A Northwest Based Literary Journal

“The New Nonfiction” panel, #AWP16: Notes for Attendees

Hello, everyone! On April 1, I was part of a super-informative panel hosted by Talking Writing‘s warm, generous Martha Nichols. I promised I’d post some notes about how journalism can inform literary nonfiction. This post is about that.

That failed selfie from the panel. Talking Writing's wonderful Jennifer Jean is featured!

That failed selfie from the panel. Talking Writing’s wonderful Jennifer Jean is featured!

First, a pre-cursory note that somewhat echoes my submission guidelines: Good creative nonfiction requires deep dives that you might not have seen coming. These deep dives take time to get around to. Kathleen Dean Moore refers to these as “osprey’s dives,” where, like the osprey, you may circle around and around a thing before you see what you are meant to be diving for. Take time with this. Use the luxury of time that creative nonfiction can give you to noodle around and find what the truth of the thing that has struck you. And then, like the osprey, dive, dive, dive. And then send it over to me, with the knowledge that we nonfiction editors know what it took for you to get there, and that we are grateful.

Here are the five lessons I drew from the anecdote of my disgraced journalist friend: 

1. The truth is not necessarily what you set out to report on.

Journalists are assigned stories based on a pitch, but literary essay writers send out fully formed essays, so take your time and look for the truth that presents itself to you.

The evidence of a story may be pointing you in a different direction. You are storytellers, so use this evidence to craft that story that wants to be told. The direction you are forced to take may make for a different story entirely, but that’s okay.

2. Characters, dialogue, and details can make or break or story.

Learning good recording techniques, skills, and instincts will bring your story to life.

Get really, really good at observing and recording. If you can stand it, don’t type when you’re talking to an interview subject. It’s distracting. If you have to, learn to touch-type. Invest in a tiny recorder, so you can re-hear nuances in tone and pacing. In longhand, note down gestures, tics, habits. All of these things will make a difference.

While you’re at it, note down your own reactions. Part of the joy of creative nonfiction is that we have you, the storyteller or narrator, as a guide. Get to know yourself, and your reactions, well.

3. Great questions are a great way to dig out a story you didn’t expect. Expect to pivot, though, with the answers.

In a recent essay on what she called “Trumplandia,” poet Patricia Lockwood had to ask some deep questions of the people she met at rallies and on the street. She chose her interview subjects carefully in some cases and at random in others (her Uber driver is one of them). The questions she may have asked allowed her a deeper glimpse into the world she was getting at, and she seems to have not balked when she was given an answer she didn’t expect. Instead, she jukes with the answers and has follow-up questions on the spot.

Interviews are conversations, so treat them as such. Be ready to go deeper or move on.

4. Walk away if things aren’t panning out.

This is a learned skill, but it’s useful to know when a story has no bite. Sometimes, there is no there there. That’s okay. If what you have is an anecdote, and not a story, that’s okay. It may sting a little, but it’ll be worth it in the end: having to backpedal off a story that was never a story to begin with is truly awful stuff.

5. But don’t worry, you can still repurpose any story

Good background and notes are key, so keep good notes and you’re on your way to re-selling the story to someone else, with a different angle. In the current issue of TLR, we have an essay about bats that could be repurposed the following ways:

  • A longer piece on rainy day fun
  • A listicle on animals that should be creepy but that are cute instead
  • A reported article on the scientists who study bats
  • A thinkpiece on why some animals fall into that weird dip between cute and creepy

And a flash essay that’s in the same issue about a family who buys a home in foreclosure only to find it littered with artifacts from the previous owner could be repurposed this way:

  • An essay on keeping a family together during tough times, with added quotes from family counselors
  • A paid blog post on how to dispose of sensitive documents
  • An article on the things you need to do before you buy a foreclosed home.

See? Lots of places to go with your initial research. In any repurposing, be smart: Editors won’t take kindly to finding out you used the same quotes or phrasing in any other article.

Okay, guys, that’s my spiel. Hopefully you found it useful. And hopefully you all had a fantastic AWP. Spread these tips far and wide; with luck, we’ll reach everyone who was at our panel!


Categorised in: Backstage, Guidelines, Nonfiction

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