Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Telling True Stories: A Review by Chip Deyerle

Title:  Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers Guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University.
Authors:  Mark Kramer and Wendy Call
Publisher:  Penguin Books, New York. 2006
ISBN 978-0-452-28755-6

As authors, did you ever wonder if the story you are trying to tell is in focus and framed in the proper context?  Are your facts accurate, or lacking? What if you can’t substantiate the truth of the story, but you are sure of your timeline?  Do you in fact have your facts supporting your narrative nonfiction work accurately referenced? In “Telling True Stories” authors Kramer and Call set out to discover what it takes to tell a story accurately and effectively.  To do so, they interviewed a large number of successful narrative nonfiction writers and asked them for pointers in how each author prefers to work.

Some of the authors quoted in this book include Nora Ephron, David Halberstam, Tom Wolfe, Susan Orlean, Adam Hochschild, Debra Dickerson, Alma Guillermoprieto, Tracy Kidder, Gay Talese, Phillip Lopate, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc and Malcolm Gladwell.

What do these authors know about telling true stories could fill volumes, but Kramer and Call have broken the code by providing valuable insights taken from their interviews with the superstars of nonfiction writing.  The following authors are highlighted for their writing and thinking processes for narrative nonfiction.

Gay Talese – Delving Into Personal Lives

As a non fiction writer, I indulge my curiosity in private lives.  I write nonfiction as a creative form. Creative, not falsified: not making up names, not composite characters, not taking liberties with factual information, but getting to know real –life characters through research, trust and building relationships.

I find a way to write and respect, a way to write truth that is  not insulting.  I don’t make allowances for their dalliances or deviations, but I slide those facts in without being harsh.  Precise writing allows that sloppy writing does not.

I get this care for language from reading the great fiction writers; F. Scott Fitzgerald, John O’Hara, Irwin Shaw.

David Halberstam:  The Narrative Idea

Writing “The Teammates” was pure pleasure.  I liked all the men: I’d worked with them before.  There was a richness to them and their lives.  They understood themselves and what had worked for them, and yet they had a certain modesty.  They’d reached the age of eighty, so they knew the book would be a summing up, not just for Ted Williams, but of their own lives. Later, my friend and colleague Frank DeFord  (Of NPR Fame), a wonderful writer for Sports Illustrated, got hold of the book and said “Damn, Why  didn’t  I have that idea?”

That’s precisely the point.  The book “is” the idea.  Once you have the idea, it just flows out.  This is perhaps the best advice I can offer.  Taking an idea a central point, and pursuing it, turning it into a story  that tells something about the way we liove today is the essence of narrative journalism.

That is precisely the point.  The book  ”is” the idea.  Once you have the idea, it just flows out.  This is perhaps the best advice I can offer. Taking an idea , a central point, and pursuing it, turning it into a story  that tells something about the way we live today is the essence of  narrative journalism.

Tracy Kidder:  Field Notes To Full Draft

“While I am writing early drafts of a book, I include everything I think might belong there.  I gather from field notes everything that seems potentially literogenic.  For that seems particularly complicated stories  one about an obvious narrative line, I make a chronological chart of events. I never write elaborate outlines, though I sometimes take a piece of paper and write a list of elements of the book.  I make a plan, set a deadline and try to take the deadline seriously.

Malcolm Gladwell:  The Limits of Profile (Page 73}

“The standard method of reporting a profile is to find someone and follow that person around.  At the “New Yorker” famously some writers spend much of their adult lives following their subjects around. That’s how you gt to the subject’s core, or so the idea goes.

I have never called anyone and said “I want to follow you around .”  Often I can get what I need in the first few hours I spend with the subject.  Anything more than that is unnecessary and could even be harmful.

Bruce DeSilva:  Endings

There are many ways to do this well.  A good ending can be:

·         A vividly drawn scene.
·         A memorable anecdote that clarifies the main point of the story.
·         A telling detail that symbolizes something larger than itself or suggests how the story might move forward into the future.
·         A compellingly crafted conclusion in which the writer addresses the reader directly and says ‘This is my point.”

Sometimes you may want to bring the story full circle, ending with an idea or words echoing the beginning.  Symmetry appeals to readers. Occasionally you may want to end with a quote that is superbly put but don’t do that very often.  After all you are the writer and you should be able to say it better.  It’s your story- why give the last word to someone else?

Tom Wolfe: The Emotional Core of the Story

“…the upshot is that two varieties of nonfiction now reign in American literature. One is the autobiography, whose popularity has never moved in the 444 years since Benvento Cellini’s “Confessions”…The other is nonfiction using the technical devices of the novel and the short story, the specific device that gave fiction its absorbing or gripping quality that makes the reader feel present in the scene described and even inside the skin of a particular character.  There are exactly four in number:
1) Scene-by-scene construction, the presenting of the narrative in a series of scenes and resorting to ordinary historical narration as little as possible.
2.) The use of copious dialogue -the (experimentally-demonstrated) easiest form of prose to read and the quickest to reveal character.
3.) the careful notation of status details, the details that reveal one’s social rank, or aspirations, everything from dress and furniture to the infinite status clues of speech, how one talks to superiors and inferiors, to the strong, to the weak, to the sophisticated, to the naive-and with what sort of accent and vocabulary.
4.) Point of view, in the Henry Jamesian sense of putting the reader inside the mind of someone other than the writer.

Those were the devices used in the so-called New Journalism movement that began in the 1960s.

Telling True Stories provides insights that would take many years to learn about, even in a classroom.  I recommend this book become a valuable part of your writer’s “how to” library. As you sit down to write your story, fiction or narrative nonfiction, you will have some guidance available from some truly great authors of our time.  --Chip Deyerle

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