ABCs of Creative Nonfiction: I is for Information

Posted by on Jul 14, 2016 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

DZaccheo PicA couple of years ago I found myself in a room full of writers. Conversations were flowing around me, and because I’m shy, and introverted, and any other word you can think of that is the opposite of outgoing, I was awkwardly sitting by myself in a corner. It was a few days into my first residency for my Creative Writing MFA program, and I was there to hone my craft as a fiction writer.

After several minutes of awkward silence, I found myself in conversation with the woman sitting beside me who happened to be a mentor in the program. She wrote and taught creative nonfiction. We were discussing a book she had written about her family, and I found myself confiding in her about my desire to write my father’s story. It was a story I had a deep desire to tell, but I was a fiction writer and had no idea how to write about something that wasn’t created from my imagination. This was a real story, with real people, who had gone through real experiences. How did I even begin to write it? How could I gather the information I needed? How could I bring all of it together to tell a story that wasn’t mine and do it justice?

Information seemed to be the key word here, and I was lacking it. My father is an extremely private person. I know it seems silly that he would be private with his own family, but in many ways he is. I know very little about his personal experiences. He doesn’t talk about his childhood, or his time in the military, or the struggles he faced when moving to the United States at the age of forty. What little I know of my father’s story comes from bits and pieces of information provided by my mother, grandmother, aunt, or whatever I could decipher from my visits to his hometown in Italy. The struggle, as they say, was real. 

The tips below have proven useful in my journey to gathering the information I need to adequately tell my father’s story. It is in no way a comprehensive list, but it can be a good jumping off point in your quest for knowledge

Interview: I don’t mean a formal interview like the kind you see on news shows, but rather something quite informal, almost like you’re not interviewing the person at all, but simply having a conversation. A tape recorder (or just recorder, they don’t actually use tapes anymore), can be a useful tool. Press record, and let the interviewee talk. Ask them questions – a lot of questions – and guide the conversation. Listen, and watch. Are they conveying a story that makes them happy, or makes them sad? Watch their emotions, record them (mentally), and know that the feelings they convey are all a part of the story. 

Investigate: Get your Inspector Gadget on (minus the gadgets), and do some detective work. The internet is a great (and obvious) place to start. Are you looking for certain documents or paperwork that will provide you with a clearer vision? Do you need to learn more about a certain time period, or maybe a certain place? Travel, if necessary and feasible, to these places that will play a part in the story you’re trying to tell. I’m lucky that I spent many summers in my father’s hometown, a major setting for his story, but there are also many other important places that I have yet to visit. 

Respect: I know this one doesn’t start with “I”, but it’s important nonetheless. Be respectful of your subject, of who and what you are writing about, including when you are writing about yourself. As a fiction writer, I tell the story that I want to tell, but in nonfiction and, in the case of my father’s story, I have a great responsibility to do justice to someone else’s experiences.

Gather the facts you need to write an informed and concise piece about your intended subject. Take great care, write honestly, and remember to mind your I’s…and R.

Daniela Zaccheo received a BA in Communications and Journalism from Suffolk University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Fairfield University with a concentration in Fiction. She lives in Los Angeles with her two cats, Jake and Ace, where she reads, writes and blogs about her adventures as a writer and world traveler. She is currently working on her first novel.

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