Creative Nonfiction

When I wrote the first edition of this book, in the mid-1980s, creative nonfiction was a fairly new kid on the block. Since then, much has changed. The Internet explosion has opened up avenues for research a writer could once only have dreamed of having. That, along with the ease of in-depth research, done from the writer's desk on the now ubiquitous home computer, has contributed to the growth of the genre we now enjoy in books and articles of all kinds.

So, what is this genre of writing, variously called Personal Journalism, Literary Journalism, Dramatic Nonfiction, the New Journalism, Parajournalism, Literary Nonfiction, the New Non-fiction, Verity, the Nonfiction Novel, the Literature of Fact, the Literature of Reality, and—the name we know best—Creative Nonfiction?

Creative nonfiction tells a story using facts, but uses many of the techniques of fiction for its compelling qualities and emotional vibrancy. Creative nonfiction doesn't just report facts, it delivers facts in ways that move the reader toward a deeper understanding of a topic. Creative nonfiction requires the skills of the storyteller and the research ability of the conscientious reporter. Writers of creative non-fiction must become instant authorities on the subject of their articles or books. They must not only understand the facts and report them using quotes by authorities, they must also see beyond them to discover their underlying meaning, and they must dramatize that meaning in an interesting, evocative, informative way—just as a good teacher does.

When you write nonfiction, you are, in effect, teaching the reader. Research into how we learn shows that we learn best when we are simultaneously entertained—when there is pleasure in the learning. Other research shows that our most lasting memories are those wrapped in emotional overtones. Creative nonfiction writers inform their readers by making the reading experience vivid, emotionally compelling, and enjoyable while sticking to the facts.

This book discusses how creative nonfiction differs from traditional journalism and how techniques used in fiction—characterization, writing dramatically, using scenes, compressing information ("clumping"), developing character portraits and including character snapshots, using active instead of passive verbs—contribute to good creative nonfiction. Excerpts from the work of many fine writers are used in each chapter to illustrate the various techniques discussed. Many of the excerpts are from highly respected writers of the late 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, when this genre was just beginning to take root, and some are from more recently published works. The authors may not have considered themselves writers of creative nonfiction, but the style of their work falls into that genre. The excerpts are teaching tools, just as the books they come from can be: As with all kinds of writing, one of the best ways to learn to do it well is to read the works of the masters in the field.

Some writers are well aware of the genre they represent and have the goals of the creative nonfiction writer in mind when they sit down to compose. Dan Wakefield, in a 1966 book about the New Journalism, Between the Lines, wrote:

I am writing now for those readers—including myself—who have grown increasingly mistrustful of and bored with anonymous reports about the world, whether signed or unsigned, for those who have begun to suspect what we reporters of current events and problems so often try to conceal: that we are really individuals after all, not all-knowing, all-seeing Eyes but separate, complex, limited, particular "I"s.

Gay Talese, one of the first and best creative nonfiction writers, wrote in his 1961 book Fame and Obscurity:

The new journalism, though often reading like fiction, is not fiction. It is, or should be, as reliable as the most reliable reportage, although it seeks a larger truth than is possible through the mere accumulation of verifiable facts, the use of direct quotations, and adherence to the rigid organizational style of the older form. The new journalism allows, demands in fact, a more imaginative approach to reporting, and it permits the writer to inject himself into the narrative, if he wishes, as many writers do, or to assume the role of a detached observer, as other writers do, including myself.

In the early days of this genre, writers were required to defend their practices. Tom Wolfe, one of the primary pioneers of creative non-fiction (then called "The New Journalism"), reported in his 1973 book of the same title that he had entered this strange arena with an article in Esquire, entitled, "There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored (Thphhhhhh!) Tangerine-Flake Streamlined Baby

(Rahghhh!) Around the Bend (Brummmmmmmmm)____"

Some people said it was a sort of short story, but Wolfe defended himself:

This article was by no means a short story, despite the use of scenes and dialogue. I wasn't thinking about that all. It is hard to say what it was like. It was a garage sale, that piece... vignettes, odds and ends of scholarship, bits of memoir, short bursts of sociology, apostrophes, epithets, moans, cackles, anything that came into my head, much of it thrown together in a rough and awkward way. That was its virtue. It showed me the possibility of there being something "new" in journalism.

What interested me was not simply the discovery that it was possible to write accurate non-fiction with techniques usually associated with novels, short stories. It was that-plus. It was the discovery that it was possible in non-fiction, in journalism, to use any literary device, from the traditional dialogisms of the essay to stream-of-consciousness, and to use many different kinds simultaneously, or within a relatively short space excite the reader both intellectually and emotionally.

