What Sets You Apart: On Valuing Your Own Experience

Absolute BlankBy Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

When you can’t find someone to follow,
you have to find a way to lead by example.

—Roxane Gay

A few years ago, writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a TEDtalk called The Danger of a Single Story. In it, she recounts how all the books she read as a child growing up in Nigeria were either British or American. Because of this, when she started writing, she imitated the stories in those books—her characters were white, blue-eyed, played in the snow, ate apples, talked about the weather, and drank a lot of ginger beer—rather than writing stories that reflected her own experience. Her perception of who and what books could be about only changed when she discovered African writers and realized books could be about people who looked like her and shared her experiences.

The danger of a single story is it distorts your perception of what stories can or should be about. If your experiences don’t match up to the narratives you see around you, you may question their validity or even fail to recognize their value at all.

Background Photo: Niccolò Caranti (CC-by-nc)

Background Photo: Niccolò Caranti (CC-by-nc)

When you spend your days online, it’s easy to get the impression that you’re perpetually lagging several steps behind everyone else. Something happens and hours later think-pieces on the subject flood your social media timelines as writers rush to get their two cents in before the news cycle moves on to something else.

“How much thinking could anyone have done in the past hour?” you grumble, as you simultaneously try to process whatever grim news has taken center stage that day and attempt to keep focused on whatever it is you’re really supposed to be doing (cough work cough). You wonder how people manage to churn out coherent words in minutes on events you haven’t even begun to comprehend. (Obviously, they are better at this writing thing than you are. I mean, clearly, that’s the only explanation. –xo, your insomniac brain.) Perhaps a week, a month, a year or longer passes with the topic rolling around in the back of your mind before something clicks and you know what you want to write about it. You open a new document—and then you second-guess yourself.

Hasn’t too much time passed?

What if everything has already been said?

What authority do I have to speak on this subject anyway?

Who’s going to want to read what I have to say?

Why bother?

We’re all familiar with the saying “there are two sides to every story” but two is not even scratching the surface. In reality, there are infinite versions. The versions of the people actually involved in the event. The versions of those who witnessed or observed it. The countless versions of those who heard about it later, passed along via the grapevine or filtered through the media. And layered over those are the versions that percolate over time and are refined through experience. The story you tell in the moment, stuffed with details, is not the same one you tell twenty years later when you can see the big picture.

So you’re a few steps behind the few hundred (or thousand) people you follow on social media. So what? These are the early adopters, the overachievers, the workaholics, the people who only need four hours sleep a night. I mean, that’s why you’re following them, right? Because they’re in some way exceptional. But there are approximately seven billion other people in the world who you aren’t following and who aren’t dashing off essays in the time it takes you to reply to a few emails. Social media gives you a skewed perspective. You start to feel like those few people you follow are “everyone” when they’re really not. They’re not even representative of everyone.

When you actually pause and pay attention to what’s being said, you realize how much of it is a variation on the same theme—a single story told multiple times. This isn’t surprising. We’re often drawn to follow groups of interconnected people. As a writer, for example, you probably follow writers, editors, and other bookish types, many of whom come from similar backgrounds and have had similar experiences. The result is that you end up in a kind of bubble where people are saying the same kinds of things, reinforcing and validating each other, consciously or unconsciously. If your perspective is different, your first instinct might be to hide or downplay that difference to fit in. Don’t. That difference is your strength; it’s what makes your story worth telling.

Why bother writing about something when myriad words have already been written? Because your story has not yet been told.

It’s never too late. Everything has not been said. You may write about anything that matters to you. You just have to find a way in. The key? To figure out what sets your story apart from the ones already out there, and to focus on those points of difference. Even the most clichéd of stories can be given new life when told from a point of view that subverts stereotypes.

Recently I read an essay about the lack of female road narratives in literature. The premise was that the road trip is essentially a quest narrative, and men have an abundance of these to choose from. (True.) Women, on the other hand, have The One Where You End Up Murdered by a Serial Killer. This narrative is so pervasive in our culture that it functions as a single story, drowning out the few exceptions. I’m well aware of that particular single story, being something of a police procedural / crime drama / mystery / thriller junkie, but I hadn’t made an explicit connection between that narrative and my own experience until I started reading this essay.

Years ago, I went on a cross-continent road trip by myself and lived to tell about it. In fact, the trip was completely uneventful. I filled a notebook that summer, one I can honestly say I haven’t looked at since. Since nothing (dramatic) happened, I never saw the value in writing about the experience. I also didn’t give the trip a whole lot of forethought and I didn’t see what I’d done as anything special. I’d gone on plenty of road trips with other people; going by myself wasn’t a big stretch.

But, as I read about how rare alternatives to the prevailing narrative are, I realized maybe it’s precisely because nothing traumatic happened that my experience is worth writing about. Maybe there’s someone out there who needs to hear that story.


I made a couple obvious mistakes in devaluing my own experience.

I assumed because it hadn’t seemed like a big deal to me at the time, it wasn’t a big deal in general. Wrong. Your life is only ordinary to you. To someone else, it may be extraordinary. We live in a society obsessed with safety and increasingly-ridiculous fears. To step outside a comfort zone is to do something out of the ordinary.

I assumed because nothing negative happened, my story wasn’t significant. Also wrong. Sure, tragedy is a shortcut to drama, but that doesn’t mean every story has to have a sensational event to propel it forward. A “nothing happens” story is more of a challenge to write than one with a built-in plot, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth telling. And for this particular narrative, “nothing happened” is actually a powerful message.

Because of those assumptions, I never took the time to think about why my perspective was different from the norm—or even to notice that it was. Why did I not hesitate to go on this trip when every cultural message says no, don’t do it, you’ll die? Why wasn’t I afraid? Why didn’t I succumb to the single story despite being a fan of ripped-from-the-headlines crime dramas? These are the types of questions I should have been asking but wasn’t because I viewed my story as unimportant.

Some differences are visible or immediately apparent. Others are buried more deeply within us and take longer to recognize. But regardless, it’s the stories that start from a different perspective than we’re used to that we need more of. These stories can be challenging to write because there is no defined path to follow, but that’s precisely why they are necessary. When you write your own story, you’re giving someone else a map.

Write Through This: Strategies for Writing About Real-Life Conflict and Tragedy

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

The first time I ran across the Garrison Keillor aphorism “Nothing bad ever happens to a writer; everything is material” it immediately resonated with me because it so succinctly summarized how I feel about being a writer.

The upside of being a writer is that it’s impossible to ever be bored. You can write about washing dishes, or standing in line, or watching paint dry. It’s all material.

Another perk is that the best material is often found in the downs of life’s ups and downs. Being a writer means you can actually take perverse pleasure in all the hellish experiences of your life—the vacation disasters, the bad breakups, the medical crises—because as bad as they are to get through at the time, you know they’re going to make a good story later. But while some things quickly go from nightmare to comedic gold—like the trip where the airline lost my luggage and I ended up at a hostel that was straight out of Dickens—other subjects can be trickier to handle.

