Creative nonfiction: Where journalism and storytelling meet
Published: July 28, 2006
|"Once you have mastered storytelling techniques and acquired research and reporting skills, you have the tools to produce vivid nonfiction narratives…"|
A dedicated fifth grade teacher gives her struggling students hope in a depressed New England mill town (Among Schoolchildren, by Tracy Kidder). A power hungry Southern sheriff clashes with a proud African Arnerican community leader in rural Georgia (Praying for Sheetrock, by Melissa F. Greene). Innovative crisis workers in Oregon help clients battle mental illness as they heal their own emotional pain in my book, FRONTLINE, Dramatic stories of pain, healing and hope from a community crisis intervention team.
These may sound like fictional narratives, but they are factual accounts-products of extensive research and reportage, combined with dramatic storytelling techniques. Welcome to the exciting world of creative nonfiction. In the 1960s and 1970s, when Truman Capote ( In Cold Blood), Gay Talese (Honor Thy Father), and Tom Wolfe (The Right Stuff) were melding in depth reporting with literary writing, their work was called New Journalism. Currently, the term "creative nonfiction" is increasingly popular. The good news for today's writers is that this genre offers new, expanding opportunities to craft distinctive, evocative stories using a combination of fiction and nonfiction techniques.
To produce successful creative nonfiction, you must have a credible and compelling story to tell. It should inform and enlighten the reader and be based on verifiable facts. Yet, a good creative nonfiction writer will transcend the conventions of fact based joumalism, by portraying characters with psychological depth, providing riveting details and descriptions, and presenting a true story that uses dramatic scenes to engage the reader's interest and emotions.
"Let the strength of your material determine whether you use first or third person viewpoint or a combination of the two…"
|A telling comparison|
Compare the following two treatments of a scene from a 24 hour crisis hotline. First, a straight news approach:
Pat, a veteran crisis worker, sits in one of the clinic's cluttered offices and answers another call. "I got a .45 here on my lap, and I've spent the last week convincing myself that I shouldn't pull the trigger," the man on the line says. "But I've run out of reasons. I'll give you five minutes to convince me that I shouldn't kill myself "
"That's not going to work," Pat says firmly. "You could give me five minutes or five years, and I still might not have an answer that I could give you. What I can do is help you to find your own reasons to go on living if that's what you want to do.
The same scene in creative nonfiction style (from FRONTLINE):
A dozen steps away in the cluttered buckstopper office, which overlooks the wide, sagging front porch, Pat instinctively takes a deep breath and plants his bare feet firmly on the scruffy brown carpet before answering the phone.
"I got a .45 here on my lap, and I've spent the last week convincing myself that I shouldn't pull the trigger. But I've run out of reasons. " The voice on the other end is deep and gruff sounding, the craggy voice of a longtime pack a day man. His words are flat, emotionless. "I'll give you five minutes to convince me that I shouldn't kill myself."
The first thing that pops into Pat's mind is the oneliner that he told the crisis team at last Monday's group debriefing session: "Suicide is our way of telling God you can't fire me, I quit! " But Pat isn't smiling. The familiar queasy feeling of fear is welling up inside him.
"That's not going to work," he tells the caller. "You could give me five minutes or five years, and I still might not have an answer that I could give you. " He pauses, not knowing if he'll hear the click of a receiver. "What I can do is help you to find your own reasons to go on living if that's what you want to do."
|By including concrete details and sensory imagery to describe the scene (e.g., bare feet; a scruffy carpet; craggy voice of a longtime pack-a day man), I tried to evoke a mood and an impact on the reader. The use of extended dialogue and internal monologue-other techniques of creative nonfiction-heightened the tension in this life and death drama. Through numerous interviews, oral histories, and of "participant observation," I learned about the demanding life of a crisis worker. Wolfe calls this approach "saturation reporting" getting to know people, settings and background in sufficient detail to report them in a literary tale.|
Extensive research into the inner world of intervention enabled me to write the dramatic scene typically found in fiction. In the excerpt from FRONTLINE, I was able to "get inside the head" of the crisis worker and share his thoughts, feelings and fears with the reader. Ultimately, this scene worked because of the same dynamic that drives successful short stories and novels: a sympathetic protagonist confronted with a complicated problem, conflict and crisis in which the outcome is uncertain.
To write creative nonfiction focus on these fundamentals:
1) An appropriate subject
3) A dramatic story
Choosing an appropriate subject
The first consideration in approaching a creative nonfiction project is the author's and connection to a given subject. An appropriate topic is one that can be presented with sufficient scope to achieve the intimacy, insight and drama required of a well written work of creative nonfiction. In my study of a Eugene, Oregon, crisis intervention team, access to crisis workers' personal and professional lives over several months gave me the opportunity to compile detailed material that I would later rely on when writing my nonfiction narrative.
