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.


  1. I’m nearly the opposite; I can only write/read nonfiction… I am not a big history nut, nor do I need to ponder the un-answerable—now, I do enjoy thinking about it, and maybe even talking about it, I just haven’t found the joy in reading about it… except for you blog that is.

    I like your opinions and that of you commenter’s, it always worth stopping by here.

    Thx for the post.

  2. Indeed! Novels are just stories. Non fiction, well written, is not only readable and enlightening but changes things.

  3. Hi, Jeff. I guess I don't like to read the theories that much either. But I do enjoy a good story, fiction or nonfiction, doesn't matter. Thanks.

    Thank you Adullamite. I really enjoyed your post about the airfields. I hope people go and look at your blog.

  4. Agreed. (Calm down, I'm not on meds.)

    In fact, a good storyteller is AT LEAST as important - if not more so - for narrative nonfiction than for fiction because they are more restricted. Far too often, a nonfiction writer gets carried away (from the truth) or ends up being dry as dust. That happy medium - entertaining but factual - is a rare but wonderful thing.

    Although I favor fiction, (including historical fiction if it involves accurate history) I have a few items of narrative fiction with great pleasure, but it's different for me on how I choose. For fiction, I tend to read an author I like to death. For non-fiction, I have to be interested in the person/event beforehand.

  5. I am a reading buff too. Can be anything but I just have to have something to read. Love your blog. Please do visit my blog and leave your footprints behind by posting comments:-

  6. Hmmmmm..... I'm in between writing classes and thought I'd stop by, how appropriate that the day I stop I get another lesson. And what the hell? You changed the name of your blog again? Now I have to change it on my blog roll.....again. You know I don't have time for this.

  7. @Stephanie Barr- Did you think this song was about you? Actually it wasn't a rant about fiction, it was a piece that told what I personally like to write and read. I didn't get much into the hazards of narrative nonfiction ("memoirs" are the worst of the lot) and you rightly recognize that much of narrative nonfiction is fiction. Some are the honest lies of a faulty memory, but fiction, nonetheless.

    @Nilofer - Thank you for visiting. Thank you very much. :)

    @Sue - You can't stay away for weeks on end and then just stick your head in the door and say hmmmmm as if you read the post. You don't have to change your blogroll. I've decided not to change the actual URL anymore. I may change the title of the blog monthly, though. That will depend on whether or not I come across any interesting pictures I would prefer in my header. I am getting more and more shallow as I go along. I am glad you took that writing course. I hope you taught them a thing or two.

  8. RM, I didn't take it that way at all. I thought you were just saying what you liked and more power to you.

    What a bore it would be if we all had exactly the same tastes, same interests, same thoughts, same beliefs...

  9. @Stephanie Barr - You are mellowing out, I think. You never used to let me say what I thought. :)

  10. "You never used to let me say what I thought. :)"

    That doesn't make any damn sense. :) How could I stop you? (Not to mention, why would I want to?)

    Not that I object to being mellow.



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