Avoiding a Narrative Nonfiction Writing Shipwreck

I’m going to tell you about a book writing screw-up I made. A quasi-catastrophe. Don’t you hate it when you realize you should have done something differently and now it’s going to cost oodles of sweat equity to go back to the task and try again? Mental sweat and untold work. It feels a lot like failure.

When I wrote my memoir I wanted to intertwine factual information into the narrative. I did some of this as I wrote, but I got so focused on telling and structuring the story, that I started just making notes of where I wanted to add my researched information and kept writing the narrative with the intention of going back later to add the bulk of the “hard info.” Um, big mistake.

A carpet pounding, self-loathing, three-boxes-of-Kleenex mistake.

The task of facing all the journalism threads I wanted to include and trying to figure out how to weave them into the narrative afterwards was daunting. The hard information needed to be seamless within the story, unobtrusive, folded in, like whipped egg whites into angel food cake batter. Writing the draft and reworking the theme and dramatic narrative structure was hard enough. Trying to do this at this point in the writing was overwhelming, adding the egg whites after the cake had begun to bake. Which overwhelmed me. Made me grab the three boxes of Kleenex.

It seems so clear now. I think the best method would have been to have the hard info, the research, as well as the narrative reporting done very early and married them as I wrote. Why, oh why, didn’t I do this?

At some point though, you have to stop pounding carpet and get on with things.

I reminded myself that my nonfiction narrative involved extensive interviewing skills, meticulous organizing, a dedication to journalistic integrity and veracity by comparing facts and dialogue against different people interviewed, and so on. I also reminded myself there’s no “right” way of writing anything. Methods and work flow vastly differ.

In fact one of the most interesting books about how literary journalists do what they do and the myriad ways they do it is called The New New Journalism: Conversations with America’s Best Nonfiction Writers on Their Craft. Just reading how Susan Orlean, Gay Talese, and Ted Conover attack their work encourages me to learn better ways of approaching my own writing while giving myself permission to work the way that’s best for me.

We have to work with what we’ve got at the time. Maybe a more journalistic work is for another book. Maybe part of the answer lies in leaving out much of what I thought I wanted to include and only putting in what’s absolutely necessary to the theme and resolution going with just enough hard info to make the dramatic narrative work. Um, duh.

Maybe this was the best route after all.

And maybe, no absolutely, in the future I’ll try to adopt lessons from those whose craft and methods I admire, and give myself lots and lots of grace.