The Real Non-fiction

Maybe the reason I gave the short story the “once over lightly” treatment last week was because I’ve covered so much of the particulars — voice, point of view, dialogue, narrative, etc — in previous blog commentaries. In re-reading last week’s offering, I do realize I didn’t cover beginnings and endings well, and I’ll try to do that next week, before tackling the novel.
This week, in thinking about the non-fiction piece in short form, most characteristics of the short story are carried over — the above particulars, and also the same dramatic beginning, the same rise to a climax and precipitous fall to conclusion or denouement, for the stuffy ones among us.
There are several subsets of the non-fiction piece: First, the essay, which is usually the writer’s take on a given issue, perspective on life, or anecdote. In orchestrating such a piece of writing, the writer would do well to consider how the piece will end, i.e., how the issue perspective, etc. has been resolved in the writer’s mind. Usually these pieces begin with some element of human drama: a catalyzing event in one’s life, perhaps, or a pastoral scene that stops one in one’s tracks, causing the ensuing literary meditation. Or an insoluble problem embedded in a particular human event. The better non-fiction pieces will also find a way to make such a personal issue universal, or at least very nearly so.
Another form of the short non-fiction piece could be taken as journalism: a personal journey, often through geographic space. These are likely to be seen in the form of memoirs, a recapitulation of one’s life.
The last form is also journalistic in nature: a writer’s investigation into political events, the life of a famous person. You get the idea.
The writers among us should be heartened to realize that it’s much easier to be published in non-fiction, primarily because the public has such a fascination these days with real lives, real events. But how does non-fiction really differ from fiction? So many these days, especially in academia, tout the perspective that no narration of real events is actually true, largely because memory is not dependable, or because interpretations of real events differ from participant to participant. In the end, the only thing that matters is whether the writer has made a good-faith attempt to represent truth in such pieces.
Which brings up a final form of this sort of writing, and the most modern — creative non-fiction. I’ll give you a for instance.
Recently I was tasked to write a piece of short non-fiction, and I chose to write about the day the New York Yankees’ Don Larsen pitched a perfect game against the Brooklyn Dodgers. I remembered the essence of the experience since I was in school, and much of the rest I was able to research. What I couldn’t remember were secondary details. What the classroom looked like, in which we sat, spell-bound during this momentous baseball moment. The name of the teacher who allowed us listen. What his radio looked like. And so on.
It’s incumbent on the writer to dredge as much of these things from research or memory, and I did that. For details one can’t remember or research, the writer must find a way to fill in the blanks. But the writer must say this is conjecture. “I don’t remember what I did after the game was over, but that evening on TV…” In other words, if you are forced to imagine details, say so in some form in the piece.
That the writer must remain faithful to fact makes non-fiction both easier and harder to write. But the research can be as edifying for the writer as the finished piece is for the reader. There’s so much to be learned of life, even along the already well-trod, and this is where non-fiction finds its reason to be.
One last thought: it’s not fiction, and many writers detest the term non-fiction. What, then, should it be called?


The Short Story

To begin this brief series on several of the prose forms of literature, I want to start with the short story. Some claim this form dates to Aristotle, but it certainly has a history based in oral story-telling traditions. The Greeks had their form, from which poetry sprang, but there are other forms from every culture, forms we now know as folk tales or fables.
In Europe, the oral story-telling tradition began to develop into written stories in the early to mid-seventeenth century. France saw the development of this written short form of literary fiction, but the form didn’t really take off until the early nineteenth century. During this era, writers such as Voltaire, Chekhov, and Poe helped develop and extend the form’s technical nature and popularity. During the first half of the twentieth century, the short story’s popularity in the U.S. peaked as a number of magazines, such as The Atlantic and Saturday Evening Post made it their weekly or monthly centerpiece.
The writers among us know short stories tend to be less complex than novels. Usually, a short story will focus on one incident, with a single plot, a single setting, a limited number of characters, and covering a short period of time. These are usually limited to one or two scenes in the short story’s most contemporary form. The story most often begins in medias res, or in the middle of its dramatic moment. It then develops rapidly in plot or characterization and falls equally rapidly to its climax and subsequent conclusion.
Regarding length, the most commonly published short story runs from 1500 to 4500 words. However, flash fiction, or brief fictional vignettes, are growing in popularity, and these can be as short as 100 words, although most run from 300 to 500 words. At its upper end, the short story normally stops at 7500 or so words, but may run as high as 15,000. Beyond that, you’re in the novella range.
Anyone desiring to learn creative writing will be best suited to begin with this form. It allows one to write as a way of learning technique without being overwhelmed with complexity. In the harried days of this new millennium, in which attention spans grow ever shorter, readers find this form the easiest to assimilate. Writers’ markets for short fiction have fallen on hard times. Popular magazines are following readers’ fascination with reality-based writing; thus, the literary magazine is its most frequent home. Very few of these are circulated widely, however, and they pay writers mostly in copies. But there is some indication that the short story stands poised for a comeback. Time will tell.

