Why I Write Nonfiction

Carl Sagan, the creator of the 1980s series Cosmos, once said that “a book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.” I believed in that magic from the time I first learned how to read and to write. Reading taught me that I could visit different countries, travel back and forth in time, even get inside the minds of other people, but when I learned how to write, I realized that I could introduce other people to the same experiences. To me, reading was a miracle, and being a writer was to be a miracle worker.

You might say that I view writing as a calling. It might also be called a talent, a gift, a skill or a craft (or all of these). But first of all, it is a responsibility—to communicate the Truth as you understand it in order to help others make sense of the world. Writers are high priests of the Temple of the Meaning of Life, not because we have the answers, but because we are willing to ask the questions. “Why am I here? What is the point of all of this?”  Every piece of writing is an attempt to answer those questions in one way or another.

Although I have tried many different kinds of writing—poetry, stories, (unpublished) novels, plays, blog posts, newspaper columns and magazine articles—I have finally come to accept that the genre that best represents me is nonfiction. For years, I resisted the label of “nonfiction writer” because I was under the mistaken impression (fostered by what I learned as a schoolchild) that “real” writing (or literature) had to be fiction: poetry, short stories, plays and novels. I bought into the idea that nonfiction was more pedestrian and practical than fiction, that it required less imagination, creativity, and even talent. In other words, I saw fiction as art and nonfiction as craft. Fiction was magic and nonfiction was just plain reality.

And yet, when I look back on the books that have stayed with me over the years, it seems that most of them are nonfiction, mainly in the form of essays, like Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift From the Sea and Richard Selzer’s Confessions of a Knife. I have gradually come to realize that I want to do what they did, which is to take the mundane and lift it to the level of the sacred. I want to dispel the notion that only fiction can engage the heart as well as the mind, or that real life, in the form of facts, is boring and uninspiring.

I want to show my readers how to see the whole universe in a grain of sand.