Saturday, April 23, 2011

Writing Genres

Creative Nonfiction, which I prefer to call by its other name "Narrative Nonfiction" is divided into 3 subgroups: Memoirs/Biographies, Essays, and Literary Journalism.

Although I am primarily a chronic truth-seeker, which puts me in the "journalist" box, I have never been able to confine myself to the strict How Why What Where When of the dispassionate newspaper or broadcast journalist. The term Narrative Nonfiction is relatively new, but I have been practicing it since long before I knew it had an official name.

It doesn't matter which of the three subgenres you choose to follow, they all have one rigid rule that binds them together: your story must tell the truth and deal with facts. That is, it must be a factual account about a real person or a real event. Otherwise, while your embellishment might make it a better story, it becomes no longer nonfiction, you see.

A regular-flavor journalist collects a list of facts and then sits down and rewrites that list of facts into prose form, of a terse sort, for a newspaper to print or for a TV news reader to read. That's not me. I did that for a radio station once for about 3 years and then went out and committed suicide. I don't recommend it. (Ok, let me come clean: I wasn't writing facts. I was writing commercials. Hence the taking of my own life.)

Narrative Nonfiction, in all three varieties, is different in that it tells a real story using literary rules and customs; it does more than just string a list of facts together. I like to tell stories. I don't particularly like to make up those stories in my head. I like to research facts like a detective and then spin the yarn about the people or events. I don't make up extra things that didn't happen and I don't speculate on what people might have said. But it is a story, nevertheless, and it READS like a story.

A writer of narrative nonfiction does a hell of a lot more research than a newspaper reporter would do. Months of research, just like a good novelist does if he wants to make his fiction fact-based (like Gore Vidal's painstakingly researched novel "Lincoln," for example.) First, the narrative nonfiction author reads everything he can find about the person or event. He reads and reads and reads until he can close his eyes and tell the story from memory. If possible, he visits the person or site and does interviews. And he always brings his camera. Because of this, he ends up with a heck of a lot of interesting tidbits that the slam-bam hack journalist isn't going to be aware of and thus can't write about.

Top-notch narrative nonfiction writers make big money, but they obviously can't crank out a book every 2 or 3 months. A book every 2 or 3 years is probably more like it, and then only if they are constantly on the move and on the write. I equate narrative nonfiction writers with independent documentary film makers. Except that I have to paint the movies scenes with words. A poor-man's filmmaker. But I always carry my still camera because I know very well that one picture is worth a thousand words, many times. Maybe my pictures don't move, but it is a lot cheaper than a camera crew.

I have my favorite Narrative Nonfiction writers, of course, and I try to learn from them. Some are alive, some are dead. That's one of the good things about being an author — your stuff can still teach after you're dead. Pulitzer Prize-winner David McCullough is a favorite. (Amongst the living, thankfully.) His recent massively documented "John Adams" is more than just a good biography; it is a treasure for generations to come. That's a story about a person. His first blockbuster (if nonfiction can ever be called that) was written back in the sixties about a disaster that happened in 1889, "The Johnstown Flood," is a story about an event.

Who else? Studs Terkel. Studs isn't with us anymore, passed away in 2008, aged 96. Studs was much more than a writer, of course. Some of Studs' books are interviews which tell the story all by themselves. Do yourself a favor and read "Working" sometime. Or "Hard Times." The latter an oral history of the Great Depression; the former interviews with the common man (and woman) about their jobs and their aspirations.

That's all I have to say about that, I guess. The point? Good storytellers don't HAVE to be novelists.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

More Lessons Unlearned

Advisors: Part One

The U.S. involvement in Vietnam began under President Truman, when, in September of 1950, the Military Assistance Advisory Group was set up in Saigon with the stated purpose of supervising the issuance and use of $10 million in military equipment to support the French Legionnaires in their combat of the Viet Minh. By 1953, now under President Eisenhower, this military aid to France had jumped to over $350 million on the excuse that the French needed to replace the badly worn WWII equipment they were being forced to use, due to economic devastation their own country was still suffering from that war.

