Monday, December 3, 2012

Mentor Monday: Creative Non-Fiction

Norm Sims, of the journalism department at Umass-Amherst is credited with defining the four principles of creative nonfiction (also called literary journalism): immersion, accuracy, symbolism, and voice. Both Truman Capote (In Cold Blood) and John Berendt (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil) confess to using one other technique in their creative non-fiction: taking the liberty to rearrange the timing of true events to create a smoother story. Capote did not admit to this until long after his novel was published. Berendt sees nothing wrong with moving events around to improve the flow of a story - provided the reader is told this was done.

This is not a technique a writer for children can use without long and serious thought. My opinion is that if a story is not working in its real sequence it would be better (and less confusing) to give the child reader a fictional account based on true events. Is it possible, then, to use creative non-fiction successfully when writing for children? Other writers show us how it can be done.

Esther Forbes has the distinction of winning both the Pulitzer Prize (Paul Revere and the World He Lived In) and the Newbery Award (Johnny Tremain) within a year's time. The Revere book was written some 20 years before Capote's In Cold Blood and while it is a biography, the book reads as pleasantly and easily as a romance novel chosen for an afternoon at the beach. Forbes accomplishes this without altering the facts or rearranging the order of events. Instead, she uses them to accomplish the four principles outlined by Norman Sims.

Forbes has so obviously immersed herself into 18th century Boston that she can't help but bring her reader along. She has studied maps, diaries, letters, portraits, newspapers and every other imaginable kind of primary source. I picture Forbes so full of mental images and information that Revere and his cohorts no longer feel like subjects of research but rather part of her own memories. (I often think she needed to write the fictional Johnny Tremain in order to use up all that information floating around in her head!) . We, her readers, feel a part of pre-Revolutionary War Boston because Forbes so thoroughly put herself there first.

Forbes uses a second technique, accuracy, not merely to tell us about Revere, his town and the times, but to show us Boston and her people:

             "In 1770 North Square was but a block inland from the wharves, tides and bustle of the waterfront. Instead of being a 'square' it is literally a long, narrow triangle. . .On the apex of the triangle stood venerable 'Old North Meeting.' This was the 'church of the Mathers.' . . .Hannah Mather walks about her square. . . She meets Benjamin Burt, the silversmith . . .And across the street, almost next to the house the Reveres have just bought, she looks at Francis Shaw, 'a respectable tailor whose family were large. . .'" (pp. 164 -165)

Forbes does not let the need for accurate detail deter her from using metaphor, irony and even humor in her writing. When describing the British Army in the spring of 1775, she says:

          "Armies have always tended to be inert in winter and to move in spring. And now it was April. No one could expect the sluggish scarlet dragon not to wake from hibernation in its Boston den, uncoil and meander a little through the spring-drenched countryside." (p. 232)

Of the first battles of the Revolution, Forbes says: "When only eight men have been killed, each one is a tragedy, and ten wounded men are heroes - although ten thousand may be primarily a sanitation problem." (p. 258)

Forbes' voice is joyful, witty. She likes Paul Revere, the people he knows, and the period she is describing. Here is Forbes recounting John Hancock's departure from Boston just before the British rally. Hancock is not alone, for his Aunt Lydia is determined that he not forget about Dolly Quincy, the girl she has chosen as his perfect match:

          "Aunt Lydia. . .always kept a protuberant eye on John's love life. . .She was going to make this match if it killed her - as it seems to have done. John Hancock was harassed enough with his public life without Aunt Lydia bringing out Miss Dolly to torment him in private, but there they both were." (p.237)

And later, describing Paul Revere's ride:

          ". . . that he rode the Larkin horse with more care than he does on sugar boxes, American Legion posters, copper advertisements and all known pictures and statues is proved by the excellent condition the animal was in five hours later.
          "So away, down the moonlit road, goes Paul Rever and the Larkin horse, galloping into history, art, editorials, folklore, poetry; the beat of those hooves never to be forgotten." (p.247)

Forbes skillfully turns fact into symbolism, as well. The every day details of the events leading to Concord and Lexington represent the larger relationship between mother country and colony. As refugees flee from Boston and the occupying British forces, carts are inspected by the Redcoats. Women and children are allowed to leave but may not take food with them.

          "She tried to keep her children quiet during the inspection of their cart by the sentry at the gate and gave each child a piece of gingerbread. The sentry - a truly horrifying British ogre - took it all away from them. He said, 'gingerbread was too good for rebels,' and ate it himself." (p. 274)

The scene could represent any number of larger transgressions by the British Government upon the colonies. Colonials considered themselves equal to the British subjects in England. They were not treated that way. The actions of one soldier, one "British ogre" are symbolic of the actions of an entire government upon its subjects.

The writer of creative non-fiction for children can follow Esther Forbes's lead. One can immerse oneself in a subject by thorough research and use the details of that research not merely as exposition, but to develop a unique voice - even while maintaining complete accuracy.

We can compare Jean Fritz's treatment of the same genre and the same topic in her book, And Then What Happened, Paul Revere? She manages, in 64 pages, to successfully accomplish the same four goals: immersion, accuracy, voice and symbolism.

There is no bibliography attached to Paul Revere but as I compare it to Forbes' work, Fritz's research is obvious. She describes Boston Harbor differently than Esther Forbes:

          "Ships were constantly coming and going, unloading everything from turtles to chandeliers. Street vendors were constantly crying their wares - everything from fever pills to hair oil to oysters. From time to time there were traveling acrobats, performing monkey, parades, firework displays and fistfights." (p.7)

This example is not just a watered-down version of someone else's Pulitzer Prize winner. Fritz has done her homework, too.

Fritz's sentences are not always short, but they read as if they were. She, too, uses humor in her style and the combination gives children an enjoyable way to read what could be a very dry story. On Paul Revere's military contribution to the end of the French and Indian Wars Fritz says:

           "Paul spent the summer sitting around, cleaning his rifle and polishing his sword. And swatting flies. There were thousands of flies at Lake George that summer. But there were no French or Indians." (p. 12)

Fritz uses repetitive phrasing to bring her young readers symbolically into the quick changes happening during pre-Revolutionary Boston. Revere is shown running or galloping, "hat clapped to his head, his coattails flying." That phrase most likely has no primary source as its basis, yet, it is thoroughly accurate even in its creativity.

Try the same experiment. Contrast/compare the writings of two authors on the same subject. Look for Sims’ four principals in your samples. Doing so may help you tell a better story.

1 comment:

I'm Jet . . . said...

Wow. Good advice. You must be a writer or something . . .