Your job with the boss and co-workers you can’t stand (think: The Office) might be a rich source of material, but everyone knows that writing about work might get you fired. Writing about family and friends is another touchy subject—as much as you might like to relate the wacky hijinks that ensued at this year’s family reunion, even lighthearted teasing has the potential to hurt feelings. So while writing about your dysfunctional family might seem like a great idea in theory, contemplating the potential repercussions can be enough to cause an epic case of writer’s block.

For other events, it’s not the consequences of what you might write that cause the block, but your own reluctance to revisit a painful event. The loss of a loved one, the battle with a life-threatening illness, the lifelong dream that didn’t pan out—all of these events beg to be written about, but at the same time can be so distressing to revisit that you perpetually avoid doing so.

And while we writers know that risky or heartbreaking material can be the most worthwhile to write about—and the most interesting to read about—if we can only get over our blocks, compounding the dilemma is not knowing how to approach these momentous events. Because the things that touch each of us most deeply are often the same things that impact others, many of these topics (e.g. birth, love, death) have been written about ad nauseum. As such, it can be all too easy to slip into clichés, and it’s not an insignificant concern that you’ll end up sounding cheesy when you’re aiming for profound.

While a straightforward personal essay or memoir might seem like the logical way to approach real-life material, if that’s not working for you, why not switch things up and try something different? Here are some suggestions for approaching difficult topics:

Background Image: Leo Reynolds/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Use a pseudonym. Writing under a fictitious name might be for you if your primary concern is the potential consequences of having your writing connected with your everyday self. This approach is popular with academic bloggers who want to connect with other teachers/professors, but don’t necessarily want their students (or employers) reading their blogs. If you’re serious about keeping your identity under wraps, in addition to changing your name, you’ll also want to leave out (or change) other identifying details: names of other people, cities, schools, places of work, etc. The downfall of this approach is that it can be unsatisfying for readers: the more you leave out, the more difficult it becomes for readers to understand what you’re talking about and connect with your experience.

Keep a journal. A private journal is a good option if fears of repercussions are preventing you from being as honest and open as you’d like to be. Do what you need to so that you can write without censoring yourself: buy yourself an old-school diary with a lock, write “Private! Keep Out!” on your notebook, or password-protect your Word document. Don’t worry that you’re wasting time by “simply” keeping a journal. Natalie Goldberg advises beginning writers to fill notebooks for two years before trying to publish, and while you may be beyond this stage, there’s nothing preventing you from “just” journaling about this particular topic, while still working on other projects for publication. Later, your journal may form the basis of a personal essay or memoir. Or, it may become a project in itself—many writers have published excerpts from their notebooks or written books on the writing process based on their journals. What you write now can always be used later.

Wait. While some people have the gift to write about a traumatic event while it’s happening, not everyone is so self-possessed. When you’re feeling sick or overwhelmed, the last thing you may want to do is sit down and craft a narrative arc. If you’re afraid you’ll forget important details if you don’t write them down right away, a dayplanner is a low-stress way to keep track of events—you can annotate existing reminders and tuck in accumulated ephemera to create a reference you can look back to when you are up to writing about it. Another reason to wait is that sometimes time is needed for context and perspective. Most childhood memoirs aren’t written until the writers have some life experience behind them (Haven Kimmel’s A Girl Named Zippy, for example, was published when she was 36). A memoir written too soon—without the experience to sympathize with the viewpoints of others in your story—may come off as narcissistic and shallow. Simply being observant and waiting for the pieces of your story to click into place in the short term can result in a story with more depth and nuance in the long run.

Try another medium. Sometimes you know what you want to say—but the words aren’t coming together. Working visually rather than verbally engages a different part of your brain and may make it easier to tell the story you want to tell. You don’t need to be an artist. You can draw, paint, take photographs, collage pictures from magazines… whatever works for you. Comic strips are a natural medium for writers since they bridge writing and drawing, and are amenable to simple drawing styles (see xkcd, for example). Working visually is also an alternative to consider if privacy is one of your concerns. Karen Walrond initially kept a journal-style blog to document her daughter’s adoption and first years of life, but was uncomfortable with the idea of writing about her daughter as she got older. Instead of giving up blogging entirely, she started a photoblog. By posting photos, she was able to continue documenting her life and family in a way that was comfortable for her. As time passed, written commentary crept back into her posts, and the latest incarnation of her blog incorporates both text and photos (which demonstrates that comfort levels can change over time—so listen to yourself and be willing to adapt).

Write in installments. Beginning to write about a life-changing experience can be daunting, but there’s no reason you have to do it all at once. Another alternative is to write your story as a serial—in the vein of comic strips and soap operas—adding a little bit to the story with each installment. Despite Wired declaring blogs so 2004, they are well-suited to this kind of writing. If you blog you’ll probably also end up with an audience, particularly if you commit to a schedule (weekdays, three days a week). This may sound scary at first, but the feedback an audience provides can be a great incentive to keep writing through the hard parts—a big bonus if you’ve had a tendency to give up rather than pushing through when the writing got tough. If a blog seems like too much of a blank canvas, you might try Twitter (you’re limited to 140 characters per post) or join the 100 Words challenge (write exactly 100 words each day)—or set up your own parameters.

Alternate topics. There’s also no rule that you have to stick with the difficult topic exclusively until you finish with it. Give yourself a breather: write about it, then write about something else. These things might be closely related or more loosely tied. Maud Newton‘s blog is primarily about books and writing, but she has been researching her family history and occasionally posts photos and family stories. Anderson Cooper’s memoir Dispatches from the Edge intersperses his own personal tragedies (the deaths of his father and brother) with the tragedies he has witnessed as a reporter. Interspersing personal drama with more prosaic material can also prevent a memoir from becoming too syrupy—and perhaps attract a wider audience. For example, you might alternate revisiting your grandmother’s favorite recipes with your memories of helping her cook, creating something that would appeal equally to people who like to cook and those who are interested in your grandma’s life story.

Beginning at the beginning. Instead of jumping right into the dramatic event, go back—way back—and write up to it. When Madeleine L’Engle’s husband, Hugh, was dying, she wrote Two-Part Invention. The book starts with their different childhoods, then how they met, and progresses through the various stages of their marriage, until she gets to Hugh’s illness. Saving the drama to the end not only eases the writer into it, but has the benefit of creating added poignancy for the reader. If you’re writing about a death, in particular, taking time to build up to the loss gives your readers a chance to get to know your beloved family member so that when you do get to the sad part, they will share your grief—in other words, instead of thinking, “I’m sad for you,” they’ll actually be sad. This recent newspaper story isn’t a first-person account, but uses this technique very well.

