Creative nonfiction requires the skills of the storyteller and the research ability of the conscientious reporter. Writers of creative nonfiction must become instant authorities on the subjects of their articles or books. They must not only understand the facts and report them using quotes from authorities, they must also see beyond them to discover their underlying meaning, and they must dramatize that meaning in an interesting, evocative, informative way--just as a good teacher does.
For seven years I ate at Bob's Big Boy. I would go at 2:30, after the lunch rush. I ate a chocolate shake and four, five, six, seven cups of coffee--with lots of sugar. And there's lots of sugar in that chocolate shake. It's a thick shake. In a silver goblet. I would get a rush from all this sugar, and I would get so many ideas! I would write them on these napkins. I was like I had a desk with paper. All I had to do was remember to bring my pen, but a waitress would give me one if I remembered to return it at the end of my stay. I got a lot of ideas at Bob's.
There are a few ironclad rules in any world created by [romance novelist] Nicholas Sparks. If you're a man, you have square shoulders and muscles that reflect your belief in a hard day's work. If you're a woman, you have striking emerald eyes and blond hair, or hazel eyes to offset your high cheek-bones. If you own a farm, a harmonica-playing black man full of hard-earned wisdom lives next door. If you're Mexican, your parents own a restaurant and struggled to give you a better life. If you're a warehouse, you're located in a run-down neighborhood on the outskirts of town. If you're a thunderstorm, you roll up just as a woman with striking eyes and a man with square shoulders are about to kiss for the first time.
Some people criticize nonfiction writers for "appropriating" the techniques of fiction writing. These techniques, except for the invention of characters and detail, never belonged to fiction. They belong to storytelling.
In a novel, implausibility is fatal. And fakeness almost always ensues when situations and characters are extracted from ideas. When ideas emerge organically from situations and characters, the opposite effect is produced. Philosophy, however, must not seem real. It must actually be real, advancing its arguments, as in a geometric proof, through a succession of facts.
As a college student in the 1980s whose major was comparative literature, I had no choice but to take a course on literary theory: It was required. The smug bloviator who taught it told us that the defining characteristic of the written word was its inability to express meaning. Thea act of writing a novel, which I had previously regarded as a natural process, as organic as breathing, was actually a battle in which words engulfed readers, fuddling our wits and scattering the import of the text. Truth he added, deploying Nietzsche, was a mobile army of metaphor, metonym, and anthropomorphisms--without a general. He himself, he said, would be that general.
Enviously noting the insatiable public appetite for television dramas like "Downton Abby," writers often lament the prospects for their historical novels, which have faint hopes of attracting anything resembling such sizable audiences.
Why bother writing a book that someone else could write--just a historical novel that you research in libraries and on the Internet? If I'm going to add a book to the endless mass of books out there, then it should be a book that only I can write.
No advice is useful, as you, an aspiring writer, already know. You have read Rilke's letters to a young poet. I'm sure you remember the first letter: "No one can advise and help you, no one." You know James Baldwin's words in is Paris Review interview: "If you are going to be a writer there is nothing I can say to stop you; if you're not going to be a writer nothing I can say will help you."
M. F. A. programs have developed something of a gate-keeping function. The system is certainly flawed: Programs vary wildly in quality and cost. They can inspire inflated expectations--after all, the formalized study of writing isn't an alchemic formulas by which every student becomes Tolstoy, or even publishes a book. It is also the case that the M. F. A's workshop model, with its intense scrutiny of new work, can be crippling for some writers.
Nonetheless, M. F. A. candidates spend a couple of years studying the craft of literature, immersed in its more esoteric and ineffable qualities, as readers and as writers. That's no small thing.
Murder. Dismemberment. Rape. Cannibalism. Jack the Ripper. The Newtown Shooter. Why are we fascinated by murder and murderers, by acts of evil and those who perpetrate them?
Tabloids, biopics and even dignified, well-researched accounts of serial murders indulge our appetite for real-life horror, dishing up the lurid details--the mutilated body, the serving woman found bleeding on her pillow, the severed head floating downriver--and sell millions of copies. But these works usually leave the central, most troubling questions unanswered. Not only the obvious ones: Why did the murderer commit the crime?
I write and write and write, and rewrite, and even if I retain only a single page from a full day's work, it is a single page, and these pages add up. As a result I have acquired the reputation over the years of being prolix when in fact I am measured against people who simply don't work as hard or as long. Getting the first draft finished is like pushing a peanut with your nose across a very dirty floor.
Coal mining is hard work. Writing [novels] is a nightmare. There's a tremendous uncertainty that's built into the profession, a sustained level of doubt that supports you in some way. A good doctor isn't in a battle with his work; a good writer is locked in a battle with his work. In most professions there's a beginning, a middle, and an end. With writing, it's always beginning again. Temperamentally, we need that newness. There's a lot of repetition in the work. In fact, one skill that every writer needs is the ability to sit still in this deeply uneventful business.
The vogue for memoir, like all vogues, comes and goes. But the impulse perseveres. Celebrities, addicts, abuse victims, politicians, soldiers, grieving children: Everyone has a story to tell and a conviction that the world wants to hear it--and often enough, if the best-seller lists are any indication, the world does.
Novels have to primary sources: writers' life experiences or their art experiences--although I suppose more religious writers might also make room for divine inspiration. While it's popular in publicity to focus on the life experience that informs a book, a writer's art experiences are just as responsible for how a story emerges from the imagination and eventually appears on the page. As Cormac McCarthy once said: "the ugly fact is books are made out of books. The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written."
If you shoot for timelessness in your writing, consciously orient yourself to the upper realm, the shinning truths and the inexhaustible symbols etc., you will--by a kind of law--produce drivel. You will waft and drift and never get a toehold. If, on the other hand, you bet it all on the particular, really dive unreservedly into specificity, you will find--inevitably, magnificently--that your novel about three plumbers in Milwaukee in 1987 becomes a singing blueprint of human significance.
I wish I had a routine for writing. I get up in the morning and I go out to to my studio and I write. And then I tear it up! That's the routine, really. Then, occasionally, something sticks. And then I follow that. The only image I can think of is a man walking around with an iron rod in his hand during a lightening storm.