It’s inevitable. When I launch a new Writing to Change 101 non-fiction class series, I get nervous-but-excited students signing up, many of whom are well into adulthood and have itched to write their entire lives. They want to tell their stories in one way or another, and all have stories to tell.
Many of them have had trouble sitting down long enough to write a few sentences, or they fear they won’t be any good, or they fear that somebody either will or won’t read their work. In many cases, they just don’t know how to get started. They know there’s at least one good story resting inside themselves, but they don’t know how to pull it out.
I send them a list comprised mostly of award-winning stories my paper has published, and then they show up and gather around the table. We talk about their obstacles, do some warm-up free writing, and then I get to the “writing process” part. And each time, I know many of them will be shocked by the second step on the sheet.
The first step is easy. They need an idea. Most of them have more of them, at least vague ones, than they know what to do with.
The second step on the list is “report.” This is where the fear sets in and, sometimes, the protestations.
“I’m not here to be a reporter,” one or another might say.
So, I explain that one actually has to “report” to be a non-fiction writer. I tell them that, by that, I don’t mean walking up to someone whose house just burned to the ground and asking them “how does that make you feel?” and then sticking the sound bite on the evening news. (How the hell do you think it makes her feel, fool?!)
Think about it this way: How are you supposed to have words—description, dialogue, details—to put into your story if you don’t go find them? Even if you’re writing about personal stories from your own past, you’re not going to get that far if all you have to say is something like, “One time I was a flower girl in a wedding.” (This is actually an entry from my diary—the one I got as a present in the second grade. I’m more verbose these days.)
Today, if I was going to write a story about being a flower girl way back when—I don’t know why I would, but just pretend with me—I would have to report to recreate that experience and turn it into a story.
I would find the couple and ask them where the wedding was; I’d look at photos to be able to describe the room; I might ask them if they still had a copy of their vows so I could include what was being said as I stood there and scratched my skinny little legs in those white (I think) stockings.
That’s all reporting.
So is tracing your family history (as I’ve been doing for a writing project); picking a leaf from a tree in a cemetery where a character is buried to get someone who knows one dang tree from another to tell you what kind of tree it is; sitting and talking to your grandparents about their memories while you still can; digging into the family Bible to find out ages of relatives; going through court documents to glean narrative details about some event that’s important to your story.
When reporting stories, I’ve been up in a helicopter; on joy rides in a big police RV with a crazy-ass mayor; on police ride-alongs; in cemeteries with family members of men killed by the Ku Klux Klan; on angry protest marches with everyone from white supremacists to squatters to anti-war protesters to parents of teens killed in Littleton, Colo.; and much more. I’ve even crashed a funeral (which I didn’t know we were doing until the source told me to hurry and pull up in front of the hearse.) I’ve followed my nose down many a scary road just to see what awaited. And I’ve gotten chiggers from being in the woods reporting (I talk about this a lot; I’m telling you, travel with rubbing alcohol).
That kind of participatory, Gonzo-esque reporting is certainly my favorite kind. It’s fun, and it can yield some dynamic narrative scenes and descriptions. Not to mention, the sources come alive in those situations in a way they never will sitting in a coffee shop spouting sound bites.
But participation and interviewing aren’t the only types of reporting. A third key way to find information is to delve nose-first into documents (whether on actual paper, online, on a disk, on a screen, in a photo album, whatever). Often it’s documents that really make a story find its mojo.
I mentioned court documents; they frequently give incredible details about how an incident unfolded, and “what happened next” (one of the best interviewing questions, by the way, for narrative non-fiction).
But don’t limit yourself on the kinds of documents you seek out. One of my favorite examples was when Thomas Moore gave me the Alcorn University college records of his brother, Charles Moore, who was killed by the Klan in 1964. Right there, in Charles’ own words, I could read about his aspirations for life, his favorite books and even see the words he misspelled.
Those intimate details add the kind of humanity to a story that, say, helps convince readers that an old Klansman might not be too old to be prosecuted for the young man’s death.
The goal of good narrative non-fiction writing—or storytelling to call it what it really is—is to get readers to step into someone else’s shoes, hear the sounds, breathe the same air, feel the joy and the wince at the pain. The way we do that is by hunting and gathering the details of the story so that we can create a temporary virtual-reality world. In that world, readers just might change their mind about something (much more likely than when they’re being yelled at about something).
Reporting is where you make your story come alive, whether you’re writing about yourself, your loved ones, your ancestors or complete strangers. I will give more advice on each of the three types of reporting I listed above as this blog unfolds—and even reveal which one is my favorite. It might surprise you, as it does most of my students.
Remember: Don’t fear the R-word. Being willing to report a story—whatever form that takes—is often exactly what enables you to write it. A well-reported story can feel like it’s writing itself, with it just flowing through you-the-writer as if you’re just an instrument for a story that must be told. That is a feeling of pure joy.
Besides, reporting is the most fun part of the writing process. It’s where we get to live, and experience, and feel the most alive as we figure out how to translate those experiences and discoveries to the page.
There’s nothing quite like it. It will change your world. Really.