Friday, December 15, 2006

Notes from "Creative Non-Fiction" with Charlotte Gray

Choosing the right subject

  • You must be prepared to live with them for several year. Consult a variety of primary materials (letters, diaries, journals) to get a sense of your subject and to assess your interest.
What story are you going to tell?
  • Kierkegaard said, "Life is lived forward but understood backward." Try to determine the aspect of the subject's life you are interested in writing about.
  • Always be aware that non-fiction (including history and biography) are always as much about the writers as the subject. The assumptions you carry into the creative process reflect the assumptions of your own era.

  • Read everything, not just the primary material but also memoirs by the subject's friends and contemporaries; novels set in the same period and local histories etc.
  • Find archival photos and artefacts and to help you provide a more vivid - and accurate - description.
  • If you are writing about a particular location be sure to plan a site visit to ensure the accuracy of your work.
Invention Versus Imagination
  • Non-fiction must be about actual truth. An important difference between fiction and non-fiction is that in novels and plays, Chekov's dictum prevails: "If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there." In fiction there are no coincidences: a chest pain is followed by a heart attack, a phone call is always meaningful. In real life, however, most chest pain is indigestion, a phone call is probably from a life insurance salesman and rifles gather dust on the wall.
  • Creative non-fiction tries to construct a narrative that emulates fiction by emphasizing connections. But in non-fiction, ignoring sheer coincidence means that the writer flirts with conspiracy theories and invention.

Recommended Reading

Mark Bostridge (ed.), Lives for Sale: Biographers' Tales
Hermione Lee, Body Parts: Essays on Life-Writing
Hermione Lee, Virgina Woolf
Michael Holroyd, Basil Street Blues
Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer
Constance Rooke (ed.), Writing Life: Celebrated Canadian & International Authors on Writing & Life

Books by Charlotte Gray

Reluctant Genius: The Passionate Life and Inventive Mind of Alexander Graham Bell

Sisters in the Wilderness: The Lives of Susanna Moodie & Catherine Parr Trail

The Museum Called Canada: 25 Rooms of Wonder

Flint & Feather

Canada: A Portrait in Letters 1800-2000

Mrs. King: The Life & Times of Isabel Mackenzie King

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