Write a song or poem. With poetry and lyrics, you can focus on impressions rather than details—a good option if what’s important is capturing the emotion of the event rather than preserving a step-by-step account. It’s also a good way of dealing with an event that might come off as overly sappy or cliched if you document it exactly as it happened. This approach also allows for readers/listeners to have their own different interpretations of the event depicted. For example, the Spirit of the West song “Goodbye Grace” is actually about band member Geoffrey Kelly’s son who was born prematurely—the “Grace” of the song is a hospital, not a person. However, unless you’ve heard him tell the story, you might have a completely different interpretation of the song, the chorus of which goes: “Goodbye Grace / There are no words I’d rather say / Than goodbye Grace / Never want to see your face again.”

Take an informative approach. Taking a more neutral (journalistic/academic) position may help you to be able to write about a challenging topic. Instead of focusing just on your own personal experience, take the pressure off by seeking out the accounts of others who shared a mutual experience (as with a natural disaster such as an earthquake or hurricane) or who have had similar experiences (as with an illness or loss of a family member). Poet Anna Evans recently had a series of medical issues that she thinks were precipitated by the kind of birth control pills she was taking. Evans is working on a memoir about her experiences, but is also soliciting the experiences of others who have had similar problems.

Fictionalize. Although true stories are the trend du jour, fiction can be just as (if not more) compelling. Inserting a narrator between you and your story can make your story easier to write; it enables you to distance yourself from your own pain and see the story from different points of view. Fictionalizing also allows you to fill in details that are unknown or that you can’t remember without resorting to the dreaded fake memoir, and can lessen many of the concerns that writing non-fiction raises (offending people, potential backlash, etc.). For example, after summering at a law firm, Jeremy Blachman wrote Anonymous Lawyer from the perspective of a hiring partner, rather than a memoir from the perspective of a law student. (Ironically, however, before Anonymous Lawyer was a book, it was a blog that many people believed was non-fiction.)

These alternate approaches can work simply as exercises to get the words flowing—or you may find that what results turns out better than the project you originally envisioned. Ultimately, the approach you take will depend on your purpose for writing and who you’re writing for, as well as what your concerns are with writing about the topic in question.

Final Poll Results

A Surreal Life:
Interview with Stephen W. Simpson

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

“This is a huge honor. It’s also kind of surreal—I started posting my stuff on TC with my tail between my legs, feeling a bit unworthy.” This is how Steve Simpson prefaces his answers to the questions I posed to him in an email interview last month.

A few years ago when Steve a.k.a. Macfisto started posting at the Toasted Cheese forums, he was an unpublished writer working on his first novel—with all the typical insecurities that entails. He soon endeared himself to us with his consistently helpful posts at the forums and by writing a great article about finishing said novel. Eventually, we invited him to join the editorial board. For the past few years, Steve has judged the fall Three Cheers and a Tiger writing contest along with Boots and Ana.

These days it’s hard to imagine Steve feeling “unworthy.” In addition to his day job as a clinical psychologist, he writes two regular advice columns and recently had his first non-fiction book published. Two more are in the works. As if that’s not enough, he and his wife Shelley are also the parents of four toddlers.

Steve’s come a long way since his first tentative posts at Toasted Cheese and we at TC are immensely proud of his accomplishments. So when he said he was looking for a way to give back to the community, we couldn’t think of a better way than for him to share his journey and success with TC’s readers.

Toasted Cheese: I know you’re one of those Mac people. But come on, admit it, PC is funnier.

Stephen W. Simpson: The PC guy is funnier, but I bet it’s not so funny when you have to live with one of those skittish Windows boxes. At our last conference, Rick’s Dell wouldn’t play a DVD he needed to show. I handed him my Power Book and said, “When are you gonna learn?”

TC's Amazon Store TC: What’s not funny about tech snafus during presentations? That’s comedy gold!

Kidding aside, your first (published) book, co-authored with Ryan Howes and Richard Rupp, is What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew about Sex: A Guide for Christian Men. Tell us about the process of co-writing a book. Who came up with the idea? Did you actually write together or did you each write different parts of the book? I think our readers would also like to know how you found your publisher and how long the whole process—from idea to print—took.

SWS: All three of us came up with the idea, because sexuality is a focus in our clinical work. I already had an agent shopping around another book, and he agreed to represent us for this. Then he went MIA for over three months. He didn’t return calls or emails and then his answering machine was disconnected. I thought we’d been duped. Then, lo and behold, he pops up again and gets us a contract two months later.

We each wrote different chapters, then all three of us worked on making sure everything hung together. At first, I thought working with two other authors would make the process easier. We got the first draft together pretty fast, but after that a lot of, um, “discussion” took place about what we wanted the book to be. We even argued over the cover and title options the publisher gave us. In the end, however, I think the book is better for it. None of us could have written it alone.

The whole process, from the idea to having the book in our hands, took about two years.

TC: What Wives Wish… came out in April of this year. You and your wife Shelley became parents to quadruplets in May 2005. So that means the writing of the book coincided with the first two years of your children’s lives. Tell us how you managed to write a book while parenting four kids under two and maintaining a private practice (and you were teaching Clinical Psychology for a while there, too, I believe).

SWS: By sleeping only four hours a night and mainlining caffeine. We proposed the book before Shelley was pregnant. Though I was ecstatic when we got the contract, it really couldn’t have come at a worse time. I usually started work after our night nanny came on duty around 11 p.m. I read a warning on a can of Red Bull that said you shouldn’t drink more than four a day, but I discovered that it’s no problem if you don’t mind the heart palpitations. At work, sometimes I’d shut the door to my office and pass out on the couch.

Steve_Family.jpgShelley and Steve with the kids earlier this year. By the way, Shelley’s also a psychologist—the kids aren’t going to have a chance with teenage angst!

TC: I guess that experience must have taught you a lot about time management. You currently write two columns—”Ask the Man Shrink” and “God on the Ground”—for Divine Caroline. Tell us about the columns and explain how you find the time.

SWS: “Ask the Man Shrink” is what Dear Abby would write if she were a man and a wise-ass. Divine Caroline is a women’s web site, so the idea is to offer the male perspective along with advice from a psychologist. “God on the Ground” is about finding God in places that you wouldn’t expect. It’s my favorite of the two, but the harder to write. It forces me to pay attention to my spiritual life, because, if I don’t, the next column will suck.

I don’t “find” time to write—I make time. I block off at least two hours every Thursday afternoon. It helps that they’re paying me.

TC: So that’s the secret. Speaking of payment, you’ve already got contracts for two more books. Your second book is about dating for Christian men. Tell us about it.

SWS: A few years ago, there was an “anti-dating” movement in evangelical Christianity that said a couple should remain friends until they’re certain they want to get married. My book is a bit of a reaction to that. It’s also a bit of a con in that the book’s not totally about dating—it’s about identity and self-esteem. A lot of men (and women) believe that love will fix everything. The first part of the book talks about getting a life before you try to get a love life. The last part of the book helps Christian guys—and I can’t think of a better way to say this—have more “game.”

