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Writing Creative Nonfiction: Finding the Big Ideas to Write About

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September 2012
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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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