, the UO School of Journalism and Communication’s James N. Wallace Chair of Journalism Professor. He talked about his work as an author, including a recently published book about the illegal butterfly trade and a work in progress on turtles. He also shared a bit of information about a course he was teaching the following term, PageTurners.
Laufer described a course unlike any other. It meets only five days during the term. Students read only one book and write only one paper. It sounded easy! Then he went into more detail.
We would not just read, but analyze the book – “Live Through This” by Debra Gwartney was the selection for the spring term – and develop questions about both process and content for the author. Then the author would join us to hold a Q&A session, followed by a master class, public reading and informal dinner.
Though I have never considered a career in writing — journalism or otherwise — I leaped at the opportunity to learn more about the process. Gwartney’s memoir, “Live Through This: A Mother’s Memoir of Runaway Daughters and Reclaimed Love,” was a vivid recollection of her gut-wrenching story — two daughters choosing to live on the street instead of at home — and how she overcame the enormous challenges she faced. I gained more from this class than any writing, literature or reporting class I had taken before it.
When I heard that Laufer was offering PageTurners again during this fall term, I registered as fast as I could. I was interested in the book and author choice for the term: “Brain Storms: The Race to Unlock the Mysteries of Parkinson’s Disease” by Jon Palfreman, a professor emeritus in the SOJC.
Palfreman’s book provide an in-depth look at the scientific and medical battle with Parkinson’s — a battle that is also his own. He was diagnosed with the neurodegenerative disease in 2011 and has worked since then to learn as much as he can, both for his own benefit and for others.
The first session, a Q&A, focused on the questions my classmates and I had prepared for Palfreman. A theme that kept surfacing was a desire to better understand how he manages both of his roles in the book: the journalist and the patient. Palfreman said his personal interest never affected his ability to report on the findings of his research.
Palfreman also answered questions about how he goes about presenting a dense, complicated topic in a way that is approachable for the average reader. “What you’re trying to do with most nonfiction is to integrate, when possible, the human stories and the scientific content,” he said. “The scientific content, if you just wrote it down by itself, would be dry. But stories like Pam, the ballet dancer [who suffers from Parkinson’s and teaches dance classes for other patients] give you a good basis for a story going forward.”
During the master class the next day, Palfreman showed several clips from documentaries he has written and produced throughout his career. He talked about how his career as a documentarian shaped his writing.
“Documentary making is like a jigsaw: You have to be ready to move pieces around,” he said. “You have to be ready to put up with a lot of editorial editing. And getting the structure right is what ultimately makes a readable book that you can read in a weekend or a few days.”
His focus on creating a story and setting a strong scene was also a common thread throughout his visit. “Scenes and characters are as important in writing nonfiction books as they are in documentaries,” he said.
The final piece of the course was a fun, informal dinner with Palfreman, Laufer, students in the course and several other university faculty members. This provided us, as students, a unique opportunity to share a dinner with the author of the book we spent an entire course reading, analyzing and discussing. It gave everyone an opportunity to ask questions without the formality of a classroom and to share stories and jokes. One joke, albeit one with a sobering dose of stark reality, that Palfreman shared made an impression on me: “Parkinson’s is not a death sentence. It’s a life sentence, and you have to optimize how you live.”
This PageTurners course, like the one before it, gave me an incredible opportunity to grow as a student, a journalist and a person. I learned new skills and gained knowledge on a wide range of topics, from the science of Parkinson’s to the process of setting scenes to build better books and documentaries. Laufer teaches this course in a way I have never seen before — taking the back seat and letting the students and guest speakers dictate the direction. The end result was a course I will never forget.
Austin Hicks is an aspiring photojournalist pursuing a degree in journalism with a minor in business administration. He plans to join the SOJC’s Media in Ghana program next summer and to graduate at the end of the fall 2017 term. You can find more of his work at imaust.in or on Instagram @hiimaustinh.