TC: You recently got your third book contract after an editor read an article you’d written about the first year with your quadruplets and asked for a book proposal (very cool!). This one is going to be a memoir. What can you tell us about it? Have you started writing it?

SWS: The working title (which I’m sure the publisher will change) is Quadruplets and Accomplices: Tales of a Cynic Assaulted by Joy. It describes the spiritual journey of someone (me) who starts off passionate about his faith, becomes cynical and disillusioned, and then discovers God again. Unlike a lot of Christian memoirs, this book talks about how difficult it is to be a Christian because it means having a relationship with a God who’s mysterious and sometimes aggravating. Shelley’s pregnancy and the first year with the quads was the pinnacle of my confusion and frustration with God, but then he used the experience to help me rediscover joy. A lot of people who were once excited about their faith become cynical after having hurtful experiences with religion. This book is for them.

I just finished the first draft. It’s due to the publisher the day after Labor Day, so I’ll be rewriting the rest of the summer.

TC: Which of your writing projects (whether complete, published, or in-progress) is your favorite and why?

SWS: So far, this memoir. I’ve had more fun writing it than anything else. I also think it’s a paradigm-changing work of genius, but that’s only because I just finished the first draft. I’ll probably hate it next week. Other than that, my Three Cheers and a Tiger story has a special place in my heart. I remember writing it—it was one of those times when the adrenaline keeps pumping, filling your brain with ideas. It was also my first fiction publication, something I’d been chasing for years. When I got the email saying that I’d won the contest, I grabbed Shelley and started dancing around the house.

TC: The memoir sounds like it shares a lot of themes with your first novel, Playing in the Thorns, which you wrote an Absolute Blank article about finishing in November 2003. Playing in the Thorns was very much a classic first novel, in that it was based on your own teenage experiences. How important was it for you to write that story? What’s happening with that project now? And do you have any new fiction in the works?

SWS: It was very important for me to write that novel, but for different reasons than I thought at the time. It was a bit therapeutic, of course, but it also taught me a ton about writing and publishing. Since I received well over a hundred rejection letters, I learned to keep my expectations low after sending off a query letter. Just ask my co-authors—whenever a publisher would look at our proposal, I’d tell them, “Don’t get your hopes up. It’s probably not going to happen.”

I’m afraid that first novel is quite dead. It has its moments, but it kinda sucks overall. If I ever want to tell that story, I’ll have to start over from scratch.

As far as fiction goes, I don’t have much going on. Over the last few years I’ve had to accept the fact that I’m a better nonfiction writer. That’s my focus right now. But I have notes for a short story I hope to start after I’m finished with the memoir. I love the writing I’m doing now, but publishing a novel is still the big dream. However, I’m not going to try to come up with an idea for one anymore. If I write another novel, it will be because an idea whacks me on the head that’s too good to ignore.

TC: In “The First Novel Marathon” you said that both marathon running and novel writing require “set[ting] a schedule and stick[ing] to it.” You must be good at setting schedules: you ran five marathons and finished a novel while working full-time, and finished What Wives Wish… while parenting four toddlers. Tell us about your writing habits. And have you run any marathons since the quadruplets arrived?

SWS: I’ve heard a lot of people say that you need to write every day, but I can’t do that. I need a reason to sit down at the computer, even if it’s just a fleeting inspiration for a short story or an article. Once I set my mind to a project, however. I set aside specific times to work. When I’m doing a first draft, I need chunks of at least two hours. Of course, getting a contract helps. When I’m getting paid something—even if it’s peanuts—it’s easier to give up time that I could be using to see clients. I used to write at night, but that’s a lot harder nowadays. I’m too wiped out at the end of the day to do much more than veg in front of the TV.

Marathons? Bah! Running 26 miles is cake compared to parenting four toddlers. Only recently did I start running regularly again. And it hurts more now! So no more marathons for the foreseeable future, though I’d like to do a half sometime in the next year.

TC: In your Divine Caroline bio, you say your favorite mistake was “parking my car in the wrong place at a U2 concert and then running into Bono and the Edge when I went to move it.” So we have to know: did they say anything to you? (Or you to them?) I know U2 is your favorite group, but what other music do you like? Do you listen to music while you write? What would your “Writing Mix” playlist have on it?

SWS: They signed autographs but didn’t say anything. I was too dumbfounded to talk, so I can’t blame them. As they were walking away, however, I lost control and shouted, “God bless you!” The Edge shook my hand, though. Haven’t washed it since.

Right now, I’m listening to Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible over and over. It’s the best record I’ve heard in years. In general, I’m an out of control music fan. I have 7,000 songs on my iPod. When I’m writing, I listen to either baroque music or hard rock like AC/DC. If I’m working on a long section and I know exactly where it’s going, the hard stuff helps me pound it out faster. If I’m finding my way, I don’t want anything too distracting.

TC: Baroque or AC/DC. That is a truly awesome juxtaposition.

In your TC bio, you say you were inspired to write by J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Have any other writers inspired you since then? What current writers do you enjoy?

SWS: My favorite writers actually discourage me. For example, I love Robert Penn Warren and Orson Scott Card, but they leave me thinking, “I couldn’t write like that if there someone held a gun to my head.” Lately, because of the stuff I’m writing, I’ve been reading a lot of Anne Lamott. There’s also a guy named Rob Bell who writes about faith from a perspective similar to mine, except that he has about a hundred times more depth and wisdom. Every sitting with either Lamott or Bell includes moments of delight alternating with pangs of envy.

TC: In “The First Novel Marathon,” you mention Stephen King’s On Writing. What other resources (books or otherwise) have helped you with your writing?

SWS: Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is a good resource. Stunk and White’s Elements of Style is good to have on your shelf. Other than that, it’s all Toasted Cheese, baby.

TC: I can’t argue with any of those.

When you wrote your first (vampire!) story in seventh grade your teacher said, “Keep this up and you’ll write a novel someday.” You’ve said that her words “haunted” you, so you wrote a novel. How important was your teacher’s encouragement in terms of your writing? Has anyone else acted as a writing mentor for you?

SWS: If Mrs. Travis hadn’t said that to me, I don’t think I’d be answering your questions right now. It was the first time anyone ever said anything good about my writing. My handwriting was (um, is) atrocious, and that doesn’t go over well in grade school.

I’ve had several writing mentors—Miss Keen, my high school journalism teacher, had a huge impact. Some other friends and professors have been important. But Theryn Fleming [I did not pay him to say this. –TF] and the folks at Toasted Cheese have done more than all of them combined. I’m not even saying this to butter you up or plug TC—you guys changed the way I think about writing.

TC: Aw, thanks. It means a lot to hear that. Now, since I’m a little verklempt, let me turn it back to you.

