February 20, 2018

Just Go With It

Photo by Aaron Burden, Unsplash

Ideas are everywhere—if a story goes with it.

One reason I love researching and writing creative nonfiction is because it opens up the entire world to a nonfiction writer. There are no parameters or boundaries about what to write about. The catalogue of categories is, in many ways, infinite. You can write about anything from codfish to oranges to the art and science of love to the characters in the streets of New York — as long as “a story,” as Damon Runyon, the reporter and short story writer, frequently commented, “goes with it.”

In my last post, I talked about the style-substance balance—story synchronized with information—essential in creative nonfiction. Let me go further and talk about idea development, the challenge many of my students in the classroom or in my workshops confront as they begin to learn the nuts and bolts of the craft. Generally, there are two distinct categories of creative nonfiction I call the public and the personal. I will begin with the most popular and publishable category of creative nonfiction—the public story.

A public or big idea essay, article or book is a story that anyone—potentially—can write. It’s when you capture a famous figure like, say, some of the unforgettable early profiles of Frank Sinatra or Joe DiMaggio and other celebrities written by Gay Talese, first published in Esquire and later collected in his book, Fame and Obscurity. Or when you confront, dramatize and explain a subject in the news that affects many people, like, more recently, in book form, Dreamland by Sam Quiñones, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Or when you uncover a long-forgotten story that rights a wrong like Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, four years on the New York Times best seller list. Or when you find an incredible story that has never been told, like The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold by Daniel James Brown or Seabiscuit by Lauren Hillenbrand.

Magazines and even newspapers, as well as book publishers, mostly publish these public stories because, of course, they are of interest to the public—they relate to and inform their readers. Every week The New Yorker publishes “fact pieces,” about architecture, interior design, movie making or the child welfare system. As does the New York Times Magazine, or in the myriad of blogs published by The Washington Post. My literary magazine, Creative Nonfiction, publishes special issues on climate change, sustainability or the art of teaching — driven always by narrative.

These subject-focused issues can also be called big idea pieces because, while the stories focus in on particular people or places they represent—showcase—larger trends, issues, concepts, movements, rights and wrongs that affect society as a whole. Dreamland is subtitled The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic. And Quiñones takes us from doctor’s offices where pain killers are prescribed without abandon to Mexico where poverty-stricken young men seeking a new life earn their fortunes by selling black tar heroin throughout the United States. Skloot captures of the life of a poor African American family and in the process teaches readers about cell biology, the inequities of medical research and racism.

You can write about anything from codfish to oranges to the art and science of love to the characters in the streets of New York — as long as a story goes with it.

I have written many public or big idea books—in depth examinations of robotics and how they are made to think, baseball umpires and racism in our national pastime, and the world of organ transplantation—told in scenic narrative form.

These and similar subjects are open to anyone willing and able to do the research, devote the boots-on-ground time and energy interviewing characters and observing events and actions relevant to the subject and the stories they are writing. So, when my students wonder what in the world they are going to write about, I tell them: “Open your eyes and look around the room, the campus, the city you are living in, or the city you come from, or the problems and accomplishments of family and friends.”

The subjects are there – yours for the choosing—if a story goes with it.

Lee Gutkind is the author and editor of more than 30 books and founder and editor of Creative Nonfiction, the first and largest literary magazine to publish narrative nonfiction exclusively. He is Distinguished Writer-in-Residence in the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes at Arizona State University and a professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society.