Feb 24, 2011

NO Me Versus No, ME: Journalism and Creative Nonfiction

This past November I was invited to speak at the NonfictionNow Conference at the University of Iowa. The topic was journalism versus creative nonfiction and whether or not to include the self. My background is in traditional daily journalism (NO Me), but my best piece of writing is probably my story about egg donation which was written in first-person (No, ME).

Here are the thoughts I shared that day:

How many of you self-identify as journalists?
How many of you identify as creative nonfiction writers?
How many of you aren’t sure where you fall?

Some definitions might help --- sometimes I feel like we can’t talk to each other because we don’t know what the other means when they say creative nonfiction vs. literary journalism.

"'Creative nonfiction' precisely describes what the form is all about. The word 'creative' refers simply to the use of literary craft in presenting nonfiction—that is, factually accurate prose about real people and events—in a compelling, vivid manner. To put it another way, creative nonfiction writers do not make things up; they make ideas and information that already exist more interesting… using literary techniques like scene, dialogue, and description, while allowing the personal point of view and voice rather than maintaining the sham of objectivity." -Lee Gutkind, the godfather of creative nonfiction.

“a form of storytelling as old as the telling of stories. The genre recognizes both the inherent power of the real and the deep resonance of the literary. It is a form that allows a writer both to narrate facts and to search for truth, blending the empirical eye of the reporter with the moral vision -- the I -- of the novelist.” -Lauren Kessler, narrative nonfiction author and director of the graduate program in literary nonfiction journalism at the University of Oregon.

To me, these definitions sound more similar than distinct. To be honest, I think what we do as literary nonfiction journalists and creative nonfiction writers is essentially the same.

I don’t think one is more powerful, or more valid, or more worthy.

A thoroughly researched, thoughtfully written memoir has the potential to be better work of a journalism than a third-person nonfiction book that is sloppily written and poorly researched … And vice versa.

It doesn’t have to be one or the other. The categorization, in my opinion, has more to do with how the writer prefers to be identified or what shelf her work going to sit on in Barnes & Noble or how it’s being sold to a general audience --- and that general audience really doesn’t care about the nit-picky details of whether it’s called literary nonfiction. Creative nonfiction. Factual fiction.

What people care about is whether it’s TRUE. As a reader, I just don’t want to be lied to. I don’t want to be told that I’m reading a factual story and find out later that the author has intentionally twisted the truth or omitted relevant details. As long as you’re honest with what you are doing ---- if it’s written from memory that can’t be substantiated, fine. If you’re approximating the dialogue/scenes, OK. Just say so. I just want things to be true to the best of the writer's knowledge, that the writer hasn’t made things up purposefully.

But people do make things up in both creative nonfiction and journalism. There are lots of notorious cases. When it’s intentionally fictionalized and you’re trying to pass it off as nonfiction, it’s just wrong.

What bothers me about journalists is that we stand with our chests puffed out and say we just deal in cold hard facts and telling the truth. We dismiss any further discussion on how much actual truth comes out of what we do.

I didn’t contemplate this in any significant way until I liberated myself from the old school rules of journalism and wrote my first, first-person piece. As I was writing, I came to a point where I had to explain my motivations – and I thought to myself, why did I do that?

I wrote the first idea that came to my head. But it felt off. I tried on another explanation but that didn’t ring true either. I realized I couldn’t explain my actions. It took weeks of contemplation until I’d written myself into a place where I finally understood my true motivation.

And then it dawned on me how ridiculous is it that I’ve been conducting interviews for years asking questions like, “What motivated you to do X?” And I’d give the subject all of 30 seconds to respond.

As writers, we spend a lot of time in our heads. We reflect. We mull. We question ourselves (incessantly at times).

The average person doesn’t dig that deeply into the psyche.

So when we as journalists ask a person “Why did you do that?” We may be asking her to think in a way that she rarely thinks. And while the answer may not be intentionally false, it may not be entirely true either.


Because I find writing about other people more interesting than writing about myself, I returned to the No Me camp. It wasn’t easy though. I had the nagging feeling that what I was doing as a journalist was fraught because it seemed impossible to gather much less tell the complete truth.

