What’s your Creative Nonfiction Really About?

In honor of  National Novel Writing Month, I’m going to tell you another story about the time I taught a nonfiction writing class titled “Writing Your Family History,” at the Nashville Public Library for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

Although everyone reads nonfiction every day, a lot of people think of it as dry, like writing a 5-paragraph essay for school. They often equate nonfiction writing with an encyclopedia article- a collection of well-organized facts that puts you to sleep. (Note: I don’t think that way, I’ve written encyclopedia articles, but I understand the sentiment).

But what about that fascinating personality profile you’ve read about your favorite celebrity’s brush with death as a child?  Or the clever piece that was organized as a series of exotic meals, but was really about the small-town narrator’s growing comfort with an unfamiliar culture? How about the human interest story from the journalist in Syria who reveals to us the histories of the people who are trying to flee? Have you admired the way you can learn about the conflict not through 5 boring paragraphs, but through the eyes of people who live it each day?

That’s the magic, right there.

Seasoned writers know that. Beginning writers always say “yes, but that’s a celebrity, or someone traveling to Cameroon, or a trained journalist in a war zone. What about someone like me who grew up in Monterey, Tennessee and worked in a factory for 40 years? Who wants to read about that?” (This was a real question from class).

I think it’s such an important question. One that set the tone for the entire session. Continue reading “What’s your Creative Nonfiction Really About?”

The Elusive Nonfiction Writing Voice

I’ve always been somewhat of a giant. Being the tallest kid in every class made me a bit shy,  and so I retreated often into my head, where all of my favorite stories lived. In kindergarten, I loved going to the bushes at the edge of the playground during recess and collecting the ladybugs that lived there.  I would let them crawl around on my hands with their tickly little legs as I gave them names and invented stories about their lives. Every now and then the other kids would ask if I wanted to swing, or play house, or do other things kids did, but I was obsessed with the ladybug game, so I thanked them and promised next time I would.

One day, a boy came up to me and asked me what I was doing.  I knew him as kind of a mean boy, but he had never done anything to me, and truth be told, though I was shy, I had my meangirl moments so I gave him the benefit of the doubt. I explained the ladybug game to him, catching him up on the latest drama in bugland.

“That’s really neat,” he said. “Can I hold one?”

None of the other kids had ever expressed interest in my game. Eager for a friend to share in the joys of my ladybugs, I held my hand to his and nudged Esmerelda onto his thumb as I explained her backstory. She was going to become the first ladybug in space.

He held her up to the sun and nodded, then looked into my eyes. His squinted as the right side of his mouth curled up into a smirk.  He dropped the ladybug onto the ground, then stomped it while looking at me in glee.

Everything inside of me screeched with the injustice of it. He hadn’t just ruined my game, he had ended a life. It was unforgiveable.

I think maybe he expected me to cry. Or to run and tell the teacher. Instead, in one fluid movement, I shook the other ladybugs off of my hands, grabbed his hair, and threw him to the ground. Then I put my little pink sneaker on his throat and held it there until he started to cry and the teacher intervened.

Now, why am I sharing this story that paints five year old me in an incredibly unflattering and violent light?

It’s all about writing voice. Bear with me.

Continue reading “The Elusive Nonfiction Writing Voice”

The Smart Women’s Summer, Part 1

Summer is in full swing and the Smart Women want to talk about what each of their summers looks like.

Mine?

I’ve already had a full summer’s worth of life crammed into my summer so far, but why not live in the fast lane?

I just got back from Barbados, where I presented on the Caribbean holdings of the Slave Societies Digital Archive at the Association of Caribbean Historians’ annual meeting. Let me tell you, this group of scholars is amazing. About half come from institutions in the Caribbean itself, and the rest from everywhere else. They do simultaneous translation so that people who don’t speak English, Spanish, and French can hear the latest scholarship of the full region and ask questions of people a language barrier would prevent them from asking. And they are the only scholarly organization that I know of, that has a end-of-conference fete written directly into the constitution. Our right to party is constitutional! And what a fete. You haven’t lived until you’ve been part of a group of scholars who can both bachata and whine. Continue reading “The Smart Women’s Summer, Part 1”

Writing a Trade History Book, Part 1: The Introduction

I’m the kind of person who writes introductions last for pretty much everything. I always have, and I always will advise my students to do the same. It just makes sense- most of us who write, do so in order to figure out how we think about something. Only once we’ve written do we find out what our writing was about.

