Writing fiction after all that non-fiction is really really hard

August 1, 2013 in Novel, On Writing

once upon a time

I have recently developed a very real fear that I may never be able to write fiction again.

They say writers need to write, and over the past year all I’ve been doing is reading and writing non-fiction, almost exclusively. At work every day I write news, and in my spare time I write on this blog, which essentially comprises film, restaurant and book reviews these days, or my sports blog, which is, well, all about sports.

My reading habits have also veered towards non-fiction. Browsing through my book reviews this year I see (chronologically from the start of the year):

- Fifty Shades Freed by EL James (fiction) — the final book in the Fifty Shades Trilogy and probably the worst book I have ever read, fiction or otherwise. I think it barely counts as a book, let alone fiction.

- Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (non-fiction) — the legendary writing book, part memoir and part writers’ guide.

- Tokyo Sketches by Peter Hamill (fiction) — a collection of short stories about Japan.

- The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman (non-fiction) — another seminal writers’ book about staying out of the rejection pile.

- Inferno by Dan Brown (fiction) — no introduction necessary, though again, some would argue whether Brown’s writing classifies as fiction given that it is dominated by Wikipedia-like entries about history, architecture and artworks. And the quality of the fiction writing is, let’s just say, somewhat lacking.

- Dream Team by Jack McCallum (non-fiction) — a riveting account of the one and only 1992 Dream Team.

- The War for Late Night by Bill Carter (non-fiction) — the fascinating account into the Conan O’Brien/Jay Leno late night television feud of 2010.

- Eleven Rings by Phil Jackson and Hugh Delehanty (non-fiction) — Phil Jackson’s account of how he won his 11 NBA championship rings as a coach and 2 as a player.

- The Elements of Style by Strunk & White (non-fiction) — the writing bible.

- The Jordan Rules by Sam Smith (non-fiction) — the controversial book about Michael Jordan and the tumultuous 1990-91 season of the NBA champions Chicago Bulls.

- The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (fiction) — the classic novel about a man whose youth and beauty was preserved by a magical painting.

- Justice by Michael J Sandel (non-fiction) — an engrossing philosophy book about morality and the right thing to do.

By my count that’s 8 non-fiction books and 4 fiction books. But one of the fiction books is Fifty Shades and another is Dan Brown, so they don’t really count. And of the other two, one is a short story collection and the other is a classic novel written in the 19th century (which can be helpful but not that helpful).

It’s not that you can’t be creative with non-fiction writing, it’s just that the parameters are defined and confined by the facts you have to convey. With fiction writing it has to all come from your imagination, and that’s where I feel as though my brain has been reprogrammed and all that creativity I once had (however little it may have been) has been sucked out of me completely.

If I had to sit down and write a short story or screenplay right now I wouldn’t know where to start. In fact, just the thought of the possibility of getting back to working on my novels or screenplay makes me nervous, and scared — which probably explains why I have set myself the long-term target of completing all my backlogged blog posts before commencing any “proper” fiction writing. It’s pathetic, I know, but at least I am clearing out my backlog.

To lubricate my ride back into fiction, I am going to try and re-enter the land of fiction. Classics are good, but right now I’m thinking something less challenging, like commercial fiction. I’ve started reading Gillian Flynn’s acclaimed Gone Girl. I’m only about a fifth of the way through but it’s already shaping up to be one heck of a cracking read. It’s one of those books that grips onto you with characters that ring so true you feel like you know them. Apparently Ben Affleck has signed on for the film version, to be directed by David Fincher, so his head keeps popping up in my mind. (And Rosamund Pike has reportedly been cast as the other lead).

I still have some other non-fiction books I must get through, including parenting books on baby sleep (it’s gotta be done) and a couple of book reviews for publication. But my focus for the rest of the year will hopefully be on fiction. I have lined up The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed and Anna Funder’s All That I Am, and I intend to get through them all before December 31. I don’t know how, since having a job with two kids under two means I pretty much only have time to read while travelling to and from work and just before bed — but I’m still going to try to reach my New Year’s Resolution goal of 20 books for the year.

And before you start being a dick, give me a break; that’s very good for me already.

Book Review: Hiroshima by John Hersey

August 28, 2010 in Book Reviews

Hiroshima by John Hersey is one of the most remarkable, deeply affecting books I have ever read.  I first came across an extract as a part of my non-fiction writing class, but I found it so amazing that I quickly went out and purchased the entire book.