But that doesn’t mean that I’m going to stop trying to tell true stories.

Because we live in a culture where we are inundated with facts and soundbytes that are often devoid of insight, we need creative nonfiction / literary journalism whatever the heck you want to call it, to give context to information and human experience.

We need this type of storytelling (Me, or No Me) because it helps us all make sense of the world.

Nov 22, 2010

Q&A with Peter Laufer

I interviewed Peter Laufer this summer for Etude, the Journal of Literary Nonfiction. And now Peter works with me at the University of Oregon's School of Journalism and Communication. I also just got his butterfly book. Here's an introduction to Peter followed by our Q&A.

Peter Laufer is an investigative journalist, broadcaster and documentary filmmaker working in traditional and new media. Laufer is the author of several books dealing with critical social and political issues. His book Mission Rejected focuses on American soldiers who return from Iraq opposed to the war. Laufer worked as a news correspondent for NBC News, reported for CBS and ABC radio, and was the Berlin voice of the public radio program “Marketplace.” He has also produced and directed an award winning documentary film on immigration in Europe (“Exodus to Berlin”), and anchored national television talk shows such as LinkTV’s “FAQs”. Laufer is currently writing a natural history trilogy published by Lyons Press. The first book, The Dangerous World of Butterflies (May 2009), is an examination of the strange subculture of rare butterfly enthusiasts. As a follow-up, Laufer wrote Forbidden Creatures (June 2010), a study of the exotic pet industry. The third book tentatively titled No Animals Were Harmed during the Writing of this Book is due out in 2011. Laufer was recently named the James Wallace Chair in Journalism at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication and will begin teaching this fall.

You are two books into a three-book deal. Most writers dream about a three-book deal. Is it a dream...or a burden...or a little of both?

It is a dream and a challenge. The Dangerous World of Butterflies led directly to Forbidden Creatures because many of the issues I encountered researching the butterfly book — poaching, illicit trade in animals, endangered species, habitat loss, fascinating characters — are replicated in the world of so-called exotic pets: great apes, big cats, long snakes, and the like. The third book in the trilogy deals with the point where animal use becomes animal abuse. Careening into this moving target of use vs. abuse is proving to be not just a reportorial challenge, but also a personal one. I've been a vegetarian since Jimmy Carter lost the presidency to Ronald Reagan, but the research for this third book pushed me into a vegan lifestyle — difficult to pursue on the road and undoubtedly an irritant to friends and relations still gracious enough to invite me for dinner.

So my short answer to your query must be: It is a dream (as long as I get back to my desk quickly so that I can meet that looming deadline for book number three).

You are what is now being called a multi-platform storyteller. You tell stories with text, with audio and with video. How do you know which stories deserve which treatment? Should all storytellers be conversant across platforms? What about the "jack of all trades, master of none" idea?

The story is all that counts, I remain convinced. The platform — from the wall of our caves to the screens of our G4 iPhones, and beyond — is just a platform. The "jack of all trades, master of none" idea is not an issue because storytellers must be master storytellers to make an impact, especially in today's information overloaded culture. And when the story is well told, the platform is merely the vehicle that delivers it. Most storytellers working today grew up in the mélange of print, audio, and video, and should be able to move seamlessly across these "platforms." I use that buzzword in quotes because I think our mediated societies can now dispense with such labels. A story is a story. I expect I should be able to tell it to you via whatever means works best to get it into your (likely) distracted head.

All that said, I'm promoting my Slow News Movement, announced in the butterfly book and inspired — of course — by Italy's Slow Food Movement. My slogan is "Yesterday's News Tomorrow" and I believe we need to consciously and carefully moderate our incoming media. I've taken to writing letters with a fountain pen and sending them through the post. I try not to respond immediately to email messages, I leave my mobile phone in the car when I go out to restaurants, and I'm seriously considering closing my Facebook account (I shut down Twitter after just a few “tweets”). We need to decide for ourselves what media is worth our while to read (and as a writer I want to use the word "read'' and not "consume"). We're in danger of missing the story because of the noise. So although I exploit all media to tell my stories to the widest possible audience, I embrace the legacy and permanence of the printed word on paper — and prefer it for my long-form work. My other first love is radio; live sound is ideally suited for triggering the imagination and blasting news out to the world fast and first.

