As much as the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has impacted the lives of nearly everyone on the planet, it has also given writers a unique moment in history about which to write. In the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, the world is experiencing political unrest, protests and riots, bombings, police brutality, civil rights challenges, voting challenges, international conflict, and the most divided political world in more than a century.
We are living history. The world is on fire, and writers are eyewitnesses to the world. We can’t turn on the news, the Internet, or even meme threads on Reddit without seeing reference to some shocking new event that impacts ourselves and our world.
No one should recognize the opportunity in the chaos more than writers. Newspapers and journals are filled with opinion pieces and personal essays, but those are only the tip of the creative nonfiction iceberg.
Creative nonfiction and personal reportage in times of crisis.
Creative nonfiction (CNF) encompasses a broad range of nonfiction, but is explained concisely, as the editor’s of Creative Nonfiction Magazine say, “True stories, well told.”
CNF uses the same literary devices as fiction to tell a true story. I often call this life writing, because it’s about our true life, but the key is to make the story less academic — less journalistic — and more creative. Essentially, to tell it as a story rather than a dry report.
Examples of CNF include personal essays, autobiography, memoir, lyric essays, literary journalism, humor, spiritual essays, travel, nature, environmental writing, and so-on, as my uncle would say, because the genre is both hard to define and hard to tie into a neat little bow.
Infinite possibility is the joy of creative nonfiction.
The personal essay, a primary CNF form, has been around since Montaigne, but a more recent example is Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Capote once called his work a nonfiction novel. While some suggest that Capote’s work is a true crime book, in fact, what he wrote was more literary as he noted:
“It seemed to me that journalism, reportage, could be forced to yield a serious new art form” (Plimpton par. 3).
Personal reportage owes much of its modern birth to Capote and what he saw as a melding of journalism and literature, which provided a window into the events in Holcomb, KS, but also a reflection on the human condition.
“When I first formed my theories concerning the nonfiction novel, many people … felt that what I proposed, a narrative form that employed all the techniques of fictional art but was nevertheless immaculately factual, was little more than a literary solution for fatigued novelists suffering from ‘failure of imagination.’ Personally, I felt that this attitude represented a ‘failure of imagination’ on their part” (Plimpton par. 7).
Oftentimes, personal reportage focuses on current events in which the writer has personal involvement, which opens up like a window into a new world for the reader. Rather than concise writing, such as one reads in the Sunday news, however, personal reportage uses storytelling techniques often wielded in fiction writing. To further develop the concept of personal reportage, writer and essayist Philip Gerard said
“The best nonfiction writers are first-rate reporters, reliable eyewitnesses focused on the world, not themselves, and relentless researchers with the imagination to understand the implications of their discoveries” (Miller and Paola 117).
This is the form used by Gloria Steinem in her 1963 “A Bunny’s Tale.” Steinem, a staunch feminist, immersed herself as a cocktail waitress in the Playboy Club in the early sixties. This immersive journalism is still hailed as a groundbreaking expose, “fresh and relevant as ever” (Mills par. 1). She didn’t simply report the story, she became a primary element in the story, and was able to shine a light on a hidden world that reflected the human condition.
The Five “Eyes” of Inquiry.
In the world of global intelligence, Five Eyes (FVEY) are the intelligence services of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States, but in the world of personal reportage, the five “I’s” of inquiry include immersion, interviews, the Internet, information, and imagination.
A key caveat is that personal reportage requires fact-based inquiry, so while creative nonfiction uses fictional skillsets, the facts remain facts.
Interviewing is a skillset every writer should master. Develop a list of questions prior to the actual interview. Make them open-ended, rather than simple yes or no questions, and write them down, because no matter the amount of preparation, even the best researcher will forget a question when depending on the fallible human brain.
When it comes time for the actual interview, be it over email, the phone, Internet, or in-person, writers should work hard to develop a relationship with the interview subject — this isn’t a cross-examination — so start with simple questions designed to put the subject at ease. Leave long pauses that give the subject time to fill the quiet with additional information. Really listen to what they say and ask follow-up questions. Save the tougher questions for the end of the interview, so if the subject objects — as they inevitably will — the writer still has answers to the earlier questions with which to work.
Immersion can work in the same way it did for Steinem. The writer immerses themselves into the story, but immersion can also mean research, where the writer buries themselves in an overabundance of information from personal interviews, personal experience, research into historical and public records, documents both legal and personal like diaries or letters, and as much primary source data as can be collected via publications and research databases.
Information is key to any story, and the best place to seek and find information is the library. Yes, the Internet is an unlimited source of everything, including information, but the Internet is also a colossal time-suck with unlimited DISinformation. Do preliminary Internet research to build basic knowledge, visit court archives, geneology sites, the census bureau, and newspaper databases, but then avail yourself of a research librarian.
I worked for severals years in the public library system, and I lived for the patron who asked real research questions rather than the ubiquitous “where’s the bathroom” or “do you have such-and-such DVD?”
Librarians are a wealth of information and know better than anyone how to manipulate the research databases to find the right keywords and eventually the best source documents. Develop a relationship with the librarians in your community, college, or university library. Introduce yourself, and once you’ve established a relationship, continue to work with the same librarian. This relationship eliminates the need to reintroduce yourself and your research topic at each instance, but it also puts a bug in the ear of the librarian, who will note any new books or articles on the topic of interest.
