Why I Write Nonfiction

“I think maybe you’re a nonfiction writer.”

There it was, right in front of me. And with it, there was no sudden epiphany, no white zigzag of lightning, just a sense of things gliding into focus.

We’d sat in my professor’s office, a bland, off-white room with a desk and a lumpy couch on the eighteenth floor of Rhodes Tower, once a week for a month or so. We’d puzzled through stories I’d written, trying to give them pacing and character. One day, we looked at my nonfiction, and that changed everything.

My fumbling plots, my thin-as-dimes characters, my wooden dialogue – they couldn’t be helped. And my attempts at reform were as foolish as a crabby schoolteacher trying to break a left-hander of his habits with stern words and a sharp ruler. This wasn’t something I could improve upon. I’m a nonfiction writer.

After that, I began to write essays, a few of which were published in literary magazines. I also freelanced for newspapers and magazines. As I wrote, I used snippets of dialogue that revealed something about the character, and descriptive language that conveyed the scene. I tried to use my voice.

The notion that nonfiction is a real art form is not, of course, very new. Beginning with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and the “New Journalism” touted by Tom Wolfe in the 1960’s, non-fiction writers tried to knock the novel from its perch. Wolfe, for instance, felt the novel had separated itself too much from real things, and that it should be both literary and relevant. He promoted techniques such as scene-by-scene construction, real dialogue, and third person narration.

As a partial aside, there’s a story behind how Wolfe developed this writing style. Early in his career, an editor asked him to write an essay about hot rod culture. Having trouble with the assignment, he instead submitted a letter entitled “The Kandy-Colored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.” To Wolfe’s surprise, his editor loved it, and after removing the salutation, published it as written.

My own editors were not usually as kind as Wolfe’s. The first freelance pieces that I wrote for the local alternative newsweekly in Cleveland mercifully never saw the light of day. Fresh from college, I wrote in a style more fitting for a research journal than a newspaper. In learning how to write for a newspaper, I had to learn how to pare my writing down to the essentials so that it would fit the form. Overall, the experience made me less attached to my work.

In my writing, I am interested in the line between fiction and nonfiction, and the opportunities that it provides for telling stories. Yet I still believe that nonfiction writers have to be responsible writers, and should strive to tell the truth. 

There’s an interesting story about truth-telling in the “nonfiction” memoir A Million Little Pieces, written by James Frey. Critics complain that much of the memoir work that sells these days seems to be gushingly confessional and over-the-top. Frey certainly understood this formula, and he found success with his autobiographical tale of wrecking his life with drug addiction. When it was picked up by Oprah’s Book Club, the book climbed the bestseller list.

Yet as it turned out, Frey had made up parts of the book. And he had originally submitted the book as fiction. Publishers turned the book down as a novel – but bought it when presented as nonfiction. A Million Little Pieces has sold over five million copies around the world. Not surprisingly, the sensitive subject matter and the outright lies that helped to earn the book attention and sales caused many to feel cheated and exploited. Frey continues to deny that he fibbed.

It seemed to me that Frey’s fabrications upset the notions of nonfiction as “true” and “factual” that were held by many of his readers. I wonder how fixed and firm the genre differences between fiction and nonfiction really are.

Other writers, such as Lauren Slater, have exploited the wobbly line between fiction and nonfiction more openly. Slater published Lying in 2001, a book that purports to be the autobiographical story of a young, epileptic woman. We learn that the writer may or may not have epilepsy, and may or may not be lying. If she is lying, how can you trust her writing? Unlike Frey, Slater is seemingly honest about the fictions contained in her writing – at least, as much as a liar can be. By deliberating blurring the line between fiction and nonfiction, truth and tale, she raises questions about how much a narrative – any narrative – can be trusted.

My own writing is not as experimental as Slater’s, but I have been influenced by her work. I like the fact that she explores the interior lives of her characters, and that she describes the worlds that she is writing about in such vivid language. Sometimes I write about a local developer who is trying to create a tech business incubator in the city; sometimes I interview an artist and write about his or her work. In both cases, I try to insert my own voice and observations into the story.   

It isn’t easy to write stories that are marketable and fit what the editor wants, while also keeping that “voice” in there. It requires compromise. If I’m able to incorporate creative elements into my stories, it’s often subtle – a brief description of a scene, a few words about a character. My goal is to be unobtrusive, to tell the story without becoming a character within it.

Stories that blend good journalism with interesting narrative are the kind that I crave. I feel that I have a responsibility to tell the literal truth. At the same time, writing essays and journalism which I narrate, or in which I am able to incorporate my own ideas, seem to bring a different kind of truth to the story.   

The truth is that I’m a lousy fiction writer. The characters that I stumble upon in my real life seem much more interesting than the ones that I make up. I’ve learned over time that this is not a failure of my imagination. I have a passion for telling stories that are grounded in real things. That’s why I write nonfiction.

##

Published in Muse inaugural issue, Jan. 2008. For more information on Muse, visit the website of the Lit at www.the-lit.org.

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