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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Beauty: Lines and Forms

Yesterday afternoon Marina and I treated ourselves to a piano recital by Murray Perahia. I’m going to give you two Youtube links — one for his exquisite playing; another — longer — one in which he talks about form and structure within a Mozart piece he is both rehearsing and conducting. I’m using this space to give you a taste of his artistry because — as you can hear — it is supremely precise yet always singing, and, when apt, passionate. In other words, he crafts beauty. As the waves of masterful sound filled the auditorium I felt healed, moved, transported, inspired. And that experience made me think about our work work in writing books: a book is a composition. And we have to do our best to make that creation beautiful.

That does not mean our books must be pretty, or sweet, or filled with messages. Rather, as Perahia makes clear in the Mozart excerpt, that is about form. There are two mistakes too many authors make in nonfiction: one is to mistake content for form. Content is what we write about, but form is our invention. And the forms we use should be as inventive, as innovative, as transporting, and as apt, as any poet, novelist, or composer. Form is how we tease, engage, inspire, move, transport readers without them even seeing us at work: where do we begin, how do we weave in context and comment (that is the problem with the sidebar, it is the most plodding form — a rookie player’s march step 1-2-3-4, clanking and heavy), and how do we deliver passion? The second problem I see in too many books is a failed effort at beauty in the MFA sentence: every leaf is green, every wind is soft, every sentence is filled with descriptive terms borrowed from the God of “show don’t tell.” The labor is like bad 19th century poetry — poesy stuck on top of prose.

I feel like we all need a retreat in which we step away from primary sources, research, citations, evidence, and just listen to beauty — from whatever tradition you like. We need to immerse ourselves in the craft of perfection, so that our books sing.

Here is an online review of the concert, with more details for those who know the pieces:


  1. This is so important, especially with the future of education being more focused on nonfiction and less on fiction.

  2. Sigh me up for this retreat!