Friday, January 14, 2011

Why You Should Be Writing Nonfiction

Most beginning writers want to be novelists or poets. Some of the savvier ones recognize that what they really want to be are screenwriters, millionaires, or celebrities. Hardly anyone these days wants to write nonfiction, except for some of the older beginners, who then only want to write their memoirs.

Yet, nonfictioncreative nonfiction, as it is called in the bizis exactly what the beginning writer should be writing, no matter what the long-term plans for writing something else might be.


Suppose I were to tell you to write about the predatory tunicate. What’s that, you ask? You know, megalodicopia hians. Still nothing? Sounds like you might be unfamiliar with this bizarre deep-sea creature. Sounds like you can’t write about it, then, at least not without learning more. You might be able to get something together that’s serviceable by visiting Wikipedia, reading about the predatory tunicate, and looking at some pictures, but chances are you would need a lot more research and a trip to the Monterey Canyon before you would be able to come up with something better than a joke about how they kind of look like Barney. In fact, before you could write something so compelling that you came off as an expert on the predatory tunicate, you would have to spend years studying it, touching it, dissecting it, living in its environment and observing its life.

That’s basically why you should be writing nonfiction. To the majority of beginning writers, life is as bizarre as the predatory tunicate. If you’re writing fiction, your characters say, do, and feel things that don’t make good sense, and they operate in worlds that lack depth. Your poetry is likely all about feelings that make sense only to you or are so general that anyone feeling anything could find truth in them. Your writing lacks reality, what is more aptly called verisimilitude.

But, you say, I could use my imagination. After all, isn’t that what writers do? I could imagine what a predatory tunicate is, and write about that. So what if I got a few things wrong? Reality is boring, and my imaginary predatory tunicate is likely to be vastly more interesting than the real thing. What’s important is not what things look like or what they’re really like, but how they make you feel, and I’m bursting with feelings about the predatory tunicate.

Such thinking will get you nowhere. Of course writers have great imaginations. So do little kids, for that matter. Ever get trapped in a conversation with an imaginative kid? How long before you were looking around, hoping something had caught fire near you, so you could run away? Little kids have great imaginations, but no means of conveying them to others effectively. Why is your dragon drinking tea, you ask, and all the kid can say is “because I say so.” To the adult mind, of course, this makes no sense. We know that dragons don’t drink tea; we wonder about the clumsy tail and how a dragon would sit down at a table, not to mention hold a teacup. We want to know why, and because I say so is not good enough.

The writer’s imagination is completely different. It retains all the wonderment of the child’s, but gains the ability to bring other minds into the fantasy, to suspend disbelief. How? By mimicking reality, of course. It may seem ludicrous to ask that dragons be written about realistically, but all good fantasy is based on reality. The dragon may be a dragon, but it flies like a bird, and has the dimensions of a dinosaur, which we can recreate from skeletons. We borrow the texture of its skin from real reptiles, the roar from a lion. We watch the world, and then we make the dragon. We connect the known to the unknown, and the reader comes along for the ride.

In much the same way, non-fantasy writing (i.e., realism) needs verisimilitude in order to be effective. The writer must be an expert on people and places in order to make them seem, if not real, then believable. You must be a psychologist, a social anthropologist, a scientist, an engineer. What makes one guy jump out the window, while another guy in the same situation takes a drink and sits down calmly to read the newspaper?

True, you can develop an understanding of human nature while writing fiction or poetry, but it’s much easier to do so if you stick to nonfiction, at least for a little while. The beginning writer too easily goes for the fantastic, even when writing realism. It seems more “dramatic” to go buy a gun and shoot the girlfriend. We’ve all had the experience of laughing at cheesy stories where people do outrageous things, where earthquakes and winning lotteries and spy neighbors are as common as rainy days and orange juice at breakfast. Sure, babies get abducted and grow up to fall in love with the people who turn out to be their siblings in real life, but it doesn’t happen all that often, and, even if it did, it wouldn’t necessarily make for a good piece of writing. Such circumstances may elicit a gasp or a giggle, but these reactions are only good insofar as they are what you set out to get. If your intention was to move the reader in some deeper way, you’re not going to make it happen by writing about jumping off tall buildings or other desperate acts.

What starting off with nonfiction can do is train you to observe how people really act, and why and where they do so. It forces you to observe and make meaning out of reality without the temptations of creating it. My only recommendation is that you don’t write about yourself too much, which is a kind of cheating. You probably know why you act the way you do, and writing about your own life won’t force you to dwell on human nature, just your own. Moreover, you need to step out of your head to get to know the world and the people in it. When you write about yourself, you’re very likely to write about what you think and feel, instead of what you’re doing, and where you’re doing it. Talk to others; ask them to tell you their stories, what they’ve done and where they’ve been. Look at how they talk. Observe their behavior, their words. A good writer is not so much a storyteller as a storylistener, a storyfinder. Go somewhere and find the truth of a placeyour mall, your school, your city hall. Who built it? When? What’s happened there since? Why?

Marie Antoinette: The JourneyI’m not telling you to become some kind of tape recorder, or to stifle your creativity. Creative nonfiction, as the term implies, has all the qualities we normally associate with fiction: tight, compelling plots, well-rounded characters, beautiful language. Unlike fiction, however, what you’re writing about is true. It’s simply been crafted in such a way as to be enjoyable and rewarding, not just informative. Think of the difference between an encyclopedia entry on Marie Antoinette, and a really great biography, like Antonia Fraser’s. One is just the facts, m’am, and the other onewell, the other one is art. For the beginning writer, writing nonfiction means getting the best of both worldsall the craftsmanship, none of the temptations. Once you become better at figuring out how the real world works, you’ll be better equipped to create one of your own. It may seem like an unwanted detour, but learning to write well is all about patience.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and RedemptionBut, you say (so stubborn you are!), I don’t know anything about Marie Antoinette, nor do I want to. Who reads such stuff, anyway? I may have to return to this topic in another post, but suffice it to say for now: lots of people. As I write this, the bestselling book at Amazon, second only to the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (oh, how that tickles!), is Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, a biography of heretofore mostly unknown Louie Zamperini. There has been a huge explosion in the nonfiction market, as there has been in reality programming on television. Though there are many reasons for this phenomenon, one that compels me is that we crave reality. In my opinion, there’s a glut of bad stories out there, and, to some, the reassurance that something did actually happen might be some kind of coping reaction.

On Writing Well, 30th Anniversary Edition: The Classic Guide to Writing NonfictionHopefully, however, you’re not so foolish as to be thinking of publication at this stage. Hopefully, when I tell you that, next to a universally required reference guide, the bestselling book at Amazon is a biography, you are intrigued. What have I been missing, you wonder. Good. To grow as a writer, you must cultivate a hunger for everything. There’s no use in reading the same kinds of books over and over. If you’ve never read a nonfiction book, go do so immediately. It might be just what you need to help you see something new. While you’re at it, pick up William Zinsser’s On Writing Well. It’s the only book I make my students read, and it will not only start you off writing nonfiction, but also transform the way you write forever.


  1. Oh the memories... thank you for allowing me to delight in your presence for a while. Ciaoito

  2. Thank you, darling! I think the writing you do on your own blog is a great example for us all. Miss you much! Ciaoito!


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