Creative nonfiction, though relatively new as a recognized genre of writing, has actually been done by some of the best writers for many years. Close to a century ago, in the May 1906 issue of Collier's Weekly, Jack London wrote an exemplary piece of creative nonfiction to tell "The Story of an Eyewitness," an account of the San Francisco earthquake. Here is a paragraph from that article, as it appeared in, Donald McQuade and Robert Atwan's Popular Writing in America:

By Wednesday afternoon, inside of twelve hours, half the heart of the city was gone. At that time I watched the vast conflagration from out on the bay. It was dead calm. Not a flicker of wind stirred. Yet from every side wind was pouring in on the city. East, west, north, and south, strong winds were blowing on the doomed city. The heated air rising made an enormous suck. Thus did the fire of itself build its own colossal chimney through the atmosphere. Day and night this dead calm continued, and yet, near to the flames, the wind was often half a gale, so mighty was the suck.

Although he injected himself only once—"I watched the vast conflagration"—we feel his continuing and guiding presence. Through him we feel more closely the dead calm and the strong wind. Many newspapers, even today, would not allow even this single descriptive detail. Traditional journalism seeks neutral, impersonal, "objective" reportage.

Ernest Hemingway is another early writer of what is now known as creative nonfiction. In 1937 he wrote "On the Shelling of Madrid" for the North American Newspaper Alliance. Here is an excerpt from that article, as it appeared in Shelly Fisher Fishkin's From Fact to Fiction, a study of imaginative writers who began as reporters of fact:

MADRID—At the front, a mile and a quarter away, the noise came as a heavy coughing grunt from the green pine-studded hillside opposite. There was only a gray wisp of smoke to mark the insurgent battery position. Then came the high inrushing sound, like ripping of a bale of silk. It was all going well over into the town, so, out there, nobody cared. But in town, where all the streets were full of Sunday crowds, the shells came with the sudden flash that a short circuit makes and then the roaring crash of granite-dust. During the morning, twenty-two shells came into Madrid.

They killed an old woman returning home from the market, dropping her in a huddled black heap of clothing, with one leg, suddenly detached, whirling against the wall of an adjoining house. They killed three people in another square, who lay like so many torn bundles of old clothing in the dust and rubble when the fragments of the "155" had burst against the curbing.

Although Hemingway never mentioned in the article that he was right there, we feel his presence, most intensely when he provides the reader with concrete images: First there was that gray wisp of smoke, but then there followed the images of an old woman dropped in her tracks—"a huddled black heap of clothing"—and the three others lying in another square "like torn bundles of old clothing in the dust and rubble," and the cold insertion not of simply an artillery shell but more specifically, of a "155." Although unsaid, we find it believable that someone there on the ground would likely call such a shell with a diameter of 155 mm., a "155."

Newspapers still have the corner on the market of objective reporting, but more and more, editors are making room for this newer genre of reporting. Similar to magazine features in their depth of reportage, and more like fiction in their use of scene setting, character profiling, and use of dialog, these creative nonfiction articles tell stories that go far beyond coverage of incidents and analysis of a collection of facts. A good example of this is the New York Times' series, "How Race Is Lived in America," which ran for six weeks in 2000.

The series did not purport to be creative nonfiction, but that was the approach, and the effect made for a very successful, thought-provoking exploration of the topic of race. The Times editors instructed the writers to focus not on the rhetoric and policies of race but on the daily experience of race relations in America. The writers were not to interpret for the reader what something meant but to let the reader figure it out from what the reporter observed in the field and by what people said. The writers were not limited to using only direct quotes but rather were allowed to use indirect quotes where appropriate, something you would never see in traditional reporting. More than twenty New York Times reporters and photographers worked for a year researching their stories.

In one of the articles, "The Minority Quarterback" (New York Times, July 2, 2000), Ira Berkow wrote about the first meeting between the Jacobys and the white coach trying to recruit their white son for a black university:

That day in his office, the Jacobys said they were impressed by his [coach Richardson's] quiet intellect, the way he measured his words, his determination. Indeed the president of Southern [University], Dr. Dorothy Spikes, often said that she had hired Mr. Richardson over better-known [black] candidates not just because his teams had been winners but because of his reputation for integrity, for running a clean program____

Coach Richardson pointed out that there were other minorities on campus. He meant that of the 10,500 students, 5 percent were not black, but Mrs. Jacoby kept thinking about how it would feel to be in a stadium with her husband and 30,000 black fans.

In a traditional piece of reportage, those two paragraphs would have been riddled with quote marks—quotes by the Jacobys, quotes by Dr. Spikes, quotes by coach Richardson. Berkow would never have included what Mrs. Jacoby was thinking, especially because her thought was so politically incorrect and so personally revealing. But personally revealing is exactly what Berkow was after here: His goal was to uncover and expose the real people living the experience of race issues.

