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Writing Creative Nonfiction: Finding the Big Ideas to Write About

Dave Hood

What are big ideas? They are topics or issues that are important to a country and the world.  They are also in the public consciousness. As a creative nonfiction writer, not only can you write about personal experiences, such as a personal essay or memoir, you can also write about public experiences— events, issues, topics–that are important to humanity. Popular topics include terrorism, war, the economy, the environment, social justice, medicine, well-being.

Pick up a major newspaper or popular magazine, such as The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, and you’ll be able to reader essays about big ideas. Each week, The New Yorker publishes one or more literary journalism essays that deal with “big ideas,” important topics or issues that the public is aware of. In this week’s edition of the New Yorker (October 1st, 2012),  Jerome Groopman, writes an interesting piece called “Sex and The Superbug,” in which he illuminates the reader about  gonorrhea, a sexually transmitted disease, and how it has become resistant to antibiotics.This week’s cover of Time magazine has a portrait of former President Bill Clinton and a title that reads: 5 ideas that are changing the world.

As well, check out the latest literary journal publications, such as Witness, Epiphany, Granta, you’ll read literary journalism essays about “big ideas.” For instance, Granta’s summer issue has a theme about “medicine.” It’s winter issue deals with “war.” The spring issue of Witness deals with “disaster.”

The goal is to educate, inform, and entertain by writing a compelling narrative. When writing about big ideas, the form is usually an article or literary journalism essay, structured as a narrative. In “You Can’t Make This Stuff Up, author Lee Gutkind writes: “The ideal creative nonfiction piece is one where the pendulum stops somewhere in the middle—a public subject with an intimate and personal spin.”

How do you go about finding the big ideas to write about? Here are a few suggestions.

The Idea Notebook

The best way to find ideas to write about is to stay informed. You can do this by reading the newspaper, by reading popular magazines, such as Time and the New Yorker, by reading popular creative nonfiction books, by watching the news, conducting research on the Internet.

Once you find an interesting idea, make note of it in an idea notebook. If the article is in a newspaper, clip it out, and save it in the Idea Notebook. Always answer the question? Why is the article interesting. Also, write a summary or identify the significant points the writer makes in the article. If the essay is published in a magazine, save the edition of the magazine. GutKind, In You Can’t Make this Stuff Up, suggests that you also write down “what angle interests you” and “what the big idea is.” When you run out of topics to write about, refer to your Idea Book.

Finding Good Stories to Write About

Writing creative nonfiction is about telling true stories. In the text, Telling True Stories, Jan Wallin explains how a writer can identify good topics to write about. 

  1. Define your focus. Is the place important? Is the person important? Or is the action important?
  2. Does your story have action? There must be action–a series of events—that make up the story.
  3. You must have access to the person who are important players in the narrative, so you can conduct an interview. Otherwise, you should find another story to write about.
  4. Define the time frame. Do you intend to write a narrative based on a short time, such as a day, or a long time, such as many weeks, or a year or more?
  5. What does the subject learn about himself or herself? Does the person experience some epiphany?
  6. When would it be worth going deeper? Where is the close-up on a story? Where does mystery remain?
  7. What truism is being presented in the news? Does going in the opposite direction give you a new story from a different perspective?
  8. What is the big idea? A bid idea always includes a “universal truth.”
  9. Research the context of the story. Social conditions. History. Economics climate.
  10. What are the enduring topics in the public consciousness? The recession? Unemployment? Poverty? Racism? Discrimination? War? Social Justice? Crime? Gun control? Sexual Abuse?

A few Tips

Before deciding to research and write about a big idea, answer these questions:

  1. Find out what has already been written on the subject. How? Do some research on the Internet.
  2. Before writing the essay about a “big topic”, ask yourself: Why is this important to readers?
  3. Can the big idea be crafted around an narrative? In other words, are there a series of events that make up the story?
  4. Next, ask yourself: What is the universal truth?
  5. Do you have access to eye witnesses, victims, and subject matter experts? If you don’t, avoid writing the story.
  6. Understand the “emotional truth” of the story. How do people feel about the big idea? Does he/she agree? Disagree? Have some other view than the prevailing wisdom of the day?

