a blog, newsletter, and kaleidoscope notebook about politics, the media, and culture
by tom bunting, a Real Journalist

Notes on It's Friday and my Brother is Dying

On Writing and Designing a Story That Completely Sucks

I hate writing about myself and I hate the idea of mortality. Unfortunately, these two subjects collided last fall, when my brother suddenly fell gravely ill. I left everything in Boston and went home to be with my family in the hospital for two weeks. This happened at the beginning of my semester and I had just started a Literary Journalism class. I’d had the professor before, so when I sent an email updating him on the situation a week into it, I guess he felt comfortable enough to suggest I start taking notes and make this story my project for the semester. Frankly, I didn’t have a better idea and that was kinda stressing me out, so I decided to go for it.


"It's Friday and My Brother is Dying" is a long-form personal essay with a magazine-style presentation. You can read it by clicking this link. This article describes the process of creating the project.

You can see the culmination of the project—a final draft that I’ve laid out in a magazine style longform design—by the box above. It’s far and away the most personal thing I’ve ever written, a disgustingly honest attempt at reckoning with something completely beyond my control impacting one of the people I love most in the world. It was painful to write and I hated every second of the process, but I’m pretty proud of the result.

It’s funny, I usually love writing; it’s one of my favorite things to do. This was not my favorite thing to do. I spent an entire semester staring at a blank document, occasionally writing something that made me cringe, and then deleting it all and walking away. Everything either felt too sanitized or just completely cliche. “My brother cough and stared out the window” or “his chest compounded as the darkness inside him attempted to leap out, he looked out the window at the city he loved”, with absolutely nothing in between.

I missed a bunch of initial deadlines, and only managed to crank out a draft after forcing myself to stay up all night writing right before Thanksgiving break. My professor gave me an A on my first draft and I cried reading his notes on the subway to the airport. It felt really good to know I was on the right track.

At the end of the semester, the piece got published on the class’s Wordpress blog, which frankly felt like a terrible way to present 4000 words online. For that much of a time commitment, I feel like the reader should at least be looking at something visually pleasing. I’ve taken a crack at a better way of presenting this story (again,only after procrastinating for months), and I do think it’s better than before.

My guiding design principle was an emphasis on clean typography. The biggest point of reference was, oddly, long articles on Medium. You can say a lot about Medium’s woes as a publisher, but I don't think there’s a single website that presents long blocks of text as cleanly and pleasingly. I took a lot of inspiration from them in terms of text spacing and size from them.

One thing I struggled with was the presentation of images. There’s a lot of photos that I took when I was in the hospital, but they were all taken on my phone and they all look kinda shitty. Tilting them slightly and adding the frame gives it a bit of a style, I think.

I came away from this project with an appreciation for personal narrative writing and some experience designing magazine style features online. I feel like that is useful but, as you can probably tell by my tortured prose right now, I look forward to never looking at any of this again.

Back to complaining about Vice’s new CEO!