I’ve written a lot in the last three decades. My curriculum vitae lists 41 published articles, 21 book chapters, dozens of conference papers, and assorted book reviews and “other” publications. And then there are two textbooks, one that’s one its seventh edition and counting. And my book, War Makes Men of Boys, that tracked my father’s transition from boy to man through the prism of his letters home during World War II. And I’ve done a lot of journal editing – I’m now beginning a stint on a third major disciplinary journal, plus assorted associate editor positions and special issues.
So, yes, I’ve written a lot in the last three decades. I shouldn’t be feeling so intimidated, then, by my current book project. Dani Shapiro recently said that, “The writing life isn’t just filled with predictable uncertainties but with the awareness that we are always starting over again.” This is, of course, true of every piece of writing – we always feel that terror of not knowing how it will work – IF it will work – this time around. But the terror is especially pronounced when shifting to a brand new way of putting words to paper.
I know the rules of academic writing. For a long time, I think I dreamed in APA style. Mind you, I’m not a stickler for it. I’m okay with first person. I appreciate the richness of ethnography and authoethnography. My textbooks are much more accessible than they are technical or theoretical. But I know the standards and have been writing comfortably in the academic world for many years. Even in my book about Dad, I took solace that though I needed to learn a new style – Chicago, to be precise – there was a well-established protocol to see me through.
This “creative nonfiction” thing, though, is a whole new ball of wax.
I’m comforted that there are some rules. Lee Gutkind, who has been dubbed the “Godfather of Creative Nonfiction,” says it really comes down to a pretty simple rule: You Can’t Make This Stuff Up. Okay, I get that. It’s nonfiction. Roy Peter Clark provides two “cornerstone principles”: Do not add and Do not deceive, as well as more specific injunctions to not use composite characters, not to compress time, be very careful about interior monologue, and check things out with meticulous care. He says in a contribution to the book Telling True Stories:
There is a world out there that is knowable. The stories we create correspond to what exists in the world. The words between quotation marks correspond to what was spoken. The shoes in the photo were the ones worn by the man when the photo was taken, not later.
Good, some rules. I can work with these rules. But how to do this when what I have are piles of newspaper clippings, oral histories, and papers from archives? How do I create stories that are true, that ring true, and that tell the truth I want to impart about women and work, then and now?
I decide to start by writing some scenes. Pieces of the lives of the women journalists at the heart of my book that can later be woven together into the larger narrative. Scenes that will be both evocative and factual. Scenes that will be both creative and nonfiction.
I start with a few scenes from my mother’s life. I was there at the time, so I feel pretty confident about the truth. Even here, though, I have to check with my sisters to see which one of us was the one who always made hot dogs and beans when Mom had to stay late at work.
Then I move on to a scene I wrote about in a previous blog post – Vivian Castleberry covering events in Dallas on November 22, 1963, the day of the JFK assassination. This should be relatively straightforward. I have Vivian’s recollections in her oral history and in several taped interviews. So I figure I can just “confirm” all the facts and try to write with as much evocative detail as possible.
Nope, not so easy. First, a crucial fact or two can’t be confirmed. Vivian remembers that her cousin was Abraham Zapruder’s assistant, standing at his shoulder as he filmed his fateful footage. Not so. Turns out, the cousin worked for Zapruder. The cousin was on the street as the motorcade passed. But the cousin was not the assistant standing by Zapruder. This fact, like others in the story, is a bit slippery to tie down – but ultimately something to be confirmed or disconfirmed.
Adding evocative detail proves equally challenging. How were people dressed? What were the sounds and sights that day at the Trade Mart? What was the sequence of events as the news was broken? How did Vivian’s family react? What was it like back at the Times Herald newsroom?
It took me hours to write the scene. I’m still not entirely happy with it, but it’s a decent first draft. I feel good, though, about two things. First, it’s really a scene – with narrative arc, detailed setting, action, even some dialogue. Second, I didn’t make anything up. I did not add. I did not deceive.
In other words, I’m writing creative nonfiction. I’m challenged by it. I’m scared. Luckily, Dani Shapiro reminds me that I’m not alone:
We may have written one book, or many, but all we know – if we know anything at all – is how to write the book we’re writing. All novels are failures. Perfection itself would be a failure. All we can hope is that we will fail better. That we won’t succumb to fear of the unknown. That we will not fall prey to the easy enchantments of repeating what may have worked in the past. I try to remember that the job – as well as the plight, and the unexpected joy – of the artist is to embrace uncertainty, to be sharpened and honed by it.