Resources

For more information on how to write about “big ideas”, read the following:

  • Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writer’s Guide, edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call
  • You Can’t Make this Stuff Up: The Complete Guide To Writing Creative Nonfiction from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between, by Lee Gutkind.
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Creative Nonfiction: Writing about The Global Village

Dave Hood

Focusing your lens on the world beyond your neighborhood, community, town, city, country is another way to uncover material to write about. The Global village offers an endless number of topics and issues and  influential people who  you can write about, such as terrorism, global warming, war, famine, religious extremism, human rights, AIDS, famine, poverty, the Third World, and much more.

To understand the global village, you’ll be required to stay informed. How? Reading publications that focus on publishing articles about international relations, world issues, and global topics.  For instance, the current edition of Foreign Policy deals with “Cities in China”, decapitating rogue regimes, living in slums. It also includes interviews Ai Weiwei, the Chinese dissident, and Salman Rushdie, who has been the enemy of radical Islam for many years.

 In writing about the world stage, you’ll craft literary journalism essays about other people, places, events, issues, and experiences. Often, extensive research is required. Not only will the you be required to read newspapers and magazines, you must also conduct extensive research in the library. You might also be required to carry out interviews with eye witnesses and subject matter experts. As well, the you might have to visit the place where the events occurred, or immerse yourself in the experience as it unfolds.

In this article, I’ll discuss the following aspects about writing about the global village:

  • Moving way from writing about the self
  • How to approach writing about the world beyond
  • The Five R’s of Creative Nonfiction
  • Creative writing techniques
  • Resources on how to write creative nonfiction

Moving Away from Writing about Self

Writing about the global village is like writing  about popular culture. You must move beyond memories of your past. Lee Gutkind, author of ” You Can’t Make this Stuff Up,” distinguishes between “public” and “personal” creative nonfiction. For instance, when writing a memoir or personal narrative, you are writing about yourself, your own experiences, things that happened to you. This is personal side of creative nonfiction. In contrast, the public side of creative nonfiction is “someone else’s story.”  Anyone can write about it. It requires that your lens be focused on the world beyond—the global village beyond your own life and the pop culture of the society you inhabit.

Check out The Atlantic, Harper’s, The New Yorker, and you’ll see examples of how writers use the tools of creative nonfiction to write about the global village.

Writing about the global village requires that you are informed and educated about global issues and events and topics. Staying informed requires that you read the newspaper and watch the news. It entails conducting research and analysis. You’ll usually have to visit the library, read a books and  magazines by experts.

How to Approach Writing about the World Beyond

In “Tell It Slant”, author Brenda Miller suggests that you can write from two perspectives:

  • The Layperson. Using this approach, your uncover facts and knowledge, such as scientific facts, and then add it to your own personal essay, memoir, literary journalism, which is not directly about the scientific facts you have uncovered. What might you include? knowledge of psychology, sociology, philosophy, physics, biology, astronomy, literature, anything else that is relevant
  • The Expert Approach. The other way in which you can write about the outside world is to become a subject matter expert. To do this, you must learn everything you can by researching your subject at the library, conducting interviews, and by immersion.

What are some global issues you can write about? There are countless topics and issues to write about. Here are a few topics to consider:

  • Genocide and war and war crimes and crimes against humanity
  • Population growth, global poverty, famine, starvation
  • Authoritarian government, Torture, failed states
  • Human rights and Amnesty International
  • Global warming, over population, extinction of species, desertification
  • Religious extremism, fanatical leaders, sharia law, patriarchal societies
  • The oppression of women in the third world.
  • Global Village. If want desire to understand the economic, political, and social climate, read Time, MacLean’s, The Economist, The Atlantic, Harper’s, The New Yorker magazine, Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs.

The Five R’s of Creative Nonfiction

Writing about the global village as a creative nonfiction writer involves:

  • Real Life– Writing about real people, actual events, and actual places
  • Research– Collecting facts from the library, interviews, Internet
  • Writing-Writing literary journalism essays, autobiographies, or biographies
  • Reflection-Sharing personal thoughts, feelings, perspectives
  • Reading-Read autobiographies,  biographies, and other informative books about the world in which you live.

In writing about the global village, you purpose is to inform, educate, and entertain. To achieve these purposes, you’ll apply the tools of creative nonfiction. For instance, you’ll write scenes to describe significant events, write summaries to explain, and include your own thoughts or reflections about what happened. You’ll share narratives that are true, factual, and accurate–but read like fictional stories.