For those of you who are not familiar with that bit of history, the French lost to the Viet Minh, and French forces surrendered to the communists in 1954.

The U.N. promptly stepped in and partitioned Vietnam into north and south, and the Viet Minh went, reluctantly, back up north. But not for long.

Advisors, Part Two:

President Eisenhower promised to aid South Vietnam in an effort to keep it from going communist. Direct aid to South Vietnam began in January of 1955.

American "advisors" began arriving a month later.

A warlord by the name of Diem consolidated his power by suppressing religious sects in the Mekong Delta and brutally put down unrest in Saigon. He arrested 25,000 communist sympathizers and killed 1,000 of them. In October, he was officially elected President of the Republic of Vietnam.

The communist insurgency continued. In 1957, Diem arrested another 65,000 suspected communists and killed another 2,000 of them. By 1959, sensing the time was ripe for resumption of open conflict, the Viet Minh began returning from the north.

During the period of 1950-1960, the U.S. had 750-1,500 military "advisors" in Vietnam.

Advisors, Part Three:

In 1961, the Soviet Union decided to begin aid to North Vietnam. The insurgency was getting to the crisis point. New U.S. President John F. Kennedy sent more aid to prevent a collapse of the Diem regime in South Vietnam. By December of that year, there were 3,200 American "advisors" in South Vietnam. Aid passed the $200 million mark. That wasn't chicken feed in 1961. Army Special Forces (Green Berets) and CIA personnel began organizing covert resistance in the mountains.

The numbers of North Vietnamese fighters began to increase dramatically in the South and found much sympathy. President Diem reacted with more repression. He appointed his brother to concentrate on suppressing the passively protesting Buddists. In May of 1963, South Vietnamese Army troops fired into a crowd of demonstrators in Saigon. Buddhist priests began setting themselves on fire in the streets. The Soviets increased their own aid and advisors. Diem arrested 4,000 protesting students in Saigon. At about this time, disillusioned, they say, with life in the Soviet Union, an American by the name of Lee Harvey Oswald returned home with his Russian wife. He settled in Texas and got a job with a schoolbook warehouse in Dallas.

President Diem and his brother continued the repression of their own people, ferreting out communists sympathizers wherever he thought they were. The people of South Vietnam and the people around the world were outraged at Diem.

By 1963, the number of U.S. Military "advisors" in South Vietnam had grown to 16,000. The Americans were firmly identified with Diem as far as the South Vietnamese were concerned. Something had to give.

In November of 1963, Kennedy ordered Diem and Diem's brother assassinated. New Government ensued. Three weeks later, President Kennedy himself was assassinated in Dallas.

***** ***** ***** *****

If you know anything at all of that era, you know what happened then, and what continued for another 12 years, years that gutted the United States and changed it forever. But there is a point to all this writing today. The reason why I am writing this post is because I picked up a newspaper about an hour ago, and read this:

"UK to send military advisors to help Libya rebels"

LONDON (AP) "Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague says the U.K. is sending a team of advisors to Libya to help organize the country's haphazard opposition forces.

Hague said in a statement on Tuesday that the experienced military officers would join British diplomats already cooperating with rebel leaders in Benghazi.

Hague says the military team will help the rebels improve military organizational structures and offer help on communications and logistics.

He insists the advisors would not be involved in supplying weapons to the rebels, or assist with their attacks on Moammar Gaddafi's forces."

Ok. This is not Vietnam. Right?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


During the American War Between the States, about 1.6 Union soldiers died of disease for every soldier who died in actual battle. For the Confederacy, the figure was 2.5 dead from disease for every one killed in battle. This includes infection and complications from amputations and major internal surgeries done on tables out in the open. Germ theory and anesthesia were in their infancy then. For example, the surgeons working at the saw tables would use the same sponges from one patient to the next, simply squeezing it out in a bucket of red water in between patients. Some surgical kits came with a new substance called chloroform, but there often really wasn't time for that in the surgical assembly line. Medical assistants simply held the patient down for the surgeon. Even after thousands of amputations and surgeries, they said later**, one never fully got used to the agonizing jerks and shrieks of the wounded men.

