Throughout the book, I've used examples from some of the top creative nonfiction writers to illustrate the use of fiction techniques in nonfiction writing. This final chapter takes a look at specific applications—history and biography, personal histories (memoir), travel, nature, science and technology, and journalism, or "hard" news. If you're a teacher, you might ask students to identify the fiction techniques being used in each excerpt. I hope, too, that when you read these short excerpts you'll be inspired to read the complete book or article. I've used only the best, so you're in for a treat.
History and biography are more closely related than an "and" between them would imply. I'm not the first person to think about their close relationship. Emerson's biographer Jean Strouse wrote that Emerson had said, "There is properly no history, only biography." In "The Real Reasons," collected in Extraordinary Lives, Strouse says, "Good biographers combine the arts of the novelist, the detective work of the historian, and the insights of the psychologist."
The great American biologist, Leon Edel, says in his book Writing Lives:
The writing of lives is a department of history and is closely related to the discoveries of history. It can claim the same skills. No lives are led outside history or society; they take place in human time. No biography is complete unless it reveals the individual within history, within an ethos and a social complex. In saying this we remember Donne: No man is an island unto himself.
In a later chapter ("Dilemmas"), Edel quotes the founder of the new biography, Lytton Strachey, describing biography as "the most delicate and humane of all the branches of the art of writing." "Delicate," Edel added, "because the biographer seeks to restore a sense of life to the inert materials that survive an individual's passage on this earth— seeks to recapture some part of what was once tissue and brains, and above all, feeling, and to shape a likeness of the vanished figure."
Edel then gives what amounts to a credo for writers of creative nonfiction within the "new biography":
The writer of biography must be neat and orderly and logical in describing this elusive flamelike human spirit which delights in defying order and neatness and logic. The biographer may be as imaginative as he pleases—the more imaginative the better—in the way in which he brings together his materials, but he must not imagine the materials. He must read himself into the past; but he must also read the past into the present. He must judge the facts, but he must not sit in judgment. He must respect the dead—but he must tell the truth.
In his chapter, "The New Biography," Edel presents four of his principles of biographic writing, and then sums up the chapter with a list of devices the new biographer legitimately steals from the fiction writer, all of which will sound familiar to students of creative nonfiction.
And the task and duty of biographical narrative is to sort out themes and patterns, not dates and mundane calendar events which sort themselves. This can be accomplished by use of those very devices that have given narrative strength to fiction— flashbacks, retrospective chapters, summary chapters, jumps of the future, forays into the past—that is the way we live and move; art can be derived from this knowledge.
Let's read a few examples of how some historians and biographers apply that credo and those fiction techniques to make their work more interesting, yet just as informative as other historians and biographers we may have read.
Under Prince Henry's stimulus, Lagos, a few miles along the coast from Sagres, became a center for caravel-building. Oak for keels came from Alentejo, bordering on the Algarve. Pine for the hulls grew along Portugal's Atlantic seaboard, where it was protected by law. The cluster pines also produced resin to waterproof the rigging and to calk the seams of the hull. Around Lagos there soon developed the flourishing crafts of sail-making and rope-making. While Prince Henry at Sagres did not actually build a modern research institute, he did bring together all the essential ingredients. He collected the books and charts, the sea captains, pilots, and mariners, the map-makers, instrument-makers, and compass-makers, the shipbuilders and carpenters, and other craftsmen, to plan voyages, to assess the findings, and to prepare expeditions ever farther out into the unknown. The work Prince Henry started would never end.
Daniel J. Boorstin
Whether Pitt [England's secretary of state in 1756] possessed the strategic eye, whether the expeditions he launched were part of a considered combination, may be questioned. Now, as at all times, his policy was a projection on to a vast screen of his own aggressive, dominating personality. In the teeth of disfavour and obstruction he had made his way to the foremost place in Parliament, and now at last fortune, courage, and the confidence of his countrymen had given him a stage on which his gifts could be displayed and his foibles indulged. To call into life and action the depressed and languid spirit of England; to weld all her resources of wealth and manhood into a single instrument of war which should be felt from the Danube to the Mississippi; to humble the house of Bourbon, to make the Union Jack supreme in every ocean, to conquer, to command, and never to count the cost, whether in blood or gold—this was the spirit of Pitt____
Winston S. Churchill
A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Volume III: The Age of Revolution
If any decade could be called the decade of the consumer, it was the fifties: the money rolled in, the living was easy, appetites expanded, and television nightly tickled greed. Twice in that decade the Bureau of Labor Statistics revised the consumer price index to make it reflect the changes in what the average American bought with his pay—an ever smaller percentage, it turned out, for food. Likewise for clothing. But more and more on housing, more and more for leisure, more and more for doctors and medicine. All essentials were easily met by the rising economy, but luxuries and indulgences, what the economists call "discretionary purchasing power," were themselves becoming an essential to the growing national economy, the growing national market. We at Colliers wanted our share of this growing market, but we were being shouldered away from the trough.