 

Creative Writing Techniques

Writing about the global village as a creative nonfiction writer requires the following:

  • Writing in scene (to show), summary (to tell), personal reflection
  • Storytelling and other tools of fiction, such as narrative arc, dialogue, setting, characterization, point of view
  • Using poetic devices of simile, metaphor, imagery
  • Writing Concrete, particular, and significant descriptions
  • Creating structure- Narrative, lyrical, meditative, opinion with an argument, or organic.
  • Revealing the inner point of view-It means to see the world through the eyes of the person or people you are writing about.
  • Providing intimate details-It means to capture significant details, based on observation, that a reader would not normally imagine as he/she reads the narrative.
  • Researching the topic-Interviewing, immersion, fact-collection from the Library or Internet.

A Few Tips

Writing about the global village requires that you are informed and understand the issues and topics and events around the world. To expand your understanding of the global village, do the following:

  • Read news-oriented magazines, such as Time magazines, The Economist, MacLean’s, and Foreign Policy magazine
  • Read the newspaper, such as your city newspaper or newspapers from around the world on the Internet.
  • Read good books by subject matter experts.
  • Watch and listen to the news on television or radio or Internet
  • View important documentaries on YouTube or in the cinema or on television
  • Keep a writing journal, making note of your thoughts and feelings of a particular event making news.

To find out more about writing creative nonfiction, I strongly recommend that you read Lee Gutkind’s new book, “You Can’t Make this Stuff Up.” It’s a complete guide to writing creative nonfiction.

 

Resources

  • Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction, Second edition by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola
  • Creative Nonfiction : A Guide to Form, Content, and Style with Readings by Eileen Pollack
  • To Tell the Truth: Practise and Craft in Narrative Nonfiction by Connie D. Griffin
  • You Can’t Make This Stuff: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative nonfiction from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything In Between Up by Lee Gutkind

Creative Nonfiction: Writing about History

“Faithfulness to the truth of history involves far more than a research, however patient and scrupulous, into special facts. Such facts may be detailed with the most minute exactness, and yet the narrative, taken as a whole, may be unmeaning or untrue. The narrator must seek to imbue himself with the life and spirit of the time. He must study events in their bearings near and remote; in the character, habits, and manners of those who took part in them. He must himself be, as it were, a sharer or a spectator of the action he describes.” Francis Parkman

“An historian should yield himself to his subject, become immersed in the place and period of his choice, standing apart from it now and then for a fresh view.” Samuel Eliot Morison

We are victims of history, witnesses to history, and socialized by history. A case in point: the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

Much of history is forgotten, unless it is recorded and then shared. Writing about historical events can teach us not to make the same mistakes again.

Significant people, like Steve Jobs, can be written about in the form of a biography. Biographies of “movers and shakers” can teach us how to live our own lives.

As a creative nonfiction writer, you can play the role of writing about “threads of history.”In this article, I’ll explain how to write about history from a creative nonfiction perspective.

Definition of History. There are many definitions of history. Here’s my view: The historian studies the past, collects facts, analyzes the facts, interprets the facts, determines cause and effects, and significance for present day life.Writing about history involves writing about past events (Civil war, World War I, Roaring Twenties) and significant, historical people who are now deceased. (Mao, Hitler, Stalin, Bin Laden)

Two popular ways to write about history are:

  • Writing an autobiography. Often political leaders write histories of their own lives for future generations.
  • Writing a biography. A writer researches and write a life history of a famous person who has contributed to human history in some significant way, such as Ghandi, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, President Bush, Prime Minister Trudeau, and countless others.

Instead of writing a biography, many writers write a biography sketch or profile of a historical figure. The sketch is much shorter. An autobiography and biography are usually several hundred pages and published as a book, whereas a sketch can be from 500 to 2,000 words, and published in a magazine. As well, the sketch does not require as much research.

Another way is to write a book about some significant historical event, such as 9/11, the civil rights moment, Feminism, totalitarianism, the Cold war, Ku Klux Klan, Civil War….

