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Writerland, Chapter 20: The Perils (and Joys) of “Creative” Nonfiction
Writerland is a newsletter from The Delacorte Review whose mission is to help writers tell the stories they need to tell.
Every so often a true story appears that is so good, so riveting and compelling that everyone reads and talks admiringly about it right up to the moment when word gets out that the writer may have pulled a fast one, cut corners. Cheated.
The writer stands accused of compressing several characters into one, or altering the sequence of events, or quoting what was never said, or in the most egregious cases, inventing what never occurred.
The accused writer might rebut the accusations by insisting that nothing underhanded was intended, that what happened was done with the reader or listener in mind, to create “narrative tension.” That is what Rukmini Callimachi of The New York Times said when questions were raised about her reporting for the “Caliphate” podcast and its reliance on a central character who may have fabricated what he told her.
While issues around Callimachi appear to revolve around whether she was rigorous enough in vetting a key source, the discussion has once again raised the question of what can go wrong in trying to transform fact-based journalism into a compelling narrative.
What, exactly, are the rules for narrative -- or if you prefer “creative” – nonfiction?
Traditionalists, like me, insist that a clear line exists: if you did not see, hear, or have it confirmed by two or more sources you cannot use it. Full stop.
Others argue that while these lines are worthy aspirations, they should not stop a writer from taking a step or three beyond and borrowing techniques from writers of fiction in order to keep the story humming along.
The great Gay Talese, they point out, used “interior monologue” to put into words the thoughts of his subjects.
We traditionalists reply that Talese was granted license to do so because these unspoken thoughts that may never have actually been said but which nonetheless appeared between quotation marks emerged from his legendarily assiduous reporting.
This captures the essence of the traditionalists’ standing response to rule bending: You want material, report like Talese or like the late J. Anthony Lucas who spent over five years reporting his magisterial book “Common Ground,” during which he amassed 550 hours of recorded interviews – or three and half weeks of people answering his questions.
We take a perverse delight in noting that Norman Mailer, who made his own celebrated forays into nonfiction with “Armies of the Night” and “The Executioner’s Song,” referred to reporting as “chores.”
But even as we fall back onto a certain self-righteousness, advocates of a more expansive interpretation of the rules insist that the purists are short changing readers by their lack of imagination and creativity. The New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm, for instance, leapt to the defense of the late Joseph Mitchell when it was revealed that her legendary colleague had done some of his famous work well outside the bounds of acceptability. So what, she argued, if he fused characters together?
“Every writer of nonfiction who has struggled with the ditch and the bushes knows what Mitchell is talking about, but few of us have gone as far as Mitchell in bending actuality to our artistic will,” she wrote. “This is not because we are more virtuous than Mitchell. It is because we are less gifted than Mitchell.”
She goes on. “The idea that reporters are constantly resisting the temptation to invent is a laughable one. Reporters don’t invent because they don’t know how to.
His impatience with the annoying, boring bits of actuality, his slashings through the underbrush of unreadable facticity, give his pieces their electric force, are why they’re so much more exciting to read than the work of other nonfiction writers of ambition.”
Malcolm, her dismissiveness of the purists’ second-rate imaginations and skills aside, is hardly alone in her defense of taking liberties. Several years ago, the award-winning nonfiction Geoff Dyer wrote an essay in The Guardian in which he argued that there was nothing wrong, and in fact much that was good, with a casual approach to the literal truth.
“All that matters is that the reader can’t see the joins, that there is no textural change between reliable fabric and fabrication,” he wrote, explaining why, for instance, he invented a scene in which he visited a museum with his grandfather, a museum that his grandfather had never even been to. “In other words, the issue is one not of accuracy but aesthetics.”
Aesthetics? Really, Geoff?
On the other hand, old school though I may be, I can live with a technique that the essayist Lisa Knopp calls “perhapsing” in which a writer runs into an unsurmountable reporting wall – like a subject no longer being alive – and has no choice but to speculate. Knopp credits Maxine Hong Kingston with this approach in a story told to her by her mother about her late aunt: Perhaps she had encountered him in the fields or on the mountain where the daughters-in-law collected fuel…
Hong Kingston is, in fact, allowing the reader to “see the joins,” to know what she is doing and where the trail of fact runs dry, even as the story does not.
Dyer’s essay was followed by a debate by those who took issue with the approach he advocated, and those who were troubled by it. Perhaps the most insightful and persuasive position taken was by Aminatta Forna who has written both fiction and nonfiction and draws a clear distinction in the relationship with the reader.
“Each time a writer begins a book they make a contract with the reader,” she writes. “If the book is a work of fiction the contract is pretty vague, essentially saying: ‘Commit your time and patience to me and I will tell you a story.’”
But the compact is different with nonfiction.
“A contract for a work of nonfiction is a more precise affair,” she continues. “The writer says, I am telling you, and to the best of my ability, what I believe to be true. This is a contract that should not be broken lightly and why I have disagreed with writers of memoir (in particular) who happily alter facts to suit their narrative purposes. Break the contract and readers no longer know who to trust.”