You have an interesting and varied background: you started college with an interest in journalism, but ended up with an M.A. in Theology and a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology. Somehow you’ve managed to combine all three. There’s lots of advice out there for people writing “on the side,” that is, writing while working at an unrelated day job. What advice can you give people who are trying to combine writing with another career?

SWS: Four things: Structure, patience, passion and being open to feedback.

You need to make writing a structure in your life, even if it’s just a couple hours every week. Anne Lamott says that if you write just one paragraph a week, you’ll have a book in two years. You just have to be consistent. I’ve met so many people who say they want to write a book—and have the talent for it—but it never happens because they don’t make the time. If you have a career, family, school, etc., time to write a book isn’t going to suddenly materialize. You have to be intentional about it.

You also need patience. Expect rejection notices, especially at first. You also have to be willing to write for free. When you do get paid, it won’t be very much. Along these lines, you have to be passionate about writing. It almost needs to feel like you don’t have a choice. A lot of the publishing game is about perseverance.

Finally, you have to listen to what other people say about your writing. It’s great to hear compliments and praise, but constructive criticism is what makes you a better writer. Stephen King says that if ten people read your work and they all have different feedback, you can ignore all of them. But if five of them are complaining about the same thing, you need to fix it.

TC: Great advice. Well, that about wraps things up. Well, except for one final question…

(Steve and his co-author Ryan Howes host a weekly podcast at their website Fun Christian Sex. The week I tuned in, they were bemoaning the lack of hymns about sex. So, of course I had to ask…)

TC: Will you write us a hymn about sex? There don’t seem to be any.

SWS: Actually, Ryan is working on one. At our seminars, he plays a blues song about the traditional Christian view of sex. It’s titled, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no.”

TC: Thanks, Steve.

Final Poll Results

Au Paris: From Blog to Book

Absolute Blank

By Mollie Savage (Bonnets)

Au Paris - Rachel SpencerThis is a story about serendipity. A young woman bored with work lands a dream job as a summer nanny in Paris, her previous employer allows her to blog about her adventure on its website, a book editor reads the blog, a little over a year later a book is published.

Au Paris is Rachel Spencer’s memoir about her whirlwind time as a Parisian nanny. In Rachel’s words, here is her story of blog to book.

“Why don’t you write for us?”

I had been working in the advertising department at the Houston Chronicle for about three years when I decided to resign from there to pursue graduate studies at the University of Arkansas, with a summer in Paris in between. It was May 2005 when I resigned. The day I told my manager my plans to leave, she told her boss, Stephen Weis, who is now the Executive VP/GM of chron.com.

When I told Stephen I really wanted to write—and I had even thought of trying to get a travel column going through the Arkansas Traveler, my school paper—he suggested I write for the Chronicle instead. I remember his casual, can-do, energetic but laid-back expression when he said, “Why don’t you write for us?” as if writing for one of the nation’s largest newspapers was something anyone off the streets could just take a stab at.

I laughed a little but he assured me he was serious. He told me to contact Jeff Cohen, the executive editor, and tell him my plans. Mr. Cohen, as I called him, was kind and witty and rather prompt in his reply. He’s a jovial, flirt of a guy who wears bow ties regularly and in doing so, manages to look both debonair and astutely academic. He directed me to Scott Clark, the only VP of chron.com at that time, who was strictly editorial. Scott came from the print side where he was the Business Editor. I would have much rather exchanged ideas with Mr. Cohen.

Scott’s right-hand man and the technology columnist, Dwight Silverman, was in the early stages of developing blogs on chron.com. There were just a handful then, all written by editors of the paper and maybe one or two in the archives from reporters who had gone to some offshore destinations.

Dwight and Scott were skeptics—and they had to be. But Dwight was thirsty for hot online content and, as much of a tech geek as he is, is a real romantic. I think he applauded my gumption to quit my job, flee the country temporarily, and return to my first love (writing). So I persuaded Dwight, and Dwight stroked and courted the idea to Scott. I don’t think I ever had a face-to-face conversation with Scott until after Dwight had already, unofficially, granted me permission to write a blog on chron.com.

It took a series of “interview” posts and a series of critiques and second chances from Dwight, but eventually, they said yes. Scott was still skeptical whether there would be any reader relevancy, but they took the risk. The opportunity to even write for chron.com and hold my own blog—the first by someone other than editorial staff—was a huge dream come true for me.

“I think your blog is amazing…”

Au Paris (the blog) did well, and exceeded expectations. It often ranked number one above the other blogs and received daily comments from readers worldwide. I was on a combined high from writing, living in Paris and fulfilling dreams by the end of the summer.

Dwight took me to dinner when I returned to Houston; I was leaving for Arkansas the next week to settle in before grad school started. We sat at Maggiano’s Restaurant and talked about future plans. He asked me if I could do anything after the unexpected success with the blog, what would it be. I told him I wanted to write a book based on the blog and include all of the things I just couldn’t fit in while I was in Paris busy taking care of the kids.

Dwight looked doubtful, but encouraged me nonetheless. He told me to high tail it to New York City and just start voraciously reading anything and everything. I left dinner with stars in my eyes, no doubt. So much of what I’d always wanted had already happened and I felt satisfied and inspired.

The next day, I went to the Chronicle to say farewell to friends and to thank those who helped with the blog. As I was stepping on the elevator, my cell phone rang. It was Dwight. He wanted me to come back in his office.

When I rounded the corner to his office, his face looked aghast. I wondered if some reader had posted an inappropriate comment or something. But then, why would Dwight need to show me that to me?

He called me to his desk. “Look at the screen,” he said. “Read that.”

The screen was indeed displaying a comment from a reader, but it wasn’t an inappropriate one.

I used to have it memorized verbatim, but the comment went something like this:

Hi, Rachel. My name is Danielle Chiotti. I’m an editor with Kensington Publishing in New York. I think your blog is amazing and I’d love to talk to you about book ideas. This is the only way I could find to contact you. Please feel free to contact me at…

Before I could say anything, Dwight read my mind and said out loud, “I didn’t write that!”

“Is this a joke?” I said, still stunned.

Dwight was just as stunned. Instinctively he began googling “Danielle Chiotti” and “Kensington Publishing New York.” We were both amazed to find real results. This was a real editor at a real publishing company and, we thought, we hoped, she really wanted to talk to me about a book deal.

Dwight, being the overprotective father-type by that stage of our mentor/student relationship, told me to let him handle the initial contact, and I was fine with that. I was too shocked to know what to say.

I had an official book deal.

In a matter of days after Dwight’s contact with Danielle, I was on the phone with her myself. I don’t remember much—it was one of those adrenaline-pumping moments when sheer elation blurs the memory. I do know that very quickly, I was agreeing to a 65,000-word non-fiction manuscript with a December 15, 2005 deadline. (It was early August.)

