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Non-Fiction Identity Crisis

August 6, 2009

Today on NPR, Tina Brown talked about narrative non-fiction (The Woman Who Named God is narrative non-fiction). She quoted Gay Talese, who apparently once said that non-fiction writers are second class citizens, the Ellis Island of writers. This struck home. Are we? Then Tina Brown talked about how brilliant narrative non-fiction writers are and I listened to this story as I drove into Boston to tape my first tv interview for my new work of yes, narrative non-fiction, and wondered about why I write what I write. I remember some audience member coming up to me after a reading and saying, charlotte, you are so creative. Why don’t you write novels? And, I thought, after all of these years of writing: poems, a screenplay, stories — nothing has taxed my imagination more than these daunting non-fiction projects. Always, there are the facts. And then, there is the imagination. And, the problem is how to imagine the facts into scenes that are still somehow True, whatever that means, really. I had a favorite professor in college who used to tell us not to let ourselves be dominated by the tyranny of fact. But I can’t just make things up. I have to make what happened come alive. Inject life into dusty old things. Not very glamorous, perhaps. But then, this is what I like to read. Essays. Susan Orleans, David Foster Wallace. Or my new favorite writer, Dawn Potter, whose work has reminded me how much I love this stuff we write. Whatever it is, really. The lines blur.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. August 7, 2009 12:09 pm

    In my humble opinion, there is no debate. Having readers fawn over you, in love with a fantasy world you’ve created for them and presented in a novel that entertained, that allowed them escape on some level would be wonderful. Yet how much more worthy is it to create a work that takes a deep, hard look at the facts- even the uncomfortable ones- and presents them in a way that is laced with creativity? No, it certainly wouldn’t be the popular choice, but challenging preconceptions by bringing some dusty bit of information into the spotlight of public conversation… that is talent. Not only is it talent, but its inspirational.

  2. August 7, 2009 8:00 pm

    In such a funk. You cheer me up. XX

  3. August 9, 2009 3:01 pm

    WOW! This made my day. Thank you so much for taking the time to write.

  4. Ruth permalink
    August 10, 2009 1:07 pm

    To delve into the world of real and make the shards of the past more real is such a talent and is awe ( in the true sense!) inspiring to me; as well as, illuminating. I am so glad you have done this.

  5. August 11, 2009 6:26 pm

    Well, for what it’s worth, I’m enjoying reading narrative non-fiction. Heck, I even keep a thumb in the back of the book so that I can read the reference notes. If it weren’t for narrative non-fiction, I don’t know I’d know half what I know today. Maybe it’s an acquired taste, the sort of thing you have to be mature to enjoy. Let’s face it — a lot people prefer a diet of cheeseburgers and fries; the rest of us want a steak and lightly steamed vegetables, and we’re willing to take the time to enjoy it.

    I’m liking the a lot of what I’m reading in this book, including what’s in the notes. I think you said in the beginning that it wasn’t important, really, what was true and what was not; what mattered is that these stories are part of our culture. So much of the definition of a Jew or a Muslim or a Christian, at least historically, was the faith to leave what was known for what was unknown. Sadly, today I think that the fundamentalists of these religions want to return to the beginnings (not realizing, of course, that the beginnings meant giving up what was known and accepted) because it is what they “know” and feel certain about. Isn’t faith defined as being willing to move forward into the unknown?

  6. August 12, 2009 11:44 am

    THANK YOU so much. It is such a hard time, after a book comes out. Yesterday, my agent said that she thinks no one wants to read about ideas anymore. But we do, right?

  7. August 12, 2009 9:25 pm

    me, too. and you cheer me up on a regular basis. Do you have any interest in come visiting my non fiction class?

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