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Although I have tried many different kinds of writing—poetry, stories, (unpublished) novels, plays, blog posts, newspaper columns and magazine articles—I have finally come to accept that the genre that best represents me is nonfiction.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.


How Film Has Changed Literature

E. L. Doctorow wrote about the relationship between film and literature in a 1999 essay for The New York Times. (“Quick Cuts: The Novel Follows Film into a World of Fewer Words“) He made three distinct points about movies:

  1. They are nonliterate (some might say illiterate).
  2. They’ve changed the way readers read.
  3. They’ve changed the way writers write.

I thought the first point was the most provocative. I’m used to thinking of film and literature as being closely related. After all, they both tell stories, set scenes, introduce characters, are usually fictional and involve writing (the screenplay). But if you think about it, movies are mostly visual. As Doctorow puts it:

“In some of today’s film dramas, 95 percent of a scene’s meaning is conveyed before a word is uttered; 98 percent if you add music.”

Obviously this was true when movies were silent; so much information was supplied visually that the title cards were almost unnecessary. But if what Doctorow says is true, today’s movies might as well be silent. (Especially action movies which are full of shooting, explosions and car chases.)

The literate (that is, relying heavily on the verbal) movie is not being made today. It used to be popular to make stage plays into movies; now a common complaint about a movie with a lot of dialogue is that “it’s a stage play.”  (In other words, “Bring on the action!”)

The second point is a no-brainer. We’ve become a society that expects instant gratification. We have no patience for drawn-out soliloquies or conversations. We don’t want to have to think, make inferences, put together the story on our own; we want to see all before us, right now.

One reason why genre fiction is so popular is because it cuts to the chase. There’s little exposition or description; everything is in shorthand. Literary fiction is a harder sell because it usually takes a more circuitous route to get to the point (if there even is one). And the classics? Most people are introduced to them through film. (Except for required reading in school.) I wonder if Jane Austen would be as popular as she is today if there hadn’t been so many film adaptations of her work.

As for the third point, because readers read differently, so writers, who are also influenced by film, have to write differently. Before movies and television, readers had to rely on the writer to give them all the details, both external and internal. Description was vital. In a movie, a psychological state can be conveyed non-verbally, by a character’s facial expression or mannerisms. There is no need for description of scenery or appearance; the visuals take care of all that.

Have you thought about how film affects the way that you write? Do you think writers should buck this trend? Or do we need to adapt?

Are Small, Local Writers’ Conferences Worth It?

I used to think that you had to be a “real” writer to go to a writers’ conference. Otherwise, how could you justify spending the (often considerable amount of) time and money to go to one?

To me, a “real” writer is someone who:

  • Writes creatively.
  • Writes every day.
  • Has been published.
  • Has been paid for her writing.
  • Claims writing-related expenses on his tax return.
  • Has a manuscript ready to show an editor or publisher.

I write every day, but sometimes all I write is in my journal; I couldn’t possibly call everything I write “creative.” I have been published, but not very often and rarely for pay. I never make enough to qualify as a business, which means I can’t claim expenses against that business. And although I have tons of unfinished manuscripts, I don’t have one that I feel is ready to show to anyone.

Still, I decided to take the plunge and attend my first writers’ conference this past weekend. It helped that the cost was only $40 (free if you had a student I.D.). That included three workshops, a keynote speaker, two meals, access to authors and small presses selling their wares, and readings by the workshop presenters. Incredible, really, but I was still apprehensive about whether or not I was wasting my money.

I couldn’t get to sleep the night before the conference. I was worrying about silly stuff like whether or not I’d be able to get up on time, find a place to park, and what I was going to wear. I tend to do this before every event I go to. In fact, I worried so much about going to my class reunion last year I ended up not going at the last minute. I guess you cold say I’m a pessimist: I always expect things to go wrong.

However, I don’t think you have to be a pessimist to have feelings like this before a writers’ conference. Unless you’re supremely confident about your writing ability (and experience), it’s easy to worry about feeling like a fraud (again, not a “real” writer). Or you might be afraid that you won’t get much out of the workshops or that the speaker would be uninspiring. I was even worried about whether I’d be able to stay awake.

One thing that gave me pause (and that explained the low fee, I thought) was that I had never heard of any of the writers that were going to be at the conference. As it turned out, that turned out to be an advantage, for two reasons:

I didn’t feel overawed by the authors’ “star quality” and could relate to them as real people. I wasn’t intimidated by their reputations nor did I discount their examples by thinking, “Well, sure, he could do that—he’s famous!”

The authors’ advice hit close to home since they were all local (meaning in-state) writers. If they could get grants from the local arts council, maybe I could, too. They had experience with local presses. They were people with whom I could network.

In short, the fact that the presenters were not much different than people like me made them more accessible. The bar wasn’t too high for me to imagine reaching it.

That isn’t to say that these writers weren’t top-notch. I was very impressed by their writing and their knowledge of the writing process. They had so much to teach me, and they weren’t too “big” to deign to do so.

One thing that surprised me was that I felt so at home. We were all bound together by our common love for the written word. I was asked several times, “What kind of writing do you do?” instead of, “What makes you think you belong here?” It was assumed that we wouldn’t even be there if we weren’t committed to using language to communicate with the world; in other words, if we weren’t writers.

Now that I’ve attended this conference, I’m sure I’ll be attending more. I can’t afford a lot of them—maybe only one a year—but I’ll certainly be more open to opportunities like this. Just remember that there’s a lot more that unites writers than divides them. Every writer “gets” what it’s like to be a writer and most are excited about sharing what they know with their fellow writers.

And a small, local conference is a great way to start to experience the camaraderie of writers.

For more particulars on this conference, check out the information on the Columbus State Community College’s website.