Writing Great Non-fiction: An Introduction
Like a music fan who pulls out favorite tunes before a big concert, I’ve been thinking about some of my favorite works of literary non-fiction in anticipation of our upcoming live chat with writer and teacher Helen Epstein this coming Sunday, Aug. 23, at 11 EST. I learn so much from examining the ways in which these talented writers make words sing.
A competent writer conveys information. A good writer will hold your interest long enough to get a point across. But a master of the craft can take a reader into a visceral, palpable storyworld. That mastery, combined with rigorous reporting, is the stuff of literary non-fiction.
As with all journalism, the reporting comes first. Literary journalism requires intimate knowledge, preferably gained through primary research. Think, for example, about the reporting behind this cascading lead to Epstein’s exquisite 1978 profile of pianist Vladimir Horowitz for the New York Times magazine:
“Vladimir Horowitz performs no more than 20 concerts each year, only on Sunday afternoons at 4, and only in places he likes. He does not play in Denver because he finds the altitude disagreeable or in St. Louis because he thinks the acoustics of its hall compare badly with those of his bathroom. He does not play in Poughkeepsie where, “the public is not musical enough” or in Montana or Idaho, which he has no desire to see. He does not play in Europe because he dislikes flying long distances and, although he would like to visit Japan, the mere thought of getting there casts a pall over his long, extraordinary face…”
I hope you noticed, by the way, that this lead is doing triple duty. First, the formality of the language sets a tone. The repetition of “only,” and “He does not..” lets you know that Horowitz is a pretty demanding fellow. We know he’s arrogant – not only must his audiences prove themselves worthy of coming to see them, they have to live in places that he’s decided are worth visiting! However, there is a hint of vulnerability too — the use of the word “pall” doesn’t just suggest that he dislikes the idea of going to Japan; he dreads it.
That tone reflects another characteristic of literary journalism, which is its use of theme. The theme is the larger lesson that elevates the reporting. Gail Sheehy, who has spent decades writing about the stages of adult psychological development, uses that knowledge to set a theme in this 2008 profile of director and actor Clint Eastwood:
He’s sitting at home, stroking his pet rabbit. His wife is out. His
latest picture is a wrap. He is content to have nothing to do.
“When you’re young, you’re very reckless,” says Clint Eastwood with
his usual economy of words. “Then you get conservative. Then you get
reckless again.” That is, if you live long enough.
Days before, I had seen Clint’s latest film, Gran Torino,
Clint Eastwood, in which he plays a bent and bitter old racist. In the
film he lopes, with his trademark dynamic lassitude, into a hail of
bullets. He does not look like a man who pets rabbits.
The theme is how one’s perspective on life changes after 70. But just as Epstein’s opening passage mimicked Horowitz’s imperiousness, Sheehy comes at us in a voice so plainspoken, it could belong to one of Eastwood’s spaghetti-western no-name cowboys. And Sheehy, too, confounds our expectations of the man even as she reinforces the persona fans have grown to love over the decades. Eastwood, the man, has a soft heart for bunnies. Eastwood on screen “lopes…into a hail of bullets.”
Students of the craft know that this style of journalism had its heyday during the 60s, although scholars such as Michael Robertson have traced the blending of fiction narrative structure with non-fiction reporting back to the work of Stephen Crane, Ernest Hemingway and Theodore Dreiser. I’d throw Richard Wright’s,” Joe Louis Uncovers Dynomite” into the mix – compare his use of sound in the opening line to the way he opens his novel, Native Son.
But it was during the 1960s that popular magazines such as the New Yorker, Esquire and Rolling Stone started publishing the writers that Tom Wolfe labeled as part of the New Journalism movement: Gay Talese, Jimmy Breslin, Hunter Thompson, and Joan Didion among them. Gail Sheehy was in that number, but she was edged out when it was revealed that her New York magazine expose on the life of Manhattan hooker was built on a composite character. To be fair, Sheehy wasn’t the first literary journalists to play fast and loose with literal fact – longtime New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell did the same thing, and he’s still considered one of the best non-fiction writers of the 20th century.
Of all the great non-fiction published in those years, one of the most admired is Gay Talese’s 1966 profile of the man some still call the Chairman of the Board, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” One of the most stunning things about this story is that Talese followed Sinatra around for weeks – and never got an interview. But he talked to enough people around Sinatra and dug up so much information about him that he gave readers a panoramic vision of Sinatra’s life — and maybe some clues to what really made the crooner tick. Observing Sinatra in a bar one night, Talese poignantly juxtaposes the intimacy of his music with the remoteness of the man:
But now, standing at this bar in Beverly Hills, Sinatra had a cold , and he continued to drink quietly and he seemed miles away in his private world, not even reacting when suddenly the stereo in the other room switched to a Sinatra song, “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning.”