Moving Outward. When writing from a creative nonfiction perspective, instead of writing about “self”, you are writing about another person, place, event, idea. You are also applying the research methods and writing techniques of creative nonfiction. And so, you are moving outward, viewing the outside world from your own eyes, instead of looking inward to “self”, and those memories that are part of your sense of “self.” You can view the world as a witness to history, as a victim of history, or as an author of history.

Perspectives Of History. When writing about history, you can be a victim of history. All of those who died in the terrorist attacks of 9/11 had friends and families, who were victims. Suppose you are a victim, a family member who lost a loved one in the attacks of 9/11. You could write about 9/11 by sharing historical facts of the event, by explaining the causes, and by contributing your personal reflections.

You can also write about history as a witness. You are an observer. Every year, you are witness to many global events, which will become part of the history textbooks. For instance, President Obama is the first black president of the United States. To understand the significance of this, you must have a sense of history–the civil rights movement, racial discrimination of blacks in American throughout history, the Civil War, and slavery of blacks. As a writer, you can use history to provide context, as a backdrop,  or as an antagonist in your narrative.

You can write about history from a creative nonfiction perspective as an author of history. You were not a witness because it happened before your time. You are not a victim because the historical event has not impacted you directly. You are writing about history like a historian, sharing the facts and interpretations by applying the  creative nonfiction techniques of scene, summary, and reflection.

Nonfiction History versus Creative Nonfiction History. Both creative nonfiction and nonfiction inform and educate readers. A historical text presents the facts and causes and effects, and significance. Creative nonfiction does the same, but also adds narrative, including storytelling, dialogue, setting, character development.

Writing Nonfiction History relies on an authoritative tone and is written in the third person. Creative nonfiction allows the writer to use  first-person “I” or  third person (“He/she” ) and  a friendly, conversational tone.

Writing Nonfiction History tells the story using formal language and matter-of-fact presentation, without personal reflection or use of figurative language, such as simile, metaphor, imagery. A creative nonfiction writer puts into use personal reflection and figurative language.

Both approaches require extensive research, including immersion, interviewing, fact-collecting in the library.

Both the historian, who writes nonfiction history,  and  creative nonfiction writer desire to inform and educate the reader.

The Five R’s of Creative Nonfiction

Writing about history as a creative nonfiction writer involves:

  • Real Life- Writing about real people, actual events, and actual places
  • Research- Collecting facts from the library, interviews, Internet
  • Writing-Writing literary journalism essays, autobiographies, or biographies
  • Reflection-Sharing personal thoughts, feelings, perspectives
  • Reading-Read autobiographies,  biographies, and other informative books about history.

 

Creative Nonfiction Tools

Writing about history as a creative nonfiction writer is like writing other types of creative nonfiction, in the sense that you will use the same techniques, including:

  • Scene, summary, personal reflection
  • Storytelling and other tools of fiction, such as dialogue, setting, characterization, point of view
  • Poetic devices of simile, metaphor, imagery
  • Concrete, particular, and significant descriptions
  • Structure- Narrative, lyrical, meditative, opinion with an argument, or organic.
  • Research, such as interviewing, immersion, fact-collection from the Library or Internet.

 

What to Write about

History introduces us to countless fascinating people and events to write about. Here are a few that come to mind:

  • Bin Laden
  • Pierre Elliot Trudeau
  • Nelson Mandela
  • Mother Teresa
  • Steve Jobs
  • Sadam Hussein
  • Shah of Iran
  • Gulf War, Viet Nam War, World War I & II, Civil War
  • Digital revolution- the computer, Internet, Social media, iPhone, iPad.

If you write about a historical person, you can write a biography sketch or profile.

 

Books to Read

In the past decade, many writers have written about history using the tools of creative nonfiction. Here are a few books you can read:

  • Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
  • The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first century by Thomas Friedman
  • A History of God by Karen Armstrong
  • A Brief History of Time by Stephan Hawking
  • A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
  • The End of Faith by Sam Harris

Resources

For additional information on writing creative nonfiction, read the following:

  • Truth of the Matter: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction by Dinty Moore
  • Story Craft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction by Jack Hart
  • Creative Nonfiction: A Guide to Form, Content, and Style by Eileen Pollack
  • To Tell the Truth: Practise and Craft in Narrative Nonfiction by Connie D. Griffin