I Went to Yale -- Sort Of
A couple months ago, I saw an ad for Thread at Yale on Romenesko. It's basically a new three-day writing conference at Yale, although it describes itself as "a gathering of professional journalists and storytellers that does not care whether you work in print, radio, podcasting, or some form we haven’t even thought of yet." It's a hybrid event: there are lectures, Q&A's at bars, and workshops. The cost: around $2K if you choose to stay at the Yale dorms. So, I applied and was accepted. This was the inaugural Thread at Yale, and here's how, for me, it went, the pros and the cons.
The main reason I went is because Yale. I mean, you know, it sounds fancy. I went to the University of California at Berkeley, which is not the Yale of anything. True to form, Yale didn't disappoint. I had imagined it as "where the one-percent go to school," and a lot of it looked like a church dedicated to elitism. And I mean that as a compliment. Yale is like Berkeley, but with way less communists and, as far as I know, no one going to class naked.
The speakers were super cool
The second reason I went: the impressive mentors lineup. The most famous mentor there would be Steven Brill, founder of CourtTV and Important Person in Media. He's also behind the Yale Journalism Initiative, and Thread is an "offshoot" of that. He was the second speaker on the first day. I wanted to like him, and I even hit him up about his mysterious media project with Jill Abramson, but for some reason he reminded me of Roy Cohn. He spent a lot of time sneering at most topics that were raised, which was sort of unfun. Suffice to say, Steven Brill is not my spirit animal. By contrast, Glynn Washington was the first person who spoke on the first morning, and he was endearing -- example: "Stories are magic." There were two evening events at bars, one featuring Emily Bazelon and the other featuring Gillian Laub. They were OK, but there was a bucket of beer being handed around, and Laub said "I" so many times it made me want to stick my head in the bucket. The second morning, we heard Steve Brodner speak, and he was hilarious and smart and irreverent, although I had to go take a call (journalism related!) in the middle of it, so I missed part of it. After Brodner, Catherine Burns, who's the artistic director of The Moth spoke, and she got way upstaged by the guy she brought with her, Matthew Dicks, who did a Moth story live about the day he died (and came back to life, obviously) that made me have feels, which was good if you want to have feels. (Seriously, it was great. It made me want to cry.) The last morning, we heard from John Branch, who was the most amazing of all the speakers, and who talked a lot about "Snow Fall," which was intoxicating and made you want to work for the NYT. That shit was inspiring. The last speaker on the last day was Ann Fadiman, who I thought was a bit meh, but she told a highly hilarious story about Tina Brown, and who doesn't like a good Tina Brown story?
I loved my mentor
Other mentors weren't there to lecture; they were there to lead the workshops we did in the afternoons. Reportedly, there were 72 attendees, and we were put in six groups of twelve, and we spent three hours every afternoon for three days with the same group workshopping whatever individual project we were working on in our real lives. The workshop mentors were: Mark Oppenheimer, Sarah Stillman, Jake Halpern, Graeme Wood, Roya Hakakian, and Linda Gradstein. My mentor was Sarah Stillman, who writes for The New Yorker, and is a deeply awesome person. She ended up being my I'm So Glad I Went. (Read her "The Invisible Army" if you haven't.) I heard one of the mentors (not mine) was not good at time management, and some of that group's participants were disappointed by the consequences of that.
The biggest issue was ...
