Colorado College senior Jesse Paul completed a non-fiction book about his experiences as a journalist reporting on violent crime. This book marks the completion of his creative writing thesis. Paul is in the fiction-writing track of the creative writing major that normally requires students to compose a fictional novel or series of short stories.
Paul planned to write fiction until his thesis advisor, Stephen Hayward, asked him: “Why are you writing fiction if you’re a journalist?”
Paul responded, “I thought I had to because I’m a fiction-writing major.”Hayward told him to write non-fiction instead. Paul bucked precedence when he took Hayward’s advice and embarked on the first ever non-fiction creative writing thesis.
“It was a kind of just an experiment for me and Steve,” Paul said.
Paul titled his book Crime Stories. Crime Storiescollects Paul’s experiences as a crime reporter for his hometown paper in Delaware, The News Journal, and The Gazette here in Colorado Springs. Paul used his thesis as an opportunity “to talk about the stuff I couldn’t put in the newspaper, which includes the emotions, and what it was like to have to deal with some of this stuff as a nineteen-year-old.”
Journalism is designed to exclude the reporter’s emotion from the writing. The reporter must assume an objective lens, which is often artificial because humans are inherently emotional beings. Tempering emotion is extremely difficult especially when reporting on violent crime.
Paul struggled to remove his emotions when he first began reporting on violent crimes.
“One thing I really struggled with my first homicide was I was only supposed to put name, age, date, time, and very basic facts about this kid who’d been killed,” Paul said. “I felt like I wasn’t doing this person who died justice.”
Paul struggled to suppress his desire to do justice to those affected by crime. Over time and with an increasing amount of experience Paul found the equilibrium between doing those affected by violent crime justice and reporting the facts.
“I think if you’re a good journalist, you find ways to tell the story that’s in the background,” Paul said. “This is what a lot of the narrative of my book is about.”
The medium of newsprint only allows for so much of “the story that’s in the background,”and it certainly does not allow the reporter to express emotion.
“Generally speaking, you have to take yourself completely out of the story,” Paul said.
The long-form non-fiction format allowed Paul to delve into his experiences while reporting on these often-horrific crimes, and to acknowledge the effects they have had on him. Paul acknowledged that the transition to the non-fiction medium was difficult.
“One of the things I struggled with was that the process is so much different than journalism because putting myself in the story is just a crazy thing,” Paul said.
His resistance to including himself in his narrative was exposed during the drafting and editing process.
“Every time my peers would read [a draft] or my professors they’d say you need to put yourself more in the story. ‘We can tell you’re holding back.’”
The difficult transition between journalism and long-form non-fiction was not the only inhibitor Paul faced during the process.
“It was kind of hard to reflect on some of the crazier things I’ve seen,” Paul said. “I’d come home from one of these stories and try to decompress.”
Paul reflected on the process of writing his book.
“It makes me appreciate what I did a little bit more because when you’re in the moment, you just have to deal with it and write about it,” Paul said.
Writing the thesis helped solidify these experiences in his emotional universe, or at least allowed him to acknowledge the effect they have had on him.
Externalizing and defining his experiences through writing proved a healthy emotional review mechanism for Paul. More importantly, the process allowed Paul to tell the “story that’s in the background”of the people who he reported on. The book allowed him to do them justice.
“I dedicated my thesis to a sixteen-year-old who was killed, who I followed around and wrote a story about,” Paul said. “He was completely innocent. Having the ability to dedicate everything to him was really nice. Felt good.”