The final “I” is imagination. After filling the empty page with as much factual information as possible, writers can give their imaginations free-rein. Keep in mind that imagination is used in the presentation of the information, but the information remains inviolable. The facts, then, are woven inextricably into the larger narrative story.
Imagination and literary devices build story.
In the same way that fiction writers use literary devices, CNF writers can and should add depth to the writing using literary devices considering beginnings and endings; theme, symbol, and metaphor; plot; characterization; setting; and the whole writer’s toolbox of craft devices.
In the book Tell It Slant, writers Brenda and Suzanne Paola tell the story of a writer whose essay discusses “how swimming and swimming pools have defined her and held her milestones” and noted that the smell of chlorine turned up “again and again” (119–120). They continue:
“The essay goes on to use the touchstone of chlorine — odorless, changing forever what it contacts — as a metaphor for all the invisible ways life touches and changes us” (Miller and Paola 120).
Begin with the little things
Starting an essay of any sort requires consideration, and is a challenge for many CNF writers. In print journalism, writers start with the lede.
“A lede is the first sentence or opening paragraph of a news story that immediately grabs the reader’s attention. This introductory section provides a statement, establishes a scenario, or sets up a question that the body of the news article will address by supplying the relevant supporting information” (Masterclass par. 2).
This works well in a journalism form that attempts to provide the most vital information first, but personal reportage is a journey for the reader and the writer, so where to begin is not a small thing.
While discussing how Virginia Woolf opens her essay “The Death of a Moth,” essayist Dinty Moore recommends starting small rather than with a lede.
“Woolf quite deliberately employs one of the most effective ways of anchoring a reader into an essay. She chooses something small, tangible, something with which we are all familiar [a moth], as her initial subject” rather than starting with “a gloomy pronouncements about death being inevitable” (Moore 43).
As I tell my undergraduate students, no two people think alike. Don’t assume the reader is tracking with the way your mind works. Instead, show the thought process on the page, so in the end, both reader and writer are changed by the journey.
“In the best nonfiction, it seems to me, you’re always made aware that you are being engaged with a supple mind at work. The story line or plot in nonfiction consists of the twists and turns of a thought process working itself out… There is nothing more exciting,” he says later, “than to follow a live, candid mind thinking on the page, exploring uncharted waters” (Lopate 43).
As the world continues to burn, both figuratively and literally, writers become the primary source for future history. They represent a reflective and analytical viewpoint that is often absent in bare-bones reporting. In the current chaotic place in history, writers are eyewitnesses to the world. Do it well.
Prompts for developing your personal reportage.
- Focus on the little things. Just as Virginia Woolf started her essay with an intense focus on a moth, choose a “little thing” in your environment or in the environment of your essay. Consider what you “see,” but also what you hear, smell, taste, or touch. As noted in the use of the smell of chlorine as a metaphor for the invisible things that touch us, consider what these small things can symbolize. Brainstorm for 5–10 minutes on all the “little details” that you recall.
- Focus on place. Whether your reportage is from your own life or the reported life of someone else, spend time brainstorming about the location. Consider events, people, or things (props or metaphors from above) that you associate with that place. If you’re interviewing, consider asking them questions about place. All the sensory details. In this way, place can become a unifying element to your essay. Brainstorm for 5–10 minutes on place.
- Focus on perspective. We see the world through the lens of our own experience, but by shifting the perspective, we can identify new depth of understanding that’s unattainable from our one-dimensional lens. Step back and tell the story from an outside perspective, either that of another person in the story or a distancing “you.” Brainstorm for 5–10 minutes on what this story looks like from another point of view.
- Capote, Truman. In Cold Blood. Vintage International Books, 1965.
- Lopate, Philip. To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction. Free Press, 2013.
- MasterClass. “How to Write a Lede in Journalism.” Masterclass.com, 4 December 2019, https://www.masterclass.com/articles/how-to-write-a-lede-in-journalism.
- Miller, Brenda, and Suzanne Paola. Tell It Slant. McGraw-Hill, 2005.
- Mills, Nicolaus. “Gloria Steinem’s ‘A Bunny’s Tale’ — 50 Years Later.” The Guardian, 26 May 2013, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/may/26/gloria-steinem-bunny-tale-still-relevant-today.
- Moore, Dinty. Crafting the Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction. Writer’s Digest Books, 2010.
- Plimpton, George. “The Story Behind a Nonfiction Novel.” The New York Times, 16 January 1966, http://movies2.nytimes.com/books/97/12/28/home/capote-interview.html.
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Cindy Skaggs grew up on stories of mob bosses, horse thieves, cold-blooded killers, and the last honest man. Those mostly true stories gave her a lifelong love of storytelling that enables her writing addiction. She is the author of seven published romantic suspense novels, including The Untouchables series for Entangled Publishing, plus the Team Fear series.
Cindy is a writer, public speaker, college professor, and military veteran who holds an Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing (Fiction) and Master of Arts in Creative Writing (Creative Nonfiction). She is an advocate for military and veteran issues, mom to two humans, and a reluctant wrangler of too many critters. Find more at www.CSkaggs.com.