I felt like a good-sized chunk of the attendees were a disappointing lot. Some attendees were great. I met some really awesome people, and I hope I made some friends, and there were some young people there that I learned from and who were awesome. But the group of attendees was about -- I don't know, like, 80% women? And that's just never a good thing. I wondered why this was the case with several people. Why so man ladies? Somebody thought it's because Thread used the word "storytelling" a lot in describing itself, and that sounded like some lady shit. Another person thought that it's because men don't think they need mentors, and women don't mind asking for help. At one point, some chick was knitting in the back of the room during a lecture, and it made me want to grab the needles and stab out my eyes. I guess because Yale and because High Caliber Mentors, I thought this would be a group of brilliant, hostile, drunken, ambitious male and female journalists who would be violently dissecting each other's work, drinking too much, and engaging in non-stop witty repartee. Instead, it felt more like a support group for women who wanted to tell their stories, but were like, oh, gee, I don't know, I need validation and permission, and there was way too much hand-holding, and getting along, and nurturing. Nurturing is to vom. I would not go back for this reason. I don't need a support group. I need a friendly flogging. But, hey, that's me. Knit on, sister, or whatever. (There were a lot of inexperienced people among the attendees. Or at least it seemed like it. I would have liked more experienced people. More rigor. More cranky veterans from the field. At one point, I looked around and wondered where they were, these working journalists who are fearless and don't need permission for anything, and then I realized they were out there doing stories and being cranky in the field. They were not at this event. I suppose this is what happens when the barrier to entry is money, not talent. C'est la thread.)
A bit of the bait and switch
I felt like because there was so much stressing of multimedia in Thread's description of itself on its website, that I would really learn a lot about multimedia. I did not. Sure, there were people from NPR and people from The Moth and photographers and a political cartoonist as speakers, but I wanted to learn more about how "Snow Fall" gets made, and how I can make a "Snow Fall," and what are the tools available to me, and how do I integrate words and these tech tricks, and there was none of that other than Branch. That made me feel baited and switched. So that was disappointing. Fix that for next time, Thread at Yale.
But what about those dorms
I stayed in the Yale dorms. Maybe the architecture was Brutalist, and the room looked like a Chinese prison. But, whatever. The twin bed did the job. I had a roommate. We each had our own bedroom. I mean, it was a dorm room, for fuck's sake. (If I had to go again and wanted to be fancy, I would stay at The Study.)
For fuck's sake, what did you eat and drink already
Ordinary is a super cool bar in New Haven. Recommend. Mory's is fucking bizarre. Probably the most WASPy place I've ever been in, and I don't get why you keep doing your Yale chants. For sure the only time George H. W. Bush and I have been in the same club. We ate breakfast (included!) in some Yale cafeteria with a giant moose head on the wall.
Someone at the start of the conference, a leader, indicated we were not to quote with attribution what was said at the conference. At least, that's what I and others understood him to say. (Here's me not doing that: It was Mark Oppenheimer who said it.) Are you fucking kidding me? Tell writers what they can't write. That's how you start off your writing gathering. Sign me out. Thank you for not successfully censoring me.
Here's the thing
Am I glad I went? Yes. I learned a lot in the margins. In the spaces between events, and in the random connections with cool people, and in the time I spent walking around and feeling like, you know, I'm a writer, and I'm good at this, and this is great. I happened to embark on another journalism project with a great publication at the same time, so I'm really excited about that. I took one road there, and being there kind of led me down another, and while I believe in Janet Malcolm wholeheartedly ("Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible"), and I wish people who choose to tell stories would spend less time pretending their committing some valiant act and more time admitting they're parasites upon the human race, I felt invigorated by the fact that I was, at least, you know, thinking about these things, and grappling with these things, and not sitting at a fucking computer staring at some screen waiting for me to put something on it. At one point during the event, as part of The Moth presentation, we watched an excerpt from this story, the late Mike DeStefano talking about his wife, who was dying of AIDS. At one point, he says, "You know, and we're junkies. You know, we were junkies. We were different. We were fucking freaks. People crossed the street when they saw me, you know? And her. She was a prostitute. She was a fucking drug addict." Great stories are not about $2K conferences at Yale, offering each other nurturing support, and vague stories about some love affair you have had with a narrative that goes nowhere. It's about peeling back your skin and exposing yourself, going deep and revealing the unseen, being out in the field and forgetting about what everyone else's doing as the story unspools before you. Don't be safe. Be brave. Stop asking for permission. Do the stories. The hard ones. Easy is bullshit.
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