Dwight handled the agent part too and within a couple hours of his first email to an agent he knew, I was on the phone with the agent, giving him a fax number where he could send the author-agent agreement form.

I moved to Arkansas despite the new whirlwind turn-of-events, but I was quickly moving further from thoughts of sitting in a classroom. It was August ninth when I moved to Arkansas and I hadn’t registered for classes. I wasn’t going to grad school, but I hadn’t said it out loud yet.

On August 23rd, I received confirmation that I had an official book deal. In the days in between Danielle had pitched the idea and my platform to her boss and company. I had no other work but my blog, so I know she had to pull some strings and beg a lot of people to trust her. That same day, Danielle was named a Senior Editor of Citadel Press—the imprint on my book within Kensington Publishing—and my book, Au Paris, was her first under her new title.

The agent negotiated my contract, the advance, the royalty percentages, etc. I was in complete trust of a stranger because I had neither the knowledge nor the legal resources to find out on my own whether his negotiation was fair. (It was; it’s a first
book—you can’t complain!)

The whole process was an extremely personal, risky, emotional process for both Danielle and me. We had a very close working relationship and both learned a lot along the way. I missed the December 2005 manuscript deadline and several other deadlines after, but we still made the publication date. The book was released in December 2006.

What were the challenges of turning your blog into a book?

The contract for the book stated that all work must be previously unpublished material, based on the chron.com blog. There were a couple of occasions where I used sentences or perhaps even paragraphs from the blog simply because I had already written exactly what had happened, but the book is actually quite different. Not to mention that I think maybe one or two sentences total in the published edition of the book survived without any editing.

Two things made writing the book extremely difficult: one, chronology, and two, that I was living in Fort Smith, Arkansas at the time I was trying to mentally, physically, and emotionally place myself in Paris and then in several places throughout France.

The chronology part is difficult, I’ve heard, for any writer and requires quite a bit of training to master. My editor was constantly correcting my tense and reminding me that, for instance, if I arrived in Paris yesterday on a Saturday, today cannot be Monday morning with three family dinners under my belt. Things like this are very difficult for me to sort out and place correctly and accurately in the writing. This inhibited my writing more than I expected.

After you had the contract with Kensington, what was the editing process like?

Rough, but fantastic. I couldn’t have had a better editor. (Well, obviously. She is the reason I have a book published!) She was extremely patient, motivating, and honest with me. I could have stood for her to have been even more honest, as I was regularly begging for someone else besides myself to tell me how wretched my writing was. There was a lot of insanity while working on this project—besides the fact that I’d never attempted a book before, we were editing the manuscript as I was writing it. I now know that if I really want my style and voice to shine through, I need to have a finished manuscript before any editors snatch up my work. Of course, that is the normal process.

Danielle had to work very hard with me to extract action and sequence of events and plot from my overly descriptive, and often passive, writing. We referred to Stephen King’s On Writing to work through the passive voice mistakes, and I wished I could have read and studied that well before we began the book.

Additionally, my book was Danielle’s first project as a senior editor at Kensington, so we were both invested emotionally and personally throughout the writing and editing process. The success of the book was just as important to Danielle—if not more—as it was to me. Working with someone whose stakes were as high as my own was the foundation I needed to accomplish the often-intimidating challenge of writing my first book.

In brief, I wrote the first seven chapters of the book to meet my first deadline. I think I had about three months to do this. About three weeks went by before I received the first round of edits back. Almost every word on every page was red-lined, if that says anything about the editing process.

A few words from editor Danielle Chiotti:

Blogs are not often cohesive narratives. Rachel’s blog was not the bulk of the book. After I received a chapter from her, I would line edit and send it back to her. We talked over each revision.

What I liked about her blog was that it was not forced; it showed she was having fun, yet was a fish out of water. There was a realness that every woman could relate to.

Read Au Paris:
Au Paris Blog
Au Paris: True Tales of an American Nanny in Paris

Final Poll Results

The Risks and Rewards of Writing True Stories

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

So you’ve started a blog to document your university years. Or penned a personal essay about what it was like going through your parents’ divorce. Or maybe you’re really ambitious and you’re working on a memoir about your job as a celebrity dog-walker. Great! Creative non-fiction, writing that mingles factual events with fiction techniques, is hot these days.

Related Articles

But wait— before you hit that publish button or send off that query, are you ready for an audience?

Mari Adkins, a writer who keeps a personal blog as well as one devoted to her writing, expresses a sentiment common among personal bloggers, “I don’t blog for the audience; I blog for me. I blog (and I write) to keep the voices in my head at bay. The interaction with other people is nice, but I don’t need it. I just have to get things off my chest and out of my system.” She goes on to say that if people don’t like what they read they can always click that X in the upper right corner of the page.

In explaining her blogging motivations, Mari hits on a key truth. A side effect of blogging, even if you’re writing primarily for yourself, is that you do have an audience. An audience that is potentially as big as everyone who has access to the Internet. That’s a lot of people. But if the thought of billions of people checking out your blog makes you hyperventilate, relax. Your actual readership will probably be small.

Even so, it can have a huge impact on your life. It’s not the size of your readership that matters; it’s who those readers are. Blogging can be a tremendously positive experience, connecting you with others who share your interests, people whom you might never have met otherwise. “Keeping [my] blog was essential for my soul and my sanity through school, and had the added unintentional benefit of plugging me in to a network of brilliant people who helped me accomplish some of the most amazing things I’ve ever done,” says JCA, a recent law school graduate who blogged her entire law school experience from the LSAT to the California Bar Exam, at her blog, Sua Sponte.

Ana George, a scientist-by-day who writes under a pseudonym, says, “I actually have two blogs; one under this name and one in the name of someone who started out as a character and became an alter-ego. The character blog won for me the love of my life, rather to the surprise of both of us. The character blog sometimes includes incidents from my real life, and my partner is sometimes amused to find her words in the character’s partner’s mouth.”

As well, numerous bloggers have obtained book deals because of their blogs. Many writers find a blog a good way to nibble away at a manuscript a little at a time—and it has the side benefit of winning you fans before your book ever hits the shelves.

But if you’re writing things about people that you wouldn’t be comfortable having them see, things can get ugly. Heather Armstrong of Dooce lost her job because of what she’d written on her blog. Armstrong, who has been interviewed about a million times about “getting fired for her website,” has admitted that she was naïve and even stupid to post as freely as she did about both her family and her job. Like many bloggers, she didn’t think that anyone—or at least anyone she was writing about—would see her blog. What actually happened was that not only did her brother find Dooce, creating a family furor, but someone e-mailed copies of her posts to every vice-president at her company—and she was fired.

