May 9, 2002
Vol. 21 No. 15

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    Author Kotlowitz describes his blend of narrative and reality, or ‘the literature of fact’

    By Carrie Golus
    News Office

    Alex Kotlowitz

    “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. “There’s often nothing to propel you through them other than the fact that they’re required reading. But stories wield a fierce power. You want to find out what happens.”

    In Kotlowitz’s course, a seminar limited to 16 students, being boring is not an option. Students are required to choose subjects that fascinate them, and––through the power of narrative––try 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 Chicago’s 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. That’s why you hear the terms “literary journalism” or “creative non-fiction”––the terms vary. It was called “new journalism” back in the 1960s. It’s a craft that’s been around for a long time, but has blossomed in the last 30 years.

    It’s 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, it’s got to be authentic, genuine, real. For that reason, I like [writer John] McPhee’s term, “the literature of fact.” That’s 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, you’re stuck with what reality has to offer you, on the other hand that’s the wonder of it: it’s real.

    It’s risky. You go out and try to find a story, and sometimes that story isn’t there, or sometimes the story isn’t what you thought it was. But for those of us who don’t 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 won’t take such liberties, these books make our lives much more difficult––there’s no way that we can craft a story like that. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been working on something, and I’ve thought, if I could only make this up, because then I would have a good story. But I can’t do that. If I could make things up, I’d 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. I’ve been at this for 25 years, and I’m still learning how to be a good observer, a good listener. I don’t think it comes naturally for people at all. Another thing is choice of subject. What’s interesting? What’s not interesting?

    Writing is like any other craft. The more you practice, the more risks you’re willing to take, the more willing you are to make mistakes, the better off you’ll 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?

    I’m adamant that students can’t write memoirs in my class. Personal stories are like a good wine. With age, they’ll 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. That’s 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 you’ve taught? You didn’t seem fazed by their descriptions.

    I’ve done it before, but I’m always surprised. I go back and tell my wife all the comments that I get, and she can’t believe I set myself up for this. I’m 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.