Hiroshima is a surprisingly simple piece of journalistic writing about six seemingly ordinary people who survived the atomic bomb in Hiroshima.  It starts on the morning the bomb was dropped, when they were going about their normal lives, and ends several months later as they struggle to piece their shattered lives and bodies back together.  The narratives are simultaneous but The book originally had four chapters, but the modern edition I read had a fifth chapter called “The Aftermath”, written 40 years later after Hersey went back to see what had become of the lives of these six remarkable people (they really are remarkable).

In Hiroshima, John Hersey has created a sublime piece of non-fiction writing.  The skill involved in crafting this book is very understated.  The prose is not flowery or beautiful like Capote’s In Cold Blood — it’s simple, direct, subtle and meticulously described (and researched), but at the same time extremely effective, vivid, and haunting.  Some of the images brought to life by Hersey will stay with me forever.  The strange thing is, Hiroshima is not at all moralistic or manipulative.  It’s just an incredibly detailed and accurately told true story.  I can’t recall a book that has given me a greater urge to weep than this one.

This masterpiece first appeared as an article in The New Yorker on 31 August 1946 (a little after a year the atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima) and caused unprecedented attention as the entire editorial space of the issue was dedicated to the piece.  It was sold out within hours and was scalped for exorbitant prices.  It was read over the radio in its entirety and distributed all around the world for educational purposes.  Albert Einstein reportedly ordered 1,000 copies.  The Book-of-the-Month club distributed hundreds of thousands of copies for free to its members.

One of the best books I’ve read.

5 out of 5

[PS: I really wish I read Hiroshima by John Hersey before visiting the city in May 2008.]

Creative Non-Fiction With Lee Gutkind

July 5, 2010 in On Writing

This one’s a little overdue.  Weeks before my trip to India and Hong Kong, I attended a free session presented by the “Godfather of Creative Non-Fiction” (not originally his own name but more recently it has become self-proclaimed), Lee Gutkind.

Just what the heck is “creative” non-fiction?  Aren’t the two mutually exclusive?

To be honest, the seminar never explained exactly what creative non-fiction is.  Fortunately, I had come across the term before and had a fair idea.  Essentially, it’s writing a true story (ie non fiction) in a creative way (ie like a story).  I believe Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is a good example of creative non-fiction.  A bad example would be James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces (just kidding, that’s just pure fiction parading as non-fiction).  Other names for creative non-fiction include literary or narrative non-fiction.

What I expected to be an informative seminar about how to write creative non-fiction turned out to be an hour-long pitch by Lee Gutkind to budding writers (such as myself) about how wonderful creative non-fiction is.  Lee was down in Australia for the Sydney Writers’ Festival, and was promoting his magazine Creative Nonfiction and his new book about travelling cross-country with his son.  The session had the same problem as my main issue with the Sydney Writers’ Festival: too much promotion and not enough learning.  Nevertheless, his website can be found here.  The website for the magazine can be found here.

Of course, this is not to say the talk itself was not fascinating.  According to Gutkind, creative non-fiction was the future of writing and publishing.  Creative non-fiction was breaking into education.  Law, medicine, engineering — disciplines previously dominated by textbooks are now using creative non-fiction to teach the new generation.

I can understand why, because textbooks are bloody boring.  It’s much easier to remember elements of a story than rote learn a list.  That’s why when I studied law, it was always easier to remember the facts of a case than sections of a statute.

Actually, a lot of the creative writing stories I have been doing for my classes could be classified as creative non-fiction because many of them were based in fact, if not entirely true.  I definitely see the appeal in such writing because it’s a different type of challenge.  Rather than coming up with a brand new story from scratch, you already have the story right there — you just have to find a way to tell it in a way that is compelling and connects with your audience.

Lee finished his talk with an extract reading of Gay Talese’s creative non-fictional piece, “Frank Sinatra has a Cold”, which was published in Esquire in April 1966 and is regarded as one of the best creative non-fiction stories ever.  Esquire even declared it the “Best Story Esquire Ever Published” in 2003.  It actually is very good.  Check it out here.

PS: When I entered the auditorium, I saw copies of the latest issue of Creative Nonfiction and Lee’s new book on a table by the front.  Thinking that it was free, I almost grabbed a copy, only to find out later that the whole point of the talk was so that he could sell them.  Oops.

 
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