Today I visited the Hermann Hesse Museum here in Switzerland and was intrigued to see collections of his letters, musing to my wife Sheila that it's hard to imagine our contemporary email traffic making a compelling graphic exhibit. I encourage us all to write more letters by hand and leave a legacy impossible for the quartermasters at Facebook and Amazon to delete.

What have you learned from all your years in radio that you apply to your work as a book author?

There is no better training ground for reporting, writing, and editing with accuracy and clarity than a traditional radio newsroom. Radio news, with its relentless perpetual deadlines, requires one to work under extreme time pressure (minute-by-minute deadlines!) and in close proximity (physical and conceptual) with usually stressed-out colleagues. It mandates telling complicated stories with brevity. I like to share the paraphrased quote attributed to both Twain and Pascal, "Sorry for the long letter. I would have written a shorter one, but I didn't have the time." Radio news equals that elusive short letter. Writing for radio teaches us how to make the complex concise and how to communicate clearly in today's information-cluttered marketplace. Facing radio news deadlines day after day makes any other deadline appealing. Working a live audience that will jump to correct errors is a constant reminder to check facts. Crafting a story in a noisy newsroom full of unrestrained egos tempers a writer from the romantic notion that she or he requires an idyllic atelier on a Left Bank equivalent in order to compose compelling prose.

Radio is the most visual of media. Before I explain, I must define terms. The word "radio" meaning sound transmitted through the airwaves and listened to over a radio receiver is antiquated. In today's world the storytelling we enjoy as sound comes to us via a variety of devices besides a Bakelite transistor and its variants. "Audio" is a more precise label for those sound stories. But I lobby for the continued use of "radio." The word need not be restricted to the old technology and it conjures a sense of using a device to hear a story. Despite my rejection of the romantic Paris writing studio, I'm romantically attached to the word "radio" and I'm betting its use doesn't die no matter how many podcasts you download, even though National Public Radio decided to change its official name to NPR. That foolishness makes me think of a story that circulated around Rockefeller Center when I worked as an NBC News correspondent. Correspondent Irving R. Levine supposedly was asked by a producer if he would drop the “R” at the end of his reports, making the precious second it took to pronounce the initial available for more editorial content. My colleague’s reputed retort was, “I’ll drop the ‘R’ in my name when you take the ‘B’ out of NBC.”

Radio requires concerted effort be exerted by both the producer and the listener in order to function. When we create radio we must trigger the imagination of the listener. The listener — by default — creates a visual image of what he or she hears. It is an unavoidable phenomenon cleverly demonstrated in one minute by one of my radio heroes, Stan Freberg. In an example of how radio is superior to television, Freberg describes Lake Michigan bombed with whipped cream by the Canadian air force, which then drops a huge cherry on the top to the cheers of thousands of bystanders. No one can listen to that minute without envisioning the ludicrous sight of a whip-creamed Great Lake.

Successful radio writing must incessantly project visual images; such writing translates well to the printed page. Successful radio writing is informal and conversational; that tone also works well for stories presented as printed words on paper (or pixels on Kindles and iPads).

I love radio.

Tell us about your investigative reporting process. Do you pursue questions? Do you follow people’s stories? Do follow the money? How do you think about it?

That there are no stupid questions is a key to my process. I often look to guidance from the detective portrayed by actor Peter Falk, Colombo. I observe and follow my curiosity, and I try to listen long and hard when I ask questions. Initially I cast a wide net (animal metaphor!) and then follow the stories and characters both most appealing to me and that seem most likely to reveal those truths I'm seeking.

Your list of book titles, documentaries and radio programs is extensive — okay, that’s an understatement. You’re one heck of a prolific journalist. How do you maintain such energy for your work?

