I got two Google Alerts this morning, one from Read Roger, http://www.hbook.com/blog/ and one from INK, http://inkrethink.blogspot.com/2008/03/nonfiction-story.html
The two posts are both about nonfiction, and both mention conversations with me, and they point in two almost diametically opposed directions. Roger Sutton in his best Roger voice, is cooing about a book of Transit Maps. And boy is he right. In that Deerfield Park talk I gave last week I said that for males, we would often just as soon read something that resembles a blueprint, a schematic — a map — than a rich and complex story. As Roger suggests, I actually feel more excited about some kinds of reading because it is pure facts and has no personality. That clarity is not disappointing, it is thrilling. Roger mentions ghost stations on old Berlin subway maps — I remember as a child taking the NYC subways and passing ghost stations. I did not want a novel about them. I did not want someone else to envision what could have happened there. I wanted to study and learn about them myself.
Tanya in her post discusses a conversation she and I had one morning at a Starbucks in New York. In her case, I was encouraging her to think and write nonfiction with as much of a story-writing, fiction-like mindset as possible. If Roger is tracking how boys may prefer a map to a story, I was telling Tanya to make her non-fiction more like a movie than a report. I did not mean she should invent anything. But as they tell you in script-writing class, I wanted her to begin each scene, each chapter, as far into that moment in the story as possible. Begin in the action, with an event unfolding — don’t carefully build up to it, jump into it, catch us up in drama; then, if needed, swing back to fill in background.
Was I contradicting myself in favoring facts and also cinematic writing? No. Rather I am saying that we in nonfiction have to jump in and do whatever we do with more gusto — we can’t be dutiful and bland. If it is fact time, let’s have maps of the old Barcelona subway system, if it is a gripping historical narrative, make sure the reader is on the edge of his or her seat.
And — I am sorry folks, this a bit of a personal plug– but when we talk and write about difficult subjects like race, we can and should risk showing our own hands. I just got comments from ninth graders in rural Illinois who are reading my Race book, and they are terrific. Often they disagree with me, but they are pushed to think. If you’d like to see that in action, catch Book-TV on Sunday where I am meeting with Brooklyn kids who are equally disputatious, probing, smart, engaged — especially when I speak about my prejudices.
Nonfiction means taking risks — for the clarity of facts, the intensity of story, the passion of our own personal emotions.