Writers of fiction and nonfiction share an existential dread: what if the reader stops reading my words? That fear – if I am not read do I matter, let alone exist? – compels writers to do whatever is necessary to keep the reader’s eyes on the page. Because, like it or not, if the reader stops, it is always the writer’s fault.
This, in turn, can lead some writers to do things that they may have never before contemplated, in the belief that they are doing this in the service of sustaining the narrative’s pace. After all, that is what the readers expects.
But is it?
Readers do have expectations of a story, a narrative, and they are straightforward and clear:
A) Transport me
B) Keep me asking, “what happens next?”
That, in essence, is what narrative nonfiction is about. The question, then, is how to pull it off. And that is when the word “creativity” enters the conversation and where, I believe, things can go awry.
Writers see what is on the page. They look at work of writers they admire and measure themselves against those writers’ ostensible gifts – the turns of phrase, the apt metaphor, the killer description. And they think, that is what I want to do, too. They try. They struggle. They fail. They try again. And along the way, I believe, they focus too much on what is visible, on the means, and not on the end that lays beneath: the insight, the thinking, the discovery.
Yet, we are habituated to associate creativity with style – so much so that style is among the criteria for judging feature writing for the National Magazine awards. I have sat in judging sessions and listened as worthy editors gushed about the stylistic way a story was told, with little regard for what the writer was saying. Only that he or she told it really well.
But as someone who spent too many years trying to replicate the creative flourishes of those writers I most wanted to emulate, and later seeing students do much the same thing, I have come to believe that the true act of nonfiction literary creation occurs in making the connections between ideas and points uncovered on a journey of discovery.
Like a detective in a noir crime novel, we writers begin those journeys with a question to resolve only to discover that as we report, the question that seemed so obvious can morph into something very different. The story pivots and if we are doing our job right, we pivot with it. This is frightening because it often means getting lost in the dark.
So we go back and try to retrace our steps, illuminating our path with a more refined, or perhaps brand new question. As we zip and zag our way forward we learn things. And it is that process of learning, that need to know, that will - when the time comes to write - animate our stories. Readers know it, and feel it.
And writers you feel it, too. We feel it when we come upon a story that we have no reason to want to read or hear but which, for reasons that make no apparent sense, we cannot put down. We experience the sensation of a story that “lifts off the page.”
We feel the writer’s need to make sense of what she or he had to learn and now cannot wait to tell us. That writer worked hard to get to the point of telling and that struggle, with all its false starts and wrong turns and self-doubt, has given the story its heart, its power, its soul.
Consider the example of the 2017 podcast, S-Town, which begins with a phone call about a murder and ends with a death and along the way pulls the story teller, Brian Reed and the audience, ever deeper into a story that, after all its many twists and turns, is driven, as my colleague Daniel Alarcon puts it, by a question so simple, compelling, and irresistible question: who is this guy?
This, I’d submit, is the power of narrative. This is how tension and drama are achieved. This is what readers expect – an experience, a visceral payoff for their time and attention. It is not about tricks or ploys, or turns of fancy phrase. It was never just about the words. Rather, as E.M. Forster put it, it is taking readers by the hand and leading them to the mountain top.
With apologies to Janet Malcolm and Geoff Dyer and those who argue that bending the rules is not only acceptable but to be encouraged, they are missing the point entirely. What they are advocating is not imaginative, nor an act of creativity.
It is taking shortcuts, the easy way out from the long, tedious, stomach-wrenching, soul-deflating, thrilling, maddening, and seemingly interminable work of making sense of things, of answering one question and then another and another, until you arrive at the moment when you can connect points A and N and R and back to C and you see it so clearly even in that moment of weary triumph that you kick yourself for not having seen it sooner.
No matter. The moment has come to summon the reader and say, I have a story for you. It’s all true. Let me tell you.
We are still accepting applications for our Diversity Grants. Each grant will pay $1000 and will run for five months. Our goal is to help each recipient work to bring their voice to life in a work of ambitious narrative nonfiction.
Each recipient will be assigned an editor who will work with them on every step of the process, from story inception, framing, reporting, to writing, with the goal of publication with the Review. The Review’s publishing partners include Granta, Scientific American, Longreads, Lithub, CrimeReads.com, and Digg.com.
We are committed to close working partnerships between writer and editor. Recipients should expect to file frequent memos and receive constant feedback. We do not believe that writers grow by sending a pitch, writing a first draft, having it kicked back for revisions until they get it right. We believe that writers grow when they have an editor at their side, pushing, cajoling, encouraging.
Applicants should send a CV, up to three samples of nonfiction writing they are most proud of – it need not have been published -- and a letter proposing an idea for a story they’d like to work on, and how they’d go about reporting it.
Please send applications to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line GRANT APPLICATION (all caps please, to ensure they are not lost).
Application deadline is December 1st. Grantees will be notified by January 15th. The program runs through May 15th.
We look forward to hearing from you. And if you know writers who might be interested, please spread the word.
Nothing good ever came from writers punishing themselves. We know writing is hard. We’re here to show that it doesn’t have to be torture. The Delacorte Review Newsletter comes out every other week. Subscribe to get full access to the newsletter and website. Never miss an update.