For me the answer is the inverse of your question: The work energizes me. It is much more exhausting to consider waking up to no assignment. In fact, it is impossible to consider. As my friend and colleague Markos Kounalakis remarked to me years ago when we were musing about how lucky we were to have chosen journalism for a profession, "We're sentenced to a lifetime of learning." There never can be a blank page. There are no slow news days; there are only slow news reporters.

I understand you are in Lugano, Switzerland at the moment. What brings you there? Are you there on a research adventure? (If so, can you tell us about it?)

In fact I am writing this on the deck of the gracious apartment of family friends, looking out on Mt. San Salvatore, eating tofuwürst. I'm here for the launch of the Italian edition of my butterfly book, and yes, I am engaged in some research for the animal use and abuse book (the working title is No Animals Were Harmed during the Writing of this Book). Lugano was the home of Hans Ruesch, a man with an extraordinarily varied career: race car driver (Alfas and Maseratis, a Grand Prix winner), novelist ("A born storyteller," said the New York Times), film writer (for films with Anthony Quinn and Kirk Douglas), and — for my purposes — an early and longtime anti-vivisection activist, and author of the nonfiction animal rights book, Slaughter of the Innocents. He died a few years ago well into his nineties, but a foundation dedicated to his animal rights work remains active.

Finally, we ask all our authors, what are you reading at the moment?

In preparation for my arrival at the University of Oregon and Eugene I've just finished two books assigned to me by a grammar school friend who moved to Eugene years ago: Amis's Lucky Jim and Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion. The former teaches moderation at the bar during faculty parties and the latter suggests it rains now and again in Oregon. I just started Ruesch's Slaughter of the Innocents. Aside from the animal rights issues, the preface to the 1983 edition I'm reading offers detailed documentation and analysis from the author regarding what he considered was a concerted effort by the drug industry to marginalize his work. It is a fascinating essay about journalism, storytelling, and the challenges of moving ideas and information to an audience.

Jun 18, 2009

Telling Stories Short Nonfiction Contest Winners - part 4

Many thanks to everyone who entered stories into the Telling Stories Short Nonfiction Contest. I apologize again for how long it has taken to announce the winners. Thank you all for your patience.

We're very pleased with the winning stories. They are such different stories --- a dating disaster, a travelogue to a surreal land, a travel nightmare, and a mini trauma memoir. We've posted each here with an explanation of what we liked about them.

This winning entry from Celene Carillo stood out for many reasons — the hook at the beginning, the pace of the storytelling, the self-deprecating humor, the kicker we didn’t see coming. It’s one of those stories that invites the reader for a fun ride that finishes before you feel like you’ve had enough. We’re satisfied but want to hear more about this writer’s adventures in dating. Thanks so much, Celene, for sharing this entertaining tale of woe.

In the House of Vomiting and Despair

By Celene Carillo

It started with the e-mail.

I read it and felt like I’d been punched hard in the stomach.

Sure, two months isn’t a long time to be dating someone, but things were intense. For example, a few years ago I used to dream about a man who built a blacksmithing shop in his yard. I loved this man. I wanted to find this man. So you can imagine how it felt when Mr. e-mail told me he’d built one in his yard just before my dreams started. They even looked alike – these two men – taller, lithe versions of Jon Stewart, and for a while I thought hotter versions of Jon Stewart, which I now believe is impossible in reality.

But I’m wandering. It started with the e-mail, and by “it” I mean the vomiting.

It didn’t happen right away, which is something of a surprise, since immediately after reading the e-mail I stood, faced my friend Jenny and her husband, David, who had both been reading over my shoulder, and said, “I am going to vomit.”

I said it over and over that day and largely thought it was true. The e-mail was like a scourge that had found its way from Oregon, where I live, to North Carolina, where I was visiting my best friend and her family. Perhaps learning a little more about it will help explain why. Here’s an excerpt, paraphrased:

"I like being with you. You make me laugh. But for various reasons I do not
understand I hold people at arm’s length. It might be past relationship baggage or
poor organizational skills. I need to figure out which. I guess what I am looking
for at this point is to find people who are interesting, kind, comfortable and are up
for an activity now and again. I would still like to meet up to play backgammon,
or watch a movie, with no other obligations but enjoying that time."