Odd Things Week

I had a nice letter from David Hurt this week. David co-authored the book I reviewed last time, At Leningrad's Gates. He reminds me of a couple of minor factual changes I might make in my review, and I'll do so following this post. Hope the book sells well, David, both for you and for the amazing old soldier, William Lubbeck.
This week marks being settled into a new semester. I'm taking a poetry workshop as a class offering, and am reminded why I have let that discipline slip away. Poets are a tempestuous sort, some vain, some mesmerized by the sound of their own words, some downright pissy in disposition. And very little of real life seems to be of interest to them – most seem swallowed by their own egos, and that's something I find I abhor. Their version of life seems weighted by angst or cut adrift to float on some fey cloud – one more thing I can do without. We'll see how the semester goes.
As a result, I remain captivated by the challenges of prose: short stories, novels, creative nonfiction, their differences and similarities. In the weeks to come – unless I become diverted – I hope to deal with these different literary vehicles, their merits, and perhaps a bit of their histories. Stay tuned.
There are three novels out their with my name on them, in the form of queries and/or submittals to editors. My resolve this winter in to do what I can to force them all to some sense of completion. Then off on my next writing expedition. As things happen there, I'll let you know.
Which reminds me…I wonder how my pal Nancy Purcell is doing with her novel. Hmm. Few writers work as hard at their craft as she. I should drop her a line.

At Leningrad’s Gates

Recovery from being near-blinded by the flu was swift, although not swift enough, and I was able to convalesce for a couple days with book in hand. This one from my stack, was entitled At Leningrad’s Gates and authored by William Lubbeck, a resident of the town I now call home. It’s not the stuff of great literature, but it does give insight into the casual manner in which people are thrown into such conflagration.
It’s well known that World War II combat on the Eastern Front was brutal on both sides by any standards, and this book doesn’t refute that a bit. What it does is portray the transformation of a rural German boy bent on doing what he felt he should for his country into a seasoned and finally defeated soldier of those awful clashes.
Lubbeck entered the Wehrmacht as an enlisted man, and through bravery, good fortune and force of will became a captain heading an artillery company. As such, he was simply an instrument of the Wehrmacht, and hardly a proponent of the Nazi gospel that propelled it into that war. His family, in fact, suffered at the hands of the Nazis throughout the war for mildly questioning its ways and means.
The most poignant sections of this book have to do with the siege of Leningrad, Lubbeck’s portion of Army Group North so near the city that the streetcar lines running from the city to the suburbs were almost in view. Lubbeck, in typical Germanic fashion understates triumph and defeat, heroism and poorly conceived strategy, as well as the forbidding conditions in which that campaign was fought. He writes of pouring cold water on his toes to thaw them from frostbite, and of the agony that minuscule bit of heat caused. And he speaks of fleas mites and other infestations that made a deplorable situation even worse.
Throughout this time, Lubbeck waged another war, that for the love of his future wife Anneliese. She was plagued by her mother's adopted maiden name, which bore Jewish connotations, but the couple persevered, married and lived the ideal happy ending.
As I become eligible for membership in the cantankerous older set that wonders about the state of the younger versions of moral fiber, I can’t help but wonder whether anyone today, myself included, could have come through those tumultuous years with the grace Lubbeck clearly displayed. Still, it’s enough to make one want to give the men and women caught in similar unfortunate circumstances in Iraq and Afghanistan a sympathetic clap on the back and a few words of reassuarance.