Author Kotlowitz describes his blend of narrative and reality, or the literature of factBy Carrie Golus
Essays can be boring, Alex Kotlowitz, the Robert Vare Visiting Writer in Residence for 2002, told his students during the first session of Telling Stories: The Art of Narrative Non-Fiction. Theres often nothing to propel you through them other than the fact that theyre required reading. But stories wield a fierce power. You want to find out what happens.
In Kotlowitzs course, a seminar limited to 16 students, being boring is not an option. Students are required to choose subjects that fascinate them, andthrough the power of narrativetry to inspire the same level of fascination in their readers.
Kotlowitz, a former reporter with The Wall Street Journal, first gained widespread attention with the book There Are No Children Here (1991), a harrowing look inside the public housing projects of Chicagos West Side. His current projects include a series of short pieces on the theme of home for WBEZ, contributions to a PBS documentary on marriage and a short book on Chicago that is still in the early stages, he said.
Kotlowitz delivered a public lecture on narrative non-fiction Monday, April 29, in the Franke Institute for the Humanities.
What defines narrative non-fiction? How does it differ from journalism?
The best of non-fiction steals from fiction. Thats why you hear the terms literary journalism or creative non-fictionthe terms vary. It was called new journalism back in the 1960s. Its a craft thats been around for a long time, but has blossomed in the last 30 years.
Its journalism, but there is a real emphasis on storytelling: on empathy, trying to understand the world through a protagonist, trying to move from scene to scene like fiction, letting the story spin out itself.
The term that I feel most uncomfortable with is creative non-fiction, because it suggests that somehow you can take liberties. The one, never-to-be-chiseled dictum is, its got to be authentic, genuine, real. For that reason, I like [writer John] McPhees term, the literature of fact. Thats exactly what it is: taking fact and making literature out of it.
Is it difficult to force actual events into a narrative structure?
Part of the challenge is to go out and find stories, to find something that lends itself to a good yarn. For me, the strength of this craft, of narrative non-fiction, is just that: it is a narrative. The story has an arc to it that pushes the reader to read on. On the one hand, youre stuck with what reality has to offer you, on the other hand thats the wonder of it: its real.
Its risky. You go out and try to find a story, and sometimes that story isnt there, or sometimes the story isnt what you thought it was. But for those of us who dont have great imaginations, this is the way to enter that genre of storytelling.
What do you think of books like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which are based on truth, but have composite characters and other fictionalized aspects?
I think most people assume Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is non-fiction. And for those of us who wont take such liberties, these books make our lives much more difficulttheres no way that we can craft a story like that. I cant tell you how many times Ive been working on something, and Ive thought, if I could only make this up, because then I would have a good story. But I cant do that. If I could make things up, Id be writing fiction.
The first assignment in the class was to observe someone at work. Could you explain the theory behind that assignment?
The main point was to learn the importance of detail, and being a keen observer. Ive been at this for 25 years, and Im still learning how to be a good observer, a good listener. I dont think it comes naturally for people at all. Another thing is choice of subject. Whats interesting? Whats not interesting?
Writing is like any other craft. The more you practice, the more risks youre willing to take, the more willing you are to make mistakes, the better off youll be. I want to get students thinking about their prose, precision of language, storytelling.
You mentioned that the primary interests in your work are race and poverty. Are any of your students choosing similar subjects for their final projects?
At this point in the quarter, their ideas are fairly preliminary. Several students are interested in writing about subcultures: video game fanatics, hiphop dancers who are entering a contest. One student has a very ambitious idea. She wants to write about an acquaintance who committed a murder in the eighth grade and has just been released. That idea might not be possible, but if it works out, it will be great.
Are any of the students writing about their own experiences?
Im adamant that students cant write memoirs in my class. Personal stories are like a good wine. With age, theyll get better. But more important than that, I really want students to engage with the world, to spend time with people they otherwise might not spend time with. I want them to go out and observe and report. Thats really, really important in this class.
During the first class meeting, the in-class assignment was to describe you. Have you done this exercise in other classes youve taught? You didnt seem fazed by their descriptions.
Ive done it before, but Im always surprised. I go back and tell my wife all the comments that I get, and she cant believe I set myself up for this. Im pretty thick-skinned. Inevitably, one or two people write something worth chuckling about, like the student who said I looked like a deflated clown. It makes people realize this is not a science, that we can all look at the same person and see something different.