These were not entirely in keeping with my man friend’s prior behavior, which had included, among other things, pursuing me; bringing blueberries and red wine to an outdoor performance of Shakespeare we saw; claiming full credit for making the first move; being my date at a good friend’s wedding; shooting me that goofy, misty-eyed, “I want to sleep with you” look when I’d go off on topics like plate tectonics or the lottery; and, as it follows, sleeping with me.

It made no sense that this fit, seemingly virile 36-year-old man could suddenly go so Mr. Rogers on me.

Jenny and I spent the evening mocking the e-mail. “Would you like to play mah-jongg?” she asked. “No,” I said. “I am too busy participating in a Parcheesi tournament at the assisted living center. But let’s meet up for water aerobics next week. That’s an activity I enjoy.”

It felt good to laugh at him, at his sudden, panicked retreat. It felt good to toss words around like, “eunuch,” “flaccid” and “emasculate.”

We’d pay for that.

The next day I read my weekly horoscope. It was about purification, and included an anecdote about how an addled Robert Downey Jr. once purged himself of drugs by eating so much Burger King he vomited.

Now, say what you want about horoscopes – go ahead, I understand – but later that night Jenny threw up spectacularly in one brief but powerful episode. She woke up the next morning feeling like she’d been steamrolled. We made no connection to the e-mail, or even the horoscope, and instead put the incident down to old rice.

But it wasn’t the rice.

Two days later the shit hit the fan. Jenny had more or less recovered, and it was supposed to be my last day there. Almost as soon as David left for work, their 15-month-old son puked on Jenny’s shoulder. Then he puked on the bed. We put the incident down to the fact that babies throw up all the time. But an hour later their three-year-old vomited in the bathroom.

As if on cue my stomach started hurting. I was convinced it was autosuggestion. I had just eaten a large portion of tuna salad. This could not happen to me. I had to go work on Monday and hear the results of my Myers-Briggs personality assessment, the thought of which unsettled me somewhat less than my gut at that moment. I had to go and deal with the shambles of a relationship.

Trying to pack proved to be fruitless when I realized I was not packing at all, but instead curled into a fetal ball on top of a pile of my clothes and breaking into cold sweat.

Then the tuna salad came back.

And so, it seemed, did everything else I’d eaten in the past several months. I hurled so hard and so many times I thought I’d lose vital organs. I scared the children. Jenny called David at work to tell him most of the house was vomiting. He felt nauseous the moment he hung up. He managed to drive home before throwing up in the bathroom – it’s the only one in the house, so we carried buckets around that night due to the demands placed on the toilet.

Traveling was impossible. My low point came when I was on the phone with a representative from Northwest Airlines, delirious as another case of the sweats was coming on. “I was calling…I have to make a flight change…to see if you have any waivers…very ill…in the morning can’t fly my stomach…can you please hang on one moment,” I said, and turned to my bucket and vomited in a manner I can only describe as theatrical. When I picked up the phone again I had been put on hold.

Throughout this I experienced ebbs and flows of clarity and cognizance. I remembered what I said about vomiting earlier in the week. I remembered my horoscope. I remembered that goddamn e-mail. Something about it seemed dodgy, like a Ponzi scheme, or like milk left out in the sun.

The only advantage to the virulence was its brevity. When it was over the next day I felt like I had been steamrolled. Jenny and I concurred that the e-mail’s monumental crappiness had somehow invited bad juju into the house. We cannot, of course, prove this, but we don’t feel like we have to. Everything fell into place too neatly – or rather, not neatly at all, but you get my drift.

But we never did stop mocking the e-mail. And neither did any of the other people I forwarded it to, which numbers somewhere in the dozens.

This man and I live in a small town. The first time I saw him after the e-mail he froze for a good 10 seconds before bolting like a prey animal. I imagine this will become par for the course. But maybe I can put it down to his being late for something. Like a game of shuffleboard. Or canasta.

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