It is a lovely ballad that he first recorded ten years ago, and it now inspired many young couples who had been sitting, tired of twisting, to get up and move slowly around the dance floor, holding one another very close. Sinatra’s intonation, precisely clipped, yet full and flowing, gave a deeper meaning to the simple lyrics — “In the wee small hours of the morning/while the whole wide world is fast asleep/you lie awake, and think about the girl….” — it was like so many of his classics, a song that evoked loneliness and sensuality, and when blended with the dim light and the alcohol and nicotine and late-night needs, it became a kind of airy aphrodisiac. Undoubtedly the words from this song, and others like it, had put millions in the mood, it was music to make love by, and doubtless much love had been made by it all over America at night in cars, while the batteries burned down, in cottages by the lake, on beaches during balmy summer evenings, in secluded parks and exclusive penthouses and furnished rooms, in cabin cruisers and cabs and cabanas — in all places where Sinatra’s songs could be heard were these words that warmed women, wooed and won them, snipped the final thread of inhibition and gratified the male egos of ungrateful lovers; two generations of men had been the beneficiaries of such ballads, for which they were eternally in his debt, for which they may eternally hate him. Nevertheless here he was, the man himself, in the early hours of the morning in Beverly Hills, out of range.
Read more: Frank Sinatra Has a Cold
Did you catch that strategic use of passive voice? “[D]oubtless much love had been made” – as if Sinatra’s voice had an inexorable power to draw bodies together in spite of themselves. What a sad irony, Talese is telling us – the man behind the siren voice is utterly alone.
This kind of juxtaposition is powerul. So is the use of dialogue, another staple of literary journalism. Just take this conversation between a renowned origami artist and a clueless spectator, captured by New Yorker writer Susan Orlean:
“My God, look,” she said, pointing to Lang. “He’s in a suit!”
Lang stopped folding and looked up at her.
“It’s just … to see an artist all clean and dressed, and in a suit,” she sputtered.
Lang smiled and said, “Well, my kimono was at the cleaners.” He resumed folding.
“You’re good at the origami,” the woman said. “Have you done other jobs?”
Lang said, “Yes, in fact, I have. For years, I was a physicist.”
The woman grabbed her husband’s arm again and gasped, “Oh, my God!”
Blogger Birdie Jaworski displays a great ear for dalog in many of her rich vignettes. One example that I especially like is her retelling of an encounter between her sons, then 9 and 7, and James Doohan. , the actor who played “Scotty” in the original Star Trek series:
“Uh, Sir, may I ask a question?” I closed my eyes and bit my tongue and sent a quick prayer to whoever might be listening that 9 didn’t put Scotty on the spot. The old man nodded and grinned. 9 plowed ahead, asked a question about a specific time-traveling episode where Scotty pulled a miracle out of his uniformed butt, saved the Enterprise, the crew, a lost-cause planet, and the whole friggen universe at large. “So,” 9 continued, “how is this possible?” He didn’t stop talking, pointed out the temporal inconsistencies, the ways in which science declares These Things Impossible.
Oh man, I thought. Here it comes. I waited for Scotty to tell 9 that these things simply aren’t real, they are figments of some writer’s imagination, and he just acted, just pretended to fix a starship. 9 knows this already, I knew. But who wants to hear it from an idol?
I’ll let you read the post to find out what he said, but you can take a hint from Birdie’s title: “The Day Scottie Saved the Future.” Birdie also has a gift for the nuances that can make your writing conversational, but not mundane. She could have quoted 9 word-for-word, but most of us aren’t Trekkies, so why bother? Instead, she has this child talking about “temporal inconsistencies.” By contrast, Scotty the adult, “pulled a miracle out of his uniformed butt.” She could have said, “Scotty pulled off a miracle,” but that wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun.
If you want to hone your writing chops, there are a number of good blogs out there to help you along. BlogHer CE Virginia Debolt’s First 50 Words offers great practice at writing concisely and compellingly in response to a prompt. The Diary of Why has a writing prompt that works like a party game. April at The Little Writer That Could also has exercises, and she is looking for critique partners.
Finally, for her inventive experiment with structure, dialog, description and symbolic detail, it’s hard to beat the opening essay in Joan Didion’s White Album. “I am talking here about a time when I began to doubt the premises of all the stories I had ever told myself…” she explains, and what follows is a pastiche of random acts of cruelty, encounters with mysterious strangers, behind the scenes lunacy with the likes of Jim Morrison and a very definitive nervous breakdown. And you know what? It feels like the 60s. In just 17 pages, she’s got most of the truth of it, at least from her privileged and idiosyncratic position. It’s more than factual; it feels true. And that’s the essence of literary journalism.
Cross-posted at Blogher