Telling True Stories
A Nonfiction Writers' Guide
From the Nieman Foundation at
Each fall the Nieman Foundation offers "three days of lectures, workshops, and discussions on the art and craft of narrative nonfiction" at Harvard University. 1000 writers and editors come from all over the world to attend these sessions. In Telling True Stories, the editors have boiled down the thoughts of fifty-one journalistic mavens, offering their ideas on quality, structure, ethics, narrative, research and reporting.
Those whose essays are presented here are, presumably, the professionals. But it's a little odd to be faced with journalists writing journalistically about their journalism. Some show their mastery; others don't seem to have a clue.
Moreover, nonfiction writing seems to have gotten more complicated since I took it on years ago, having nothing better to do. In those days, you didn't spend three days larking about the halls of Cambridge to learn your craft. You went out and did it, and after you did it, you sent it off to Harper's or the New Yorker or the Saturday Review or the Atlantic (in those days they still accepted over-the-transom submissions). Or you shipped it off to your local newspaper to see if you could fool them into thinking that you were a productive professional.
If they sent it back to you, still in its typed, virginal state, you dumped it in a file folder and tried to forget it. If they called you up to tell you they liked it, it was time for a night out at the Blue Moon Tavern with your friends, getting blind and stupid.
And you did what every serious writer did in those days. You read and wrote, and wrote, and wrote some more, and then you wrote some more, every day, sometimes all day, certainly on the weekends, late, often drunkenly at night.
When I lived in Spain fifty years ago, on my island by the sea Annabel Lee, the pharmacist offered me a tiny pink pill called "Simpatina." This helped me to produce a novel, my first, complete with jitters. I reread it a few months later on, and found it to be a jungle-mumble of incoherent words and ill-mannered, sticky-sweet debates, detours, and dialectics. Later, I submitted it to a fiery immolation on the beach at Málaga, in the early spring of 1960, when the mistrals were in full play.
In those days, you and your Royal were as one. It was a snarly little machine invented long before the IBM Selectric came to obviate The Jam: you and your touch-typing in a hurry that banged the "e" and the "d" and the "s" and the "a" --- they would become clumped together at the very moment you had been swept into an orgy spasm of inspiration. You would patiently unencumber the metal letter arms and try to recompose the passion you had just begun to begin to forget.
The half-black half-red ribbon on the Royal smudged the metal letters, and it was a great way to procrastinate on the days you really didn't want to be writing. You took a half-a-bottle of twenty peseta Anis del Mono for your thirst --- nipping it every five minutes or so --- the slow sea outside; the smell of brine and licorice mixed just so). You culled a few toothpicks, using them to scrape out the black gunk from the fat belly of the "a," the pointy half-nose of the "e," the hunch-back of the "p" or "q," the three legged "m," the bipedal "n," the up-thrust cup of the "u," the snaky two-footed "w."
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I leafed through Telling True Stories to see if I could learn something new, and I did. One thing I found is that there are some funny words that have arrived from Ixnera to bother those of us who liked to write on our own without thinking about it. One of the extraterrestrials they name "nutgraf" which "are places where the writer stops the narrative and signals the meaning or where the narrative is headed next." O, rilly? "The more the writer thinks about the movement of the idea track in the narrative while reporting, the less clunky the execution," says this clunky writer writing (clunkily) about writing.
Another one that caught my attention was "lede." I underlined that as a typo. It means "lead," no? ... as in the heavy stuff, stuff for bullets, pronounced "led," or something you start out your story with, as in "leed." In my Webster's Ninth, between Leda (of swan fame) and lederhosen (as in Nazi leather shorts fame), there was no "lede" to be found. Evidently in the nonfiction business they've started manufacturing words if not thoughts. Finally, there was something called a "glimmer moment."
No. There is not. As a writer of some six decades, with all the seniority and sincerity this implies, I have just banished all reference to anything called the "glimmer moment." We're tossing out "lede" too. "Nutgraf," the worst of the three: may it never show its nutface ever again.
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There are some interesting facts bobbling around here in the non-fiction pot, according to the editors. Jacqui Banaszynski confesses that in her early days in the news business, she would "challenge authority."
During the 1970s' battles for women's rights, I presented a managing editor with a personal flowchart for every woman in the newsroom so he would never again have to ask whether any of us were "on the rag" if we happened to be in a testy mood.
On the other hand, David Halberstam wants us to read "very good newspapers" to see how journalism gets done, and that includes the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and --- hello? --- the St. Petersburg Times. Is this the St. Petersburg Times over there on the Gulf of Finland?
To assist our style, Emily Hiestad wants us to listen to Thelonious Monk, use the OED, and consider the virtues of Henry James:
Famously, one can be mesmerized for pages of a Jamesian narrative only to realize gradually that nothing is actually happening except, say, Isabel Archer has shifted her arm. But every possible psychological vibration in the room has been registered.
Katherine Boo, whose name I have always been fond of (boo!) tells us of the major pitfalls of narrative writing:
When you subjects are grim and your characters destitute, disabled, or extremely unintelligent, and the wrongs against them are complicated, how many people are going to relish tucking into you story with the bagels and cream cheese on Sunday morning?
As a disabled writer, I would like to say, with vigor, I dunno. Her favorite nondisabled nonfiction writers are Adam Hochschild, H. G. Bissinger, Darcy Frey, Joan Didion, Jessica Mitford, and A. J. Liebling (although the last was afflicted with a great fondness for rich foods, which made him testily obese in his later years).
If you are in a hurry like I am, and don't have time to tuck in the whole caboodle of Telling True Stories, do read Tom Wolfe's "The Emotional Core of the Story" howcum Boo didn't include Ryszard Kapuscinski or William Russell or Stephen Crane and the Lower East Side he found in the 1890s and most of all, Tom Wolfe.
Hegel's Zeitgeist, Wolfe tells us, is the "moral tone" of each era that presses down on the life of everyone "and no one can avoid it."
I think it's true, and why, in fiction or nonfiction about big cities, for example, the city should be treated as a character because cities are positively feverish with moral tone.
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or those of us who crave to be nonfiction writers, we have to know that there is, built in to that desire, the awful hard ceaseless nonending editing and writing and rewriting and editing and rewriting. And here it is best brought home in the terrific story of Sonia Nazario telling the story of Enrique, a seventeen-year-old boy who left Central America to find his mother in the United States. He went on foot, hitching rides, very dangrous rides, on passing freight trains (I wrote "fright trains;" I shudda let it be) or getting rides with strangers in cars and trucks.
Nazario went with him, or rather, spent six months "retracing his steps" and then interviewing the people who he had met along the way. Anyone who thinks that nonfiction writing is a lark should study her "Transforming One Hundred Notebooks into Thirty-Five Thousand Words." I had read the original story of Enrique when it came out in the Los Angeles Times, and I remember thinking, this is great writing. I didn't need no conference paid for by the Nieman Foundation to show me that. Enrique's story showed itself, as all good journalism should.--- Lolita Lark