More Fired Bloggers

So while it’s true that you don’t have write for anyone but yourself, before you leap into the blogosphere, or the world of creative non-fiction in general, you should take the time to weigh the risks. Ask yourself:

  • Am I defaming anyone or disclosing information that should remain private? If you are, you could be sued.
  • Am I criticizing my employer, boss, or co-workers? If your employer becomes aware of your negative statements, you could be fired.
  • Have I said anything about my family and friends that I wouldn’t say to their faces? If you’re not prepared to lose them, think again.
  • Am I comfortable with anyone knowing this about me? If you’re not, consider an offline journal instead.

Most bloggers are selective about what they share online. “I never blog about anything uberprivate,” Mari says. “Suffice it to say, my personal homelife isn’t up for public consumption.” Instead, she saves the private stuff for a hardbound journal. Shizgirl, who keeps a personal blog under a pseudonym, agrees: “I don’t talk about my personal life, because it’s nobody’s business. I don’t talk about my past, because it’s too weird and painful.”

Writing about your life can be a weird balancing act. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, writing about your own experiences necessitates writing about other people—people who may not like the way you portray them.

Augusten Burroughs, author of the memoir Running With Scissors, is currently being sued for defamation, invasion of privacy, emotional distress, and fraud by the family of the psychiatrist he lived with as a teenager. His memoir recounts the family’s bizarre antics, and, although he changed their names, his detailed descriptions leave no doubt of whom he wrote.

Defamation (known as “libel” when it’s in written form) is an untrue publication that injures a person’s reputation. “Publication” means communicating the defamatory words to at least one other person aside from the person being defamed. A “reasonable person” must believe that the statement refers to the person claiming defamation.

One way to avoid getting yourself in hot water is to make sure you present statements as your opinion, not as fact. This may come into play in Burroughs’s case, because memoirs are generally accepted to be one individual’s interpretation of his or her history.

A statement must be untrue to be defamatory, but just because something is true doesn’t mean that you can write about it with impunity. Assuming that Running With Scissors is factually correct, the family would not have a case for libel. It may, however, still have a case for invasion of privacy.

Four types of invasion of privacy are generally recognized. You can invade a person’s privacy by intruding into his/her solitude, by publicly disclosing private facts about him/her, by placing him/her in a false light in the public eye, or by appropriating his/her name or image for your commercial interest.

In Burroughs’s case, due to his detailed descriptions, apparently anyone familiar with the setting of the book can identify the family’s house. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that readers might start showing up on their doorstep. But more significantly, the family didn’t expect what they did behind closed doors to be shared with the world. While Burroughs has a right to write about his own life, that has to be weighed against other people’s rights to privacy.

But privacy is not just a legal issue, it’s an ethical one.

You may want to use nicknames, initials, or pseudonyms when blogging or writing creative non-fiction out of respect for others’ privacy, even if you’re not saying anything negative. Your friends and family members would probably prefer that your blog not show up as the #1 search result when their bosses Google them. For “friends in real life, I use their first initial only. This is something I discussed with them beforehand and they were adamant about remaining anonymous. I respect that wish,” Shizgirl says.

“I don’t include people’s names (or my own), either. The site I’m on has a custom of registering under handles and pseudonyms anyway, so referring to people by those makes sense. Or making up names for nonmembers,” says Ana.

Remember, though, that changing names won’t prevent people who know you from figuring out who you’re writing about. “I use one pseudonym on my personal blog,” Mari says, “and honestly, it’s the man’s first initial. I do it mostly for his own privacy—although for people who know us, they know who it is when I mention him, usually.”

And as the Burroughs case shows, changing names won’t prevent people from taking legal action if they take offense at what you wrote. And it won’t prevent you from being fired.

If your work-related blog is found, it doesn’t matter if you don’t identify yourself or your employer by name. Heather Armstrong didn’t. It doesn’t matter if your posts consist of harmless fluff a la Nadine Haobsh, who lost not one, but two jobs, when her blog, Jolie in NYC, was discovered in July. (Although, it’s worth noting that in the blogosphere, things have a strange way of turning around. Just this week Haobsh announced on her blog that she has a two-book contract. And she’s far from the first blogger to lose a job and gain a book deal.)

It doesn’t even matter if you work for the company that owns the blogging service you’re using. Mark Jen was fired by Google after he blogged about his first month on the job. Jen’s short-lived blog described orientation and the company cafeteria, not exactly topics that you’d list off the top of your head as “dangerous” ones.

What it comes down to is that your employers may simply be squeamish about the idea of their employees keeping a blog, no matter how innocuous the topics you’re writing about, or how positive you are about your workplace. As JCA says, “Employers are risk-averse… They don’t trust people who don’t keep quiet.”

To Blog About Work—Or Not

One thing to keep in mind is that even writing about subjects unrelated to work carries with it some risk. While it’s unlikely that you would be fired for blogging about your hobbies, if you’re a regular employee, hired “at will,” and not subject to tenure, or a union or other contract that specifies under what conditions you can be let go, know that you can be fired for pretty much any reason (aside from those protected by anti-discrimination laws), regardless of how trivial, or for no reason at all, i.e. “without cause.”

However, if you think you’ve been wrongly dismissed—let’s say you’ve been fired because you wrote about going to a Star Trek convention and your boss thinks Star Trek is silly and the fact you dress up as Spock on the weekends makes the company look ridiculous—you may want to consult an employment lawyer. If a court finds you were fired without cause, you won’t necessarily get your job back, but you could get severance pay in lieu of notice.

If you know—or suspect—that your employers (or anyone else) would be unhappy if they found your blog, anonymity may be the way to go.

Shizgirl says, “I do post about my job and at times (ok, most of the time) I’m not very complimentary. However, I have never named the company I work for, nor used any co-worker or supervisor names. The company does not know about my blog and I’d like to keep it that way.” When asked what her bosses’ reactions would be if they read her blog, she says, “Not good.”

Being truly anonymous requires more than simply using a nickname; you need to start fresh with a new identity that’s not linked to anything else you do online or off. Additionally, if you wish to remain anonymous, you can’t give away any identifying details that will connect your blog to your offline life. This is easier said than done, and if followed to the extreme can render moot the point of posting.

If you have your own web site, you can register the domain privately, so no one can see your WHOIS records. If the main purpose of your blog is communicating with friends and family—and you really want to tell those work stories!—password-protecting your blog may be the way to go. If you don’t have your own site, LiveJournal offers the option of designating posts as “friends only.”

There are further, more technical, steps you can take to hide your identity, such as using anonymizing technologies that hide the IP address you’re posting from (see the links below), but it’s questionable whether it’s worth it to go to such an extent unless you have something more significant to share than a few stories poking fun at your boss.

Anonymous Blogging

In some cases, the risks outweigh the rewards of blogging.

JCA, who started clerking at the beginning of September, has ceased blogging at least until she’s finished her clerkship. When her judge offered her the job, he had a single reservation: her website. “Such blatant open-air publicity gave the court heartburn.” It turned out he meant an older website, not her law school blog, but she didn’t doubt “that he would wish Sua Sponte to trail off equally gently into the ethers.”

