In a recent class I taught on finding the stories that matter, my retired adult students named people they’d like to write about and more importantly, people in their lives who meant a great deal to them. The students’ stories, in this case, often came from childhood memories.
Concerned about writing skills or being able to get the story on paper, they each started out in different places with small bits of information about the person they wanted to write about. For them, it was a beginning—and their hope and mine—that by the end of our workshop, they could indeed write a story about their person of interest. Levels of education varied in the group, but that didn’t matter because each person’s memories contain valuable clues for a story that can be developed. And the best thing about it was the story would be theirs.
I asked them to think on what they knew about the person, even small details. Was the person an immigrant? Could they describe, even in limited detail, the clothing the person usually wore? What qualities of that person did they remember? We were doing more than scratching the surface. We were digging for details. By the next class, the students had come up with a story much longer than where they started, which delighted them.
While a novelist paints a picture of the character, so too can the person who’s writing creative nonfiction bring greater and more interesting detail to his subject.
Showing not Telling
A character is more than a name and a face. One student shared that her grandmother was a special person to her and today’s storytelling by the same student related to the same person but went in a different direction, coming out of those earlier questions and shared from a different perspective—memories she retained from childhood, from where she told her story instead of telling from an adult point of view.
I reminded my students that the reading audience cannot see what they see, that it’s about showing that person and giving enough detail that the reader can really see.
As you begin to write in creative nonfiction, remember it’s not about a person doing actions one after the other, but gathering information, reflecting, and beginning to write:
• Appearance: How did the person dress? A farmer in overalls. A woman wearing her best Sunday dress. Did the person always wear a hat?
• Sound or rhythm of voice: spoken words or phrases you remember
• Qualities of the person: humility, honesty, impetuous, domineering
• Other people: Ask someone who knew the person; it could be another adult who saw her as a mentor, neighbour or parent.
• Research on that period of history: immigration records, books on the time, newspaper articles, passenger lists, genealogy records, etc.
In strict journalism, you answer the who, what, when, where, and why questions and strive to be objective. In creative nonfiction, you’ll still research and stay true to the historical time and facts about a person’s life, but here you’re also free to write about your perceptions and the emotional truth of who that person was to you.
Who will you write about?
Carolyn R. Wilker edits, teaches writing, and is the author of Once Upon a Sandbox. She will present a workshop for Canadian Authors Association, Waterloo-Wellington branch, February 28, 2015, in Waterloo, ON, and co-lead a Creative Nonfiction Intensive workshop for attendees at Write Canada in June 2015.