Getting Creative With The Truth

Colorado Meadows

Tips and Tools of the Trade: Notes from the Writer’s Workshop (Part 2)

(Please see yesterday’s blog for an explanation and introduction.)

From the presentation “Creative Nonfiction”

Prior to working as an editor, I was briefly a staff writer for our publishing house – churning 3000 word features on everything from road maintenance safety to heavy equipment financing to desalination.  This was a new genre for me – in the past I’d mostly authored fictional pieces or short, news items – and at first I approached the task as if I were writing a college essay or report.  While my output was serviceable, I just wasn’t happy with the results – I wanted my efforts to sing off the page.  I wanted to engage my audience and pass on a little information in the process.

As such, I was eager to sit in on the “Creative Nonfiction” presentation hosted by the Writers Workshop.  At the lecture, I learned that the secret to an engaging nonfiction article is to apply the basic concepts of fiction to your factually based content.  This means establishing a setting, creating a cast of characters and developing a story arc.  It sounds odd and slightly intimidating, but if you approach every writing endeavor as a story that wants to be told, you’ll discover just how much easier – and more enjoyable – the process of writing can be.

The best advice I was ever given for drafting a successful, nonfiction, article was to start off by asking a series of questions:

  • What was the initial issue or inspiration?
  • What were some of the early solutions/practices that you tried and why did they fail to satisfy your requirement?
  • What finally succeeded?
  • What were some of the unanticipated consequences or challenges?
  • What were the final feelings about the outcome?
  • What does the future hold?

I applied these questions to one of my first published pieces with great results.  I was covering a water utility that had decided to switch over entirely to solar power, using the grid only for backup when needed.  When I asked the water utility manager why they’d decided to invest in solar power, his answer was surprising – it wasn’t about being energy efficient or saving money, he explained, it was all about the bark beetle.

This little creature, aided and abetted by a succession of dry winters, had all but decimated the redwoods and evergreens that surrounded the utility. Hollowed out from within and kinetic as kindling, these trees could topple at a moment’s notice.  The threat of an out of control wildfire was ever present.  The power lines to the utility were in constant peril – one downed tree could bring the utility to a standstill, terminating water service and threatening water quality.  It was decided that a more reliable power system was needed, and once state and federal rebates for renewable energy installations were identified, the decision to install solar panels seemed like a no brainer.

There were some unexpected challenges along the way as well.  Utilities require high quality power, which the local power company had always struggled to deliver.  In stepped the solar panels to even out the pulse.  And when the local electric company expressed a fear that their service workers could be injured by a stray charge, the water utility worked with their solar power supplier to create a unique voltage control system.  You can read the entire article here if you like  but the bottom line is that once I saw the story at the center of the piece, the writing came easy.

In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote, is probably one of the most famous instances of nonfiction crafted into a compelling story.  Lauded as the forerunner of the true crime drama, from it’s opening words Capote’s opus draws you in, grabs you close and never lets you go.

 The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.” Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clear air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West. The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang, a ranch-hand nasalness, and the men, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointed toes. The land is flat, and the views are awesomely extensive; horses, herds of cattle, a white cluster of grain elevators rising as gracefully as Greek temples are visible long before a traveller reaches them.

We can’t all be Capote, but with some practice and a few helpful hints, creative nonfiction can be an enjoyable endeavor that not only broadens your writing skills, but informs and improves your creative fiction efforts.

Some more tips from the workshop:

  • Watch your syntax
  • Read your drafts out loud
  • Add unusual elements and imagery
  • Mine your personal experience and personal knowledge for story ideas and insights

Stay tuned for more workshop notes…

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