Here’s a much-too-short interview with Lee Gutkind, founder and editor of Creative Nonfiction, the first and largest literary magazine to publish nonfiction exclusively, and Distinguished Writer-in-Residence in the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes at Arizona State University.
Gutkind taps into our inherent capacity for story as a means to communicate complex information from fields such as medicine, engineering, technology, and science to policy makers and the public. He calls his approach “true storytelling”:
I am a writer and editor with a passion for true storytelling. To me, science matters, research matters and knowledge matters, whatever the field. I discovered early on that lots of people want to learn — they aren’t adverse to insight and education — but that the people who had the background, experience and knowledge to teach them were too busy talking to one another and did not know how to talk to the rest of the world.
I discovered that I, a writer of what is known as creative nonfiction, could do the research and bridge the gap in my books and lectures through true storytelling. This is not “dumbing down” or writing for eighth graders. It is writing for readers across cultures, age barriers, social and political landscapes.
He adds, “People who receive information in true stories remember more, remember longer and are sometimes more easily persuaded.” Although he has no formal education in any scientific field, Gutkind has trained himself to be an immersion researcher:
I work like an anthropologist, immersing myself in other people’s worlds. This is wonderful work because I become deeply involved so that I can see and appreciate these worlds through other people’s eyes, and I learn to understand how researchers think — what motivates and challenges them, why they laugh and sometimes cry.
As a result:
My work becomes the vital connection between the scientist and engineer and the world they are trying to change — from consumers to legislators and beyond. Helping these groups understand each other will inevitably enhance the scientist’s work and the consumers’ support of science.
Gutkind’s most recent book is the anthology Becoming a Doctor: From Student to Specialist, Doctor-Writers Share Their Experiences (W. W. Norton & Company, 2010). His new book You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction — from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between will be published by Da Capo Lifelong Books later this year.
Lawrence Wittner, Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany, has published seven scholarly works and edited another four works. But in this article he talks about writing his memoir:
As I’m not a famous politician, movie star, or athlete, people might well wonder how I — a mere historian and academic — ended up writing my recently-published autobiography, Working for Peace and Justice: Memoirs of an Activist Intellectual. In fact, sometimes I wonder about it myself.
The roots of the project can probably be found in the fact that, since childhood, I have always enjoyed stories. This fact played out in my career as an historian — historians, after all, like anecdotes — as well as in my development of a range of colorful vignettes about my life, which I used on occasion to regale friends or relatives.
Like Lee Gutkind, discussed above, Wittner recognizes that a basic form of human comunication is storytelling. He decided to supplement his personal stories with stories of other members of his family:
Meanwhile, in the late 1980s, as members of my parents’ generation began to wither and die, it occurred to me that I had very little knowledge of my family’s past and that, if I wanted to learn something about it, I would have to move quickly to interview aging family members and gather documentation from them. As a result, I made some small-scale efforts along these lines.
Finally, about six years ago, spurred on by the advent of grandchildren (thoroughly unfamiliar with almost all events of the past) and my own drift into old age, I decided that the time had come to pull some of this material together into a family history. Consequently, I sat down and began writing about the lives of my great grandparents and their children in Eastern Europe, the migration of family members to the United States, their assimilation and that of their children, my own Brooklyn boyhood and my curiously mixed life as a reputable university faculty member and scholar, and a considerably more controversial political activist.
But a collection of unconnected anecdotes does not a memoir make. As he worked on this material he realized the overall theme he was writing about:
the appropriate role was for Americans — and particularly intellectuals — in a society plagued by war and social injustice. My own life had not only roughly corresponded with the rise of American militarism, battles over racial and gender privilege, and fierce struggles over economic inequality, but had been closely intertwined with the peace movement, the racial justice movement and the labor movement.
He was unsure how to structure the material:
I was not certain what the right mixture was when it came to interweaving personal items (marriage, family and friends) with larger political and social concerns. Some people urged me to leave out most of the personal material and focus, instead, on broader issues. But, as an historian, I felt that this would present a distorted picture of my life. Furthermore, it would lead readers to conclude that activists chose a political life over a personal life, whereas the reality is that they usually had both.
Many writers of memoir struggle with how to find the narrative theme or focus of their lives. The only way to get throught this issue is to work with the collected material. Finally, Wittner says, “in writing the book I just tried to recapture what the texture of my life was like.” And, he adds, “I confess, I had a lot of fun writing this book!”
Why Toni Morrison Isn’t Writing a Memoir—And Why She Should
Writer Toni Morrison has received the Nobel Prize for Literature (1993) and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (1988, for her book Beloved). Recently she spoke at “Oberlin College, not far from her hometown of Lorain, where she was born in 1931 and where her sisters and other relatives still live.” When asked if she had any plans to write a memoir,
she said she’d actually signed a contract for her next book to be a memoir.
“But then I canceled it,” she said. “My publisher asked me to do it, but there’s a point at which your life is not interesting, at least to me. I’d rather write fiction.”
In response to Morrison’s announcement, Thembi Ford takes issue with this decision:
While you’ve got to respect Toni Morrison for choosing to do the kind of writing she wants to do, her story in her own well-crafted words would be amazing. There are so many black women in history whose first person stories would surely be fascinating; how excited would you be if historians discovered memoirs written by Harriet Tubman, Betty Shabazz or Dorothy Dandridge (and I mean real memoirs, not the sterilized, ghost-written PR efforts that too many stars offer these days)? Toni Morrison has earned the right to keep the details of her life to herself, but she joins the long list of black women whose lives will only be understood through documents, memories, and other second and third person accounts of their greatness.
And here’s a bit of advice to writers from Morrison’s talk at Oberlin: “People say to write about what you know,” she said. “I’m here to tell you, no one wants to read that, ’cause you don’t know anything. So write about something you don’t know. And don’t be scared, ever.”