However, when you are trying to sell a nonfiction history book to the big four publishers, the introduction is one of the main deciding factors in whether or not it gets bought. Generally, just like with an academic book, you sell your nonfiction book based on a proposal that includes an outline and sample chapters. For a nonfiction history book, the introduction is probably the most important thing, because it does so much in so little space, therefore showcasing your skill as both a historian and a popular history writer.

A good trade history introduction will entertain, inform, and make promises, usually in equal amounts. Now, I’m lucky- my book is about pirates, and spoiler: one of them gets crucified. That practically writes itself, right?

Wrong.

Well, right and wrong.

You’d be surprised (I was) at how difficult it is to use documents created for one set of purposes (a criminal investigation, international diplomacy, taxation, etc.) and pull a narrative story that reads almost like fiction out of them.

It’s easy to summarize the documents “Well, here was the court case of the main witness against the pirate who said he bludgeoned his sloop’s entire crew. Here are the pirate’s last words before his execution.  Here are some random court documents that mention how he stole the captain’s wigs before killing him so that he could disguise his own distinctive hair. Here are some newspaper articles about other crimes that were attributed to him too.”

But that’s only really entertaining to other historians who see and immediately understand the value in having all of those documents together. See, historians tend to unconsciously process documents to get directly to the “so what?” moment. It’s rarely an explicit process, because we will read a collection of related primary sources and immediately understand why those sources are interesting and important, and how they affect what other types of things were going on at the time. Because of our training and instincts, we tend to skip the most important step of reconstructing the story, and instead link everything in our heads. So we analyze the documents, then explain how they fit into, alter, or corroborate our current understanding of history. One might argue that for academia and other related professions, that’s more than sufficient.

For a trade history audience, however, that does not work in the same way. A trade audience wants to be entertained. They don’t care how brilliant I am, and they don’t want to watch me solve the historical puzzle and explain how it affects our understanding of history. They want me to show them the puzzle, and introduce the contemporary people on the ground who were part of it. They don’t want a lecture on the 18th century Atlantic economy, they want me to drop details and pieces of the historical context only as necessary and when they first appear in the narrative arc of the story, and only as necessary to their understanding of what’s going on.  These readers are smart, and they don’t want me to explain to them, they want me to show them so that they themselves can figure it out. The whole purpose of my training as a historian is to re-arrange the evidence and the context and to figure out which historic information is relevant to the story and which isn’t, and accompany the reader along a journey like a guide who allows them to discover the historic relevance for themselves.

In other words, the entertaining part of a trade history book that many academic history books lack, is consideration for the reader’s enjoyment. My job isn’t to bombard the reader with every bit of information related to those primary sources I’m writing about. This isn’t a competition to see how much knowledge a reader can absorb. Rather, my job is to carefully curate this information into an enjoyable experience that allows the reader to become an active detective figuring out things as they go along, rather than being told these things outright. Just like in fiction, I’m showing, and not telling.

So back to the introduction of the book. It needs to promise this type of entertaining historical experience to the reader, while also assuring those who know a bit more about the business, that I know what I’m doing, and am doing it purposefully. In my book proposal, the chapter outline is where I get to show off to publishers what I know and how I’m planning on piecing it together, but my introduction is the first taste of how well I am going to do that. So it’s written like a piece of fiction, introducing characters only when they become relevant, and explaining only what needs to be explained at that moment to keep the story going. In this way, you have equal amounts of entertainment and information- the best of both worlds, at least in my opinion. Then later towards the end, you get a few pages to make some promises. Now that you’ve told the beginning of what will amount to a really bloody and captivating story, you get a very small amount of space to convince the reader that they badly want to find out what happens next.

This is similar to a film trailer- you show the highlights, and allude to how the reader will be changed at the end. For me, that means hinting at ways in which this pirate case will help illuminate a part of history (the American Revolution) that they thought they knew everything about already. I am promising that in reading this book, the reader will make some discoveries that enrich their understanding of our shared past, all while being entertained by pirates. It’s a tall order, and it takes a lot more skill to pull off than I initially thought.  Three rewrites in, and I think I’m finally beginning to get it.