My thanks to Rachel for asking me to guest post here and touch on the genre commonly called literary or narrative non-fiction.
For my new book, “33 Days: Touring In A Van. Sleeping On Floors. Chasing A Dream,” I had a decision to make. Keep the names, dates and places the same, or fictionalize it. Frankly, it would have made things a lot easier had I made it fiction. Ultimately I chose to keep it non-fiction, but instead of a straight first person autobiography, biography or memoir, I wrote it like a novel – replete with ongoing dialogue and developing characters that evolve and come of age.
Quick back story: “33 Days” is the true story of my band Divine Weeks’ first tour in a beat up old Ford Econoline van across the U.S. and Canada in the summer of 1987. At its core, “33 Days” is a coming of age, on the road story. The tour is one of those now or never experiences. Take a shot at making the band work or leave it all behind and go your separate ways. Every one of us has that moment where we have to decide to either live our dreams or give up and regret it for the rest of our lives.
So, what really is literary non-fiction? Well, simply put, it’s a form of storytelling that employs literary techniques like narrative arc, character development, scene-setting, dialogue and interior monologue to report on actual persons, places or event. In literary non-fiction, a writer narrates facts while searching for truth. It’s a blend of the eye of a journalist with the moral vision of the novelist.
In “Stein on Writing”, Sol Stein writes, “Sometimes the subject of literary non-fiction may not at the onset be of great interest to the reader, but the character of the writing may lure the reader into that subject.” My band Divine Weeks only had modest success in indie rock circles back in the 80s, and I never set out to try and make a case that we should have become superstars. In fact, by the end of the book, the question of whether the band “makes it” is inconsequential. What makes the book universally appealing, hopefully, is the extraordinary journey by a group of five guys out on their own for the first time in their lives. What makes the story relatable, again hopefully, are the obstacles we faced (alcoholic upbringing, rigid cultural expectations) before we could even climb in the van and try to leave it all behind. A straightforward band memoir laying out the facts of the tour would not have given life to the characters and our struggles, humorous and otherwise, in the way that literary non-fiction does.
In Lee Gutkind’s “The Creative Nonfiction Police,” he sets out a kind of checklist for creative non-fiction writers. “One, strive for the truth…Second, recognize the important distinction between recollected conversation and fabricated dialogue. . .Third, don’t round corners--or compress situations or characters--unnecessarily. . . Fourth, allow your characters to defend themselves--or at least to read what you have written about them.”
Pondering that checklist, in my case, “33 Days” is culled from the journals I kept on tour. I didn’t have a tape recorder, and it wasn’t my intention to write a book until many years later. I didn’t make anything up, but I’m sure I missed a lot out there. My disclaimer makes that clear at the onset of the book. That is, these were the stories I chose to tell, and if anything I shared was either a breach of confidence or if I misquoted anyone, I really did try to clear it with everyone in the book. And I did clear it with everyone with one exception despite the fact that I tried to continuously. For everyone else, I gave them the opportunity to not only defend themselves but weigh in with their own recall and insight which helped distinguish each character’s voice. I was guilty of compressing some of the story in the interest of sparing the reader too many disparate parts that didn’t fit into the themes I chose to focus on. Overall, I’d give myself a passing grade.
Learn more at the 33 Days website!