She’s philosophical about the constraints on her public voice. “I went to law school to be a lawyer, and I don’t want to put that investment at risk, if this is in fact what I’m facing.” She’d love to try to publish Sua Sponte in book form, but is concerned about the potential impact on her legal career.

But not every employer is anti-blog. Some don’t care, and others even encourage blogging. Occasionally, people get hired to blog.

Blogging is Good

Whether writing about your life is an acceptable risk for you really depends on your own situation and goals. Many bloggers wouldn’t give their blogs up for anything. “Would I cease blogging if someone asked me? Nope. They can have my blog when they pry it from my cold, dead fingers,” Mari says.

But whatever your situation, it’s not a bad idea to view your blog—even your personal blog—as an extension of your resume, in the sense that all your published writing should reflect an image of yourself that you would be happy to have anyone see.

Final Poll Results

Approaching Nonfiction Creatively

Absolute Blank

By Mollie Savage (Collage)

Creative nonfiction. Peculiar term, isn’t it? The first time I ran across it I thought, “Get out! What is this a joke, an oxymoron? An apologia for lying in print?” I swatted it away like a pesky mosquito. And like a pesky mosquito, it kept coming back; in articles and news programs attacking memoirs such as Gore Vidal’s Palimpsest and the biography Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan by Edmund Morris. Then, I began noticing ads for university graduate programs in Creative Nonfiction: what a contrast; journalistic outrage and academic codification. It didn’t look like a purple martin was going to swoop out of the sky and gobble up this pesky mosquito. So I figured if it’s going to keep buzzing around, I might as well learn about this thing called creative nonfiction.

So what is it? An easy definition is that creative nonfiction is a hybrid of literature and nonfiction; combining the literary elements of fiction with the facts and information of nonfiction. I like to think of writing creative nonfiction as an adventurous quest. Imagine going on a dream vacation, what would you do as a writer? Absorb every moment. Immerse yourself in the setting. Record every detail, every person, every conversation and, when you are home, regale your friends and family with stories so complete and engaging they think they’ve been there. As long as you don’t make anything up to enhance the story, you have the essence of creative nonfiction.

Creative nonfiction (also called literary nonfiction, or literary journalism) uses a global, or holistic approach to explore and relay information. The writer engages the reader by including the details, scenes, action and dialogue of real life. The elements more often associated with fiction, poetry and drama. Resources are available, here at TC and elsewhere, on the elements of effective fiction. What frequently isn’t discussed is combining those with nonfiction. Just as we all had the three “R”s in elementary school, here are three elementary “R”s for creative nonfiction.

Background Image: Neil Conway (Public Domain)


Put aside your creative hat for a moment and remember you are writing nonfiction. There is a basic trust on the part of the reader that nonfiction contains reliable, valid information. The reader is relying on you to be honest, no matter how artistic or literary your style of presenting the facts. It is a disservice to both the reader and to you as a writer to manufacture or alter the truth. I remember reading an article in The New Republic about teenage computer hackers being hired by software companies to help prevent other hackers from breaking into their databases. (Washington Scene: Hacker Heaven, Stephen Glass,The New Republic, May 18, 1998). I thought it was so wonderful. I told several folks about how industry was putting the intelligence and energy of young miscreants to positive use. In the next issue, the editors of the magazine announced they had fired the author because he had manufactured the entire article. I felt disappointed and embarrassed. I’d been sharing this great information, from a magazine I trusted, and it wasn’t true! If there is one thing that continues to make creative nonfiction an annoying mosquito it’s authors who forget that the basic tenets of accuracy, validity and truth are the foundation of creative nonfiction writing. Your literary style and creativity are adornments based on and supporting those facts.


This is the fun part. Research helps bring life to your creative nonfiction. Be excessive in your research. Include everything in your notes, even what it’s like pouring over musty archives in the basement of the library. Nonfiction is about life, whether you are writing about history, a City Commission Meeting, cellular biology, or a memoir. Intimate details, like the spindly, dusty begonia on the loan officer’s credenza or the Democrat County Commissioner’s collection of porcelain elephants, humanize and bring alive a nonfiction piece. Allow your research to include every aspect that surrounds your subject: color, texture, sound, space, weather, or the nuances of body language.

In the course of your research adventure, an equally important element in your research is ferreting-out appropriate sources. They may not always be reliable: in print or on the Internet. Let me give you an example from my own experience. This year I grew a tremendous amount of garlic. As June rolled around I knew it was about time to harvest the bulbs. I decided to do some research about the optimum moment for pulling them out of the ground. I checked my notes from an organic garlic production workshop I had attended a couple years ago: “Ted harvests in June”—great. I scratched my head wondering why I attended that workshop. Then I looked up garlic in three Rodale Press gardening books. I found the following: “harvest when all leaves are brown and dying” or “harvest when half the leaves are brown” or “harvest when one third of the leaves are brown and dying”—now what? Time for an Internet search. After about fifteen contradictory sites I found some real information, “harvest when the top leaves are brown and 5 or 6 lower leaves are still green, as they will form the papery skin around the bulbs when dry.” Don’t be satisfied with one or two references; dig deep, dig far and dig wide. It often takes extensive research to find real and relevant information. Which brings us to our third R.


You may be able to recount your visit to the Bahamas with great literary flair, but if it doesn’t contain some observations or insights to which the reader can relate your writing won’t have a strong voice. Writing about the stunning hotel, the glittering white sand, the romantic starlit nights, would only result in one more travelogue. What would resonate with relevance is discussing the unpainted homes of the hotel workers within walking distance of the glitz and glamour of the hotels, or your conversations with local Bahamians about life “on the other side” of glamour. Let life fly into your non-fiction, not only with creative literary devices but let it take wing with relevant slices of life. Nonfiction writing is an adventuresome outlet (and excellent market) for your creative talents. Explore a slice of life and enjoy writing reliable, well researched, relevant creative nonfiction.

I’ll end with an excerpt from an article by Emily Hiestand about a waste water treatment facility near Boston (can you think of a more exciting topic)? 😉

“The Sri Lankan engineers were almost bubbly with excitement about the facility. Me too. The operation room rivals the deck of the Starship Enterprise; there are monster pumps, and in the dome of each egg a lovely oculus, a functional cousin of that calm, all-seeing eye in the Pantheon. But what really sends me is the transformation this plant is working on Boston’s once sullied harbor, restoring it to a sparkling realm clean enough to please bluefish and seals. And people, who are rediscovering the harbor islands-a sapphire necklace of tide pools, wild roses, swimming coves, and ruins of, for instance, the Asylum for Indigent Boys. From the catwalk windows now the view was of sailboats and water taxis, the Boston skyline ghostly in the distance, and, directly below, the plant itself-a sprawling Rube Goldberg number with Corten-steel stacks, clarifying ponds, and pipes galore, all of it surrounded by the Atlantic and coursed by fresh sea breezes.”