I haven't studied other wars of the period, such as the war in the Crimea, but I imagine the statistics were similar with regard to dying of disease.

The U.S. is currently recognizing (you can't really use the word "celebrating") the 150th anniversary of our civil war.

What have we learned in the past 150 years? Well, we know about sanitation and sterility, and we have state-of-the-art anesthetics and pain killers. But...

I suppose there is no need to show pictures of civilians, then or now.
**From "A Strange and Blighted Land" by Gregory A. Coco

Monday, April 11, 2011

Modernity, Traditionalism, and the relevance of the past

Modernity is a philosophy of life (my definition) that postulates the present time that we live in is not continuous with our past. Traditionalists (like myself) believe in a time continuum which got us where we are today, and we are very much connected to our past. Further. the past not only has something to teach us, it provides our very foundation.

I do think I understand the modernity people. Where we are now is astonishingly different from the past. It is so different that we can't imagine living in the past or imagine our ancestors being able to live in the present time.

The world is very different, I agree. Yet it is not a different world. If that makes sense. We are still planet earth.

Modernists see our present time as something that will have meaning, or will be resolved, in some unknown future time. Traditionalists believe it is our continuous connection to the past that drives how we live in the present.

I think our differing views on whether the past is still relevant to our present time or if the past is simply a completely different and disconnected place, also has a very real effect on what our political and social values are as well.

This is one time I believe in "evolution" without a speck of skepticism. I don't believe we were somehow "created" and placed in this brave new world we live in. Even with its rapidly changing technology and vast array of choices, our civilization is still a growing thing with seeds (and roots) in the past.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Describing Characters

Writers of stories give each other advice all the time on how to write better. You won't have to search very hard to find more than enough blogs to read on the subject of writing, written by writers. Since I am not a writer of fiction, I can't join in that crowd of experienced advisors, but I do read fiction and perhaps some advice from a reader instead of another writer might be an unusual change of pace - not that readers know anything about the finer points of writing, but I do know that I start to read many books and never get past the first couple of chapters, and I do know why I finish the ones I finish. Here are the 10 reasons, in order of importance, that make me finish a book:

1. Story
2. Story
3. Story
4. Story
5. Story
6. Story
7. Story
8. Characters
9. Theme/genre
10. Atmosphere/setting

This is some exaggeration, but my point is that a good story makes me overlook a considerable lack of writing skills, and I seldom remark on how well an author with no story to tell puts together wonderful sentences, or how vividly he describes his characters.

Character development is important (though not number one) and I don't mean to make it seem less important than it is. Sometimes, though, I find some writers get caught up with character development attributes and forget to have the characters DO something. I must admit that I like a good character, and the first step in the character's introduction into the story is his initial description.

Recently, I wrote (copied down, I mean) in this blog, or one of my blogs, the beginning pages of Charles Dickens' description of his main character, Ebenezer Scrooge. Dickens (as all writers of the classics are) was a master at description. I really enjoyed his first description of Scrooge. It made me want to find other famous characters in famous stories and read how the authors had initially described them when they introduced the characters into their story. I found a few and set them aside until a later day which has now come. Here is one.

"He was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together. His head was small, and flat at top, with huge ears, large green glassy eyes, and a long snipe nose, so that it looked like a weather-cock perched upon his spindle neck to tell which way the wind blew. To see him striding along the profile of a hill on a windy day, with his clothes bagging and fluttering about him, one might have mistaken him for the genius of famine descending upon the earth, or some scarecrow eloped from a cornfield."

Since this is an American author, the above may not be instantly familiar to non-American readers. The earlier one was from Dickens, though, so it is the American author's turn.

The above example is too easy and too obvious, but I am asking anyway.


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