"In deciding whether to tackle a work of creative nonfiction, go back to the basics of what makes a writer in the first place…"
There is a wide range of subjects suitable for creative nonfiction treatment. Here is a list of possible categories for your consideration:
• Crime stories
• Family sagas
• Government & politics
• Personal experience
• Popular culture
• Science & technology
"Before embarking on a work of creative nonfiction, ask yourself: What is this story going to be about? What are the broader themes and/or ramifications of this subject? How can I marshal
the facts, the emotions and the deeper meanings of this story?
For example, in telling his story of friendships in a Massachusetts nursing home (Old Friends),
A Pulitzer Prize winning creative nonfiction writer Tracy Kidder examined a much larger landscape: aging in America. My tale of Oregon crisis workers, on the "frontline of pain" isn't merely about mental illness; ultimately, it is a universal story of heroism in everyday life-how "ordinary" people (caregivers) are capable of extraordinary achievements in serving others in need. This theme is appropriate for any good story, whether fiction or nonfiction.
Maybe you don't fancy yourself as brilliant a chronicler of popular culture and the American scene as Tom Wolfe. Perhaps you aren't as renowned for your powers of observation and reporting as John McPhee. Do Joan Didion's remarkable insights into the seemingly ordinary events of everyday life intimidate you? Don't despair. In deciding whether to tackle a work of creative nonfiction, go back to the basics of what makes a writer in the first place.
Are you a good people watcher? Observe the particulars of how a person dresses, walks, eats, gestures. Train your ear to hear the subtleties of a conversation the trace of an accent, the tone of a voice, an inflection. By putting gestures and conversation together, try to detect any underlying meaning to the dialogue. Concentrate on the recurring details of the environment you are studying, such as "official or unofficial" norms, customs, and rituals.
As a careful and sensitive observer of individuals and groups, you may be able to conduct the saturation reporting that is the foundation of creative nonfiction. Excellent interviewing skills will be vital to your research. In studying people over an extended period of time, you must be adept at gaining their confidence and cooperation. This is achieved by your personal credibility and persuasiveness, combined with sensitive, creative interviewing techniques. Your ability to converse with rather than interrogate your sources will determine how successful you will be in portraying your characters accurately and with the detail required of a fully developed, complex story.
Creative nonfiction has been called the "literature of fact" for good reason: Writers in this field depend on information to generate a story. In addition to observing and conducting interviews, you must immerse yourself in your subject by reading voraciously, using electronic information retrieval services (computerized databases) and contacting experts. When collecting facts, you must "sweat the details."
Creative nonfiction writers must not violate the rules of accuracy and honesty. In the words of Gay Talese, "All that we write should be verifiable." Before you write a single line of internal monologue for a character, make sure you have in your interview notes the actual words from the person about what he or she was thinking at a given time.
|A dramatic story|
The years I have spent as a fiction writer-honing my narrative skills, structuring dramatic scenes, developing complex characters, drafting realistic dialogue-gave me the confidence to write creative nonfiction. Before you attempt a work of creative nonfiction, you must know the difference between such basics as narration, description and exposition. Once you have mastered these storytelling techniques and acquired research and reporting skills, you may have the tools to produce vivid, innovative nonfiction narratives.
A creative nonfiction story begins with sound research. Cull your notes for scenes with dramatic potential (e.g., arguments, crises, confrontations, discoveries), including names of the characters involved, a description of the complication, and the resolution-if there was one. Also, list your scenes chronologically-a valuable aid when it comes time to plot your story.
Selecting the appropriate narrative structure is just as essential for a work of creative nonfiction as it is for a novel. Review your material carefully, and remember that form should follow function. How can you best present this story in a way that informs, enlightens and engages the reader? If there is a natural progression to the story, then a chronological structure may be appropriate. But even with a chronological structure, you may choose to begin the story in medias res (in the middle of the action) with a dramatic opening, before flashing back or flashing forward to resume the story.
When chronicling the accounts of several individuals in a creative nonfiction story, you may find it helpful to use parallel narratives that converge at a climactic point in the "plot." Another tried and true method is the quest or journey story, in which characters pursue a dream, destination or goal and the plot develops accordingly.
Like the fiction writer, the author of creative nonfiction must decide on the proper point of view for his or her story. The best approach is to let the strength of your material determine whether you use first or third person viewpoint or a combination of the two. Another key decision you must make is how much of a role (if any) you will play in the story: Remember, the presence of the writer as a character may detract from the story's dramatic action.
Although a creative nonfiction story uses a mixture of narrative techniques, it remains a fact driven literary form, emphasizing concrete, verifiable details about characters, events, settings, and dialogue. Unlike the fiction writer, who can rely solely on his or her imagination to weave a story, the creative nonfiction writer is bound by facts, opinions, observations and other information collected during the research phase. But, the imagination of the dramatic nonfiction author plays an important role in the creative and persuasive "telling" of a true story.
Mark H. Massé teaches at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication, from which he received his master's degree in 1994, specializing in creative nonfiction. As a freelance writer for twenty years, he has written extensively for national, regional and international publications, including The New York Times, The Ladies' Home Journal, Men's Health, Midwest Living, Akron Beacon Joumal, The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer and Oregon Quarterly.
From the October 1995 issue of The Writer.