The people who are writing online and the people in my genre of creative non-fiction exert a great deal more freedom that journalists are allowed to exert in their day-to-day work.
When I talk with my students, I introduce a process of work I call the three R's: First comes research, then real world exploration, and finally, and perhaps most important, a fact-checking review of all that has been written.
To reconstruct stories and scenes, nonfiction writers must conduct vigorous and responsible research. In fact, narrative requires more research than traditional reportage, for writers cannot simply tell what they learn and know; rather, they must show it.
Years ago, I met once a week, 9 A.M. sharp, with a therapist whom I will call Dr. Mason. We would settle in well-worn chairs, Dr. Mason, a slender, balding middle-ager in blazer and striped tie, and me, an anxious academic in Levi's and tweeds.
Nonfiction means that our stories are as true and accurate as possible. Readers expect – demand – diligence.
I discovered that I, a writer of what is known as creative nonfiction, could do the research and bridge the gap in my books and lectures through true storytelling. This is not 'dumbing down' or writing for eighth graders. It is writing for readers across cultures, age barriers, social and political landscapes.
As a child, I had no interest in science whatsoever – then I started writing and recognized how relevant it was. My first book about science and medicine captured the world of organ transplantation in 1989 from the points of view of all of the participants – scientists, surgeons, social workers, organ recipients and even donor families.
Journalists in newspapers and in many magazines are not permitted to be subjective and tell their readers what they think. Journalists have got to follow a very strict formulaic line, and here we come, these non-fiction writers, these former journalists who are using all the techniques that journalists are pretty much not allowed to use.
Creative non-fiction is such a liberating genre because it allows the non-fiction writer, whether he or she be journalist or essayist, to use all of the techniques of the fiction writer and all of the ideas, creative approaches, that fiction writers get a chance to use, but they have to use it in a true story.
I am a writer and editor with a passion for true storytelling. To me, science matters, research matters and knowledge matters, whatever the field.
The challenge in fiction is to write a terrific story. The challenge in journalism is to communicate solid, objective information. The challenge in creative non-fiction is to do it both and to do it well.
This is the first lesson for writers – or anyone – who conducts interviews: If you want someone to talk, you've got to know how to listen. And good listening is a surprisingly active process. The interviewee is your focus of attention; you are there to hear what he says and thinks, exclusively.
It is easy to make stuff up – and easy to dig up information and repeat it or report it to others. But to find a real life story with real people in real life situations is quite difficult and time-consuming. Yet, the rewards are worth the effort.