In another article in the same series, "Why Harlem Drug Cops Don't Discuss Race" (New York Times, July 9, 2000), Michael Winerip wrote:

Feelings ran deep. No case in recent years has hit the police closer to home. As Sergeant Brogli said, "There but for the grace of God____" Every officer with any sense, white or black, fears mistakenly shooting an unarmed man like Amadou Diallo. Talk about jamming up a career.

A reader may well believe that the last two sentences were a continuation of the previous, direct quote of Sergeant Brogli, but they're not. These are indirectly quoted words said to Winerip by Sergeant Brogli probably during a much longer interview. Used here, they accurately convey the tone and general sense of that interview. The final sentence sounds very much like what a police officer might say, but those could also very well be the words of Winerip writing carefully in the voice of the sergeant.

Winerip, toward the end of the article, wrote:

If the police can be too quick to label, Detective Gonzalez says, they are only reflecting society.

On a warm afternoon, dressed in plain clothes, he met downtown with a prosecutor about a case, then stopped in a deli near Chinatown for an iced tea. One sip and he nearly spit it out. He knew immediately it was the extra-sweet tea that heroin addicts on Methadone often crave. "Sorry," said the Asian woman behind the counter, exchanging the drink. "This is junkie iced tea." An honest mistake? Or had she assumed he was a junkie from a nearby Methadone clinic because he is brown skinned?

We can probably safely presume that this story came during an interview with Detective Gonzalez. In traditional journalism, Winerip would have been expected to quote directly what the detective told him. Here, he told the story largely through indirect quotes. Perhaps, for variety, he switched to directly quoting what the vendor said about the junkie iced tea. Winerip then asked those rhetorical questions, making, in a fresh, involving way, important points about so-called profiling and how race is lived in America on a day-to-day basis.

Kevin Sack opened his article, "Shared Prayers" (New York Times, June 4, 2000) in medias res—right in the middle of things— with a scene in an integrated church on a Sunday morning:

DECATUR, Georgia—Howard Pugh, head usher, is on patrol. May the good Lord have mercy on any child, or adult for that matter, who dares to tread across the lobby of the Assembly of God Tabernacle with so much as an open Coca-Cola in his hand. Because first he will get the look, the alert glare of a hunting dog catching its first scent of game. Then he will get the wag, the slightly palsied shake of the left index finger. And then, the voice, serious as a heart attack and dripping with Pensacola pinesap: "Son, this is the Lord's house. And they just shampooed that carpet last week."

It goes without saying that Howard Pugh knows what is going on in his lobby. So when Mr. Pugh, a white man with a bulbous pink nose, spots 81-year-old Roy Denson slipping out of the sanctuary, he doesn't even have to ask. He just knows.

Sack led off with a scene that sets us up for what comes later by his use of "on patrol____" A traditional reporter might not use "on patrol"

because this was not factual. This was not a military or police patrol: This was a church's alert head usher. I imagine that Kevin Sack knew that "tread across the lobby" would resonate in many readers' minds with that militant flag that declared, "Don't tread on me." Editors of traditional journalism don't condone this kind of resonance; after all, what resonates with some readers may clang the wrong bell for others.

As you will learn in later chapters, a writer gains authority by using realistic details readily recognized by readers, words like "CocaCola." Even though this particular detail may have been created in Sack's mind rather than in Pugh's, it is a detail that resonates clearly in most readers' minds and paints a clear picture of what is being described. The creative nonfiction writer also has devices such as rhythm in language and useful repetition in phrasings to draw upon, devices the author uses well in this article.

An editor of traditional journalism would object to that wonderful repetition of "the look," "the wag," and "the voice." Editors also usually frown on metaphors, which are viewed as more artistic than accurate. But who needs absolute accuracy when you can come up with a voice "serious as a heart attack and dripping with Pensacola pinesap"? Add to that, traditionally, editors would have had a fit about the use of the alliterativep in "dripping with Pensacola pinesap."

Articles like those in this series provide good reason to believe that this kind of writing is well on its way to greater acceptance in daily journalism. And why shouldn't creative nonfiction still be gaining in popularity? In addition to the fact that there is a broad interest today in reading factual material presented in a vivid, dramatic, and entertaining way, readers also turn to nonfiction because it's often stranger than fiction. Who needs fiction in a world so strange? As far back as 1966, Seymore Krim wrote:

Reality itself has become so extravagant, in its contradictions, absurdities, violence, speed of change, science fiction technology, weirdness, and constant unfamiliarity, that just to match what is with accuracy takes the conscientious reporter into the realms of the Unknown—into what used to be called "the world of the imagination." And yet that is the wild world we live in today when we just try to play it straight.

Let's look now at some of the key techniques for writing good, compelling, creative nonfiction.

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