Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writer's Guide

I think this book might win my award as the most influential book this year.  It made me think about reading, writing, ethics, human communication, and politics in new ways and inspired me to keep up my own writing.

Telling True stories, edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call, is a compilation of writings from award winning journalists and nonfiction writers about the work of writing truly good narrative nonfiction.  (Narrative nonfiction is simply nonfiction that is story-like in tone and styles as opposed to bare-bones reporting on the facts.)  These writings are gathered from Harvard's Nieman Conference, in which journalists and nonfiction writers get together to discuss writing and give advice.  This book compiles some of the best of these.   The book is directed mainly at journalists and secondarily at other nonfiction writers, but I really do think that any person interested in reading and writing would enjoy this book.  

Here are a few of the quotes that I wrote down and loved:

"If you give your readers characters who are as complex and flawed as they truly are, your readers are more likely to trust you on matters more important than character..."-Katherine Boo

"A place defines itself by its stories."-Jay Allison

"...we create stories by imposing narrative on the events that happen around us."-Nora Ephron

And, my very favorite quote that I have to keep forcing myself to remember is:

"No one, not even the greatest writers, creates good first drafts."-Mark Kramer and Wendy Call

In fact, this last quote addresses one of the challenges of blogging.  Much of what I put out on this blog is a first draft that I have just carefully edited for grammar and spelling mistakes or some awkward phrase or sentence.  I almost never completely rewrite a blog post.  Which makes me wonder, should I write multiple drafts of blog posts?  Or is the very nature of blogs such that this isn't something expected?

I had this many questions and thoughts and more with each essay I read.  Each one was perfectly written, with a distinctive voice and flawless imagery, smooth sentences and gripping passages.  The essays were diverse and full of wonderful advice and stories from the field, from a piece about writing investigative history to a fascinating essay about the ethics of writing about immigration and the fine line of when it is acceptable to step in and help one's subject and when this will simply mess with the story.  The book is divided into the following categories: Finding, Researching, and Reporting Topics; Name Your Subgenre; Constructing a Structure; Building Quality Into the Work; Ethics (my favorite set of essays); Editing; Narrative in the News Organization; Building a Career in Magazines and Books.  Each category was started with an introduction by the editors and then ten to fifteen essays written by writers and journalists, both practical advice and stories about working in the narrative nonfiction field.  

I took a long time getting through this book.  I'd read just a few pages every night, savoring the words and enjoying the process of thinking hard and analyzing each paragraph.  It was a long and lovely process.  Because I read so much fiction, I'm used to reading much faster.  Fiction does not require a very slow pace and so I can whizz through without necessarily having read every single word.  Nonfiction, particularly good nonfiction such as this, requires that you stop and truly read every word to fully understand the writer's point.  It was a good and refreshing exercise for me.  

I highly recommend this book.  It was influential and fascinating and wonderful, wonderful writing.  It made me realize that  I want to read more truly great writing as opposed to the mediocre fiction I come across so often in the library.  This is a book that you should definitely get your hands on, even if you are not a writer.  

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing this, it sounds like an excellent resource.

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