Theodore H. White
"The Fifties: Incubating the Storm," In Search of History
So it could happen badly with him [Ulysses S. Grant] when he was alone and cut off and the evils of life came down about him. Marooned in California, far from his family, tormented by money problems, bored by the pointless routine of a stagnant army post under a dull and unimaginative colonel, he could turn to drink to escape. He could do the same thing back in Missouri as a civilian, working hard for a meager living, all the luck breaking badly, drifting into failure at forty, Sam Grant the ne'er-do-well. Deep in Tennessee, likewise, sidetracked by a jealous and petty-minded superior, the awful strain of Shiloh lying ineradicable on his mind, his career apparently ready to end just as it was being reborn, the story could be the same. There was a flame in him, and there were times when he could not keep the winds from the outer dark from blowing in on him and making it flicker. But it never did go out.
"Glory Is Out of Date," A Stillness at Appomattox
In the White House Robert Lincoln and John Hay sit gossiping pleasantly, Nicolay away at the Fort Sumter flag-raising. The doors burst open and several voices at once tell them the news. They run downstairs, take a carriage, cannot quite believe what they have heard. Slowly their carriage plows a path through the gathering thousands of people around Tenth Street. Dr. Stone gravely and tenderly tells Robert the worst: there is no hope. He chokes. The tears run down his face. After a time he recovers and does his best during hours of the night at comforting his mother.
At about the same hour and minute of the clock that the President is shot in Ford's Theatre, a giant of a young man rides on a big one-eyed bay horse to the door of the Seward house on Lafayette Square, gets off his horse, rings the doorbell, says he is a messenger from the attending physician and has a package of medicine that must be personally delivered to the sickroom of the Secretary of State. The servant at the door tries to stop the young man, who enters and goes up the stairs, suddenly to turn in a furious rush on Fred Seward, beating him on the head with the pistol, tearing the scalp, fracturing the skull and battering the pistol to pieces.
Abraham Lincoln: The War Years
The commander of the division to which I belonged, as soon as we were on board the ship, appointed me boatswain, and ordered me to go to the captain and demand of him the keys to the hatches and a dozen candles. I made the demand accordingly, and the captain promptly replied, and delivered the articles; but requested me at the same time to do no damage to the ship or rigging. We then were ordered by our commander to open the hatches, and take out all the chests of tea and thrown them overboard, and we immediately proceeded to execute his orders; first cutting and splitting the chest with our tomahawks, so as thoroughly to expose them to the effects of the water. In about three hours from the time we went on board, we had thus broken and thrown overboard every tea chest to be found in the ship; while those in the other ships were disposing of the tea in the same way, at the same time. We were surrounded by British armed ships, but no attempt was made to resist us. We then quietly retired to our several places of residence, without having any conversation with each other, or taking any measures to discover who were our associates.
Alfred F. Young The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution
The next morning, the Caird gave a sudden, sickening roll leeward; the painter carrying the sea anchor had been severed by a block of ice that formed on it, out of reach. Beating the ice off the canvas, the men scrambled to unfurl the frozen sails, and once they succeeded in raising them, headed the Caird into the wind. It was on this day, May 2, that McNish abruptly gave up any attempt to keep a diary.
"We held the boat up to the gale during that day, enduring as best we could discomforts that amounted to pain," wrote Shackleton, in an uncharacteristically direct reference to their physical suffering. The men were soaked to the bone and frostbitten. They were badly chafed by wet clothes that had not been removed for seven months, and afflicted with saltwater boils. Their wet feet and legs were a sickly white color and swollen. Their hands were black—with grime, blubber, burns from the Primus and frostbite. The least movement was excruciating.
"We sat as still as possible," wrote Worsley. "[I]f we moved a quarter of an inch one way or the other we felt cold, wet garments on our flanks and sides. Sitting very still for a while, life was worth living." Hot meals afforded the only relief. Shackleton ensured that the men had hot food every four hours during the day and scalding powdered milk every four hours of the long night watches.
The Endurance: Shackleton s Legendary Antarctic Expedition
Students at The Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, associated with the University of Maine and located in Portland, produce an annual book, Omnibus, in which they publish writings and photographs of life in Maine. This article, "Pounding Ash," documents Native American basketmaking as practiced in the past.
Moose spits on his hands and twirls the ax between them, studying the brown ash log in front of him. He lifts the ax over one shoulder, his right hand at the base of the ax, his left hand near its head. His hands join as he brings the blunt end down hard over the brown ash log he has already stripped of bark. The sound echoes through the Pleasant Point Passamaquoddy reservation, bouncing off his neighbor's house, reverberating even after the initial impact. He immediately lifts the ax again above his head, brings it down, and that sound echoes once more through the reservation. It is rhythmical, powerful.
When they finish pounding, Moose uses his ax to notch two places at the end of the log. It is an ax that has been in Moose's family for at least four generations of basketmakers. It has pounded so many logs that the blunt end of its iron head has curved inward. In between the notches he pulls off a strip the length of the log and the depth off a growth ring. If he or Chris have missed even an inch while pounding, the strips Moose pulls off will not separate smoothly from the tree. Later, Moose's father, Fred Moose, Sr., will scrape the rough parts of the strip with his knife. These strips are the beginnings of a basket.
Sally Steindorf collected in Omnibus 2000
Was this article helpful?