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A Lesson from Nonfiction Writers

Posted on Friday, June 25, 2010 at 1:51 PM

Many lessons to learn from the pages of The Writer's Notebook.

By Peter P. Jacobi

Some sections of The Writer's Notebook, Craft Essays from Tin House (Tin House Books), focus exclusively on issues of fiction, which we're not in the business of. However, this collection of essays, based on craft seminars offered by those who publish the journal Tin House, is packed with nuggets worth the attention of nonfiction writers, too.

Let me share a few as a way of inducing you to look more deeply into the book's content.

Read It Aloud

Rick Bass, a Montana writer with a passion for environmentalism, has contributed "When To Keep It Simple." He discusses how to extricate oneself from the "too wrapped up in a lofty thought" situation: "Say it straight; literally. I'll try to speak the thought out loud, as if in conversation -- unaided by the treachery and guile of words on paper and speaking it as if in explanation, as when someone asks what it is you're working on, and you use plain language to tell them the synopsis rather than using high-octane dream lyrics."

How often have I preached the "read it aloud" path toward clarity and flow? Bass builds an entire essay on that potent piece of advice.

Keep It Authentic

Dorothy Allison, a Northern California-based novelist, feminist, and professor, focuses on "Place;" that's the title of her piece. She pleads for knowing detail, pointing to self experience as the means for the gathering and using of such. "I grew up among truck drivers and waitresses," she says.

Therefore: "I can give you detail. I can describe for you the tile they use in most truck stops because truckers have a horrible tendency to puke after having drunk great quantities of beer on top of chili. I know the colors of those tiles. I know, in fact, why 7-Elevens are designed the way they are. I've worked there ... Those places are real places for me. You probably read my stories to learn more about diners. And waitresses. And truck drivers. And I read to learn about the Jews in Brooklyn, the fishermen of Maine, and the combine drivers in Iowa."

Allison is encouraging authenticity, another issue I've addressed over the years. She asks us as writers to know and understand what we're writing about by using our own background or, short of that, doing careful fact finding, all to offer our readers meaningful detail.

Jim Shepard ties in to the above thought. He's a novelist and short story writer who teaches at Williams College. In his essay, "Generating Fiction from History and/or Fact," Shepard says: "The writers I admire take the world personally. It isn't true that only people who live in South LA can write about South LA: people who care enough to learn a bout South LA can write about South LA. If you can convince me of the reality of something, you have gained an authority."

Non-fictional Dream

Anna Keesey, a short story writer headquartered in Oregon, writes about "Making a Scene." She refers to John Gardner's classic text, The Art of Fiction, and his efforts to create the "fictional dream." It's "a kind of trance," she explains, "in which people read and they forget they're reading and they see the thing in front of them as though it's actually happening. They drop through the letters on the page into the imagined world and they respond to that world emotionally as if its events are actually happening."

That goal applies for nonfiction writers, too. We don't aim to get the reader into an "imagined" world, but if we can get the reader to "drop through the letters on the page" into the actual world we're trying to re-create, then we've done our job. It's a goal devoutly to be striven for.

Effective Writing

Margot Livesey, an author of fiction who serves as writer in residence at Emerson College, adds "Shakespeare for Writers" to the Tin House collection. She supplies sixteen useful lessons, among them, the following:

--"Begin dramatically."
--"Don't keep back the good stuff."
--"Consider beginning in the present."
--"Remember the power of appropriate omission. We don't need to take every journey with the characters, make every cup of coffee."
--"Don't over explain."
--"Be aware that form and tone govern content."
--"Be ambitious with your language."

Livesey expands on the above and others on her list, and -- in total -- they make for a mini-course in effective writing. But then, the entirety of The Writer's Notebook holds value. Don't be frightened off by the preponderance of fiction writers. There's much you can learn from these pages.

Revising Your Work

Take as a final example what memoirist and short story writer Chris Offutt covers in "Performing Surgery without Anesthesia." He deals with revising your copy and how to go about handling the completion of one's first draft, with which often comes the feeling of having "written something of absolute brilliance." As he puts it: "I love that feeling. It lasts until the next morning, when I look at the work again and realize it's a piece of crap." At that point, he explains, distancing becomes critical, brought on by the needed passage of time and the
re-emergence of objectivity about one's work.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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