notes on narrative nonfiction writing

1. All knowledge and cultural reference is assumed.  [Anyone reading your story also has access to Google, Wikipedia, and millions of websites and blogs.]

1.1. Therefore any explanation placed within the body of a narrative  [For example: “He had on a boina, the South American version of a newsboy cap,” or “He was listening to Outkast, a hip-hop group from Atlanta] tends to slow down or obscure the  narrative flow and/or potentially alienate the reader (if he/ she already knows what the referent is).

1.2 Therefore the narrator should simply describe / narrate, and if necessary,  add references via (a) links, (b) words in parenthesis, or (c) footnotes.

2. Emotions are never assumed [Ex: “She seemed happy that morning.”], but can only be portrayed the way they were perceived by the narrator, [Ex: “She stood in the corner punching herself in the stomach.”]

2.1. Any changes effected by or perceived by the narrator either (a) within him/herself or (b) outside of him/herself, must be placed in temporal context* [Ex: “Right now she would be around 6 months pregnant and we’re both grieving this in our own ways.”]

2.1.a. *unless it is fiction.

3. Narrators should be self-aware and transparent about (a) their connections (and / or lack of connection) to the subject, (b) the temporal / historical context of the subject, (c)  the potential effects of their writing on the subject, (d) their acknowledgment of using various  mimetic or diegetic devices  as storytelling “vehicles.”

3.1. Logical fallacies, incorrect information, hyperbole, and other potential “issues” are all “ok” as long as they are recognized transparently.

4. Narrators should develop / operate from a lexicon faithful to the way they speak / think  in real life.*

____________________

*mine is stoke / anti-stoke.

About these ads

6 comments

  1. MJ Briggs

    While I think that points 1 and 1.2 have some validity, I also have a point of contention. In the examples you mentioned, the boina and Outkast, it would be unnecessary to give an explanation of who or what type of cultural object or icon it would be. However, with other concepts such the ones you use in point 3, mimetic and diegetic, I do not think that posting a link to their definition is sufficient. As we know, the meaning of words change with the context they are in. Simply relying on another source to explain concepts that are more complex and varied in meaning, I think, relies upon an abstraction that leaves the specific embodiment of that idea you are trying to illustrate, obscure. What does it look like to use mimetic or diagetic devices as “storytelling vehicles”?

    • David Miller

      thanks for the comments margaret.

      a quick clarification: points 1 through 1.2 are all part of the same set, which deals specifically with the idea of no longer needing to ‘explicate’ things within the linear (or nonlinear) flow of a narrative.

      point 3 is separate–it describes a different aspect.

      you are correct that certain words/concepts would be obscured if simply linked to, however, the point is that this is about narrative; the writing above is just notes / possible structures to use.

      if i were writing this as a narrative (and following #3), it might look something like this:

      “I’m writing you while listening to Deerhunter (the album Weird Era Cont). There’s a lot of distortion in the headphones and it’s difficult to formulate precise thoughts so I’m just typing what seems “right”–which I know contradicts what I wrote earlier today at Matador. But damn, there’s a track right now. . .’slow swords’…you every heard it? The opening chords sound like something you or one of your roomates might’ve played on an acoustic while everyone came back home at different times from wherever they’d been that night, a kind drunken massiveness making the room feel all tall and stretched out, and everyone’s ears still ringing probably. [I tried several rewrites of that last sentence, then finally deleted the whole last part where I kept working on this image of things stretching farther and farther apart which would then be returned to some kind of balance via yr friend (or self) there on the sofa strumming the guitar.] It seems kind of forced to be sharing this narrative in a comment like this, but then I’m kind of grateful to be doing it as well. The music’s stopped. ”

  2. Richard

    I’ve just forwarded the link to my journ class. The points about assumed cultural references and what we perceive vs what we would like to read into it on behalf of the audience are particularly useful in a lot of the journ writing we have been doing. Thanks for putting these thoughts out there.

  3. Richard

    Postgrad diploma in journalism and media studies at Rhodes University (South Africa). It’s no NYU, but for journalism and questions on media in Africa specifically, it’s unrivalled.

    The postgrad diploma crowd is actually a nice mix of people, all of whom originally qualified for something else and specifically chose to come and study journ instead of doing that. I’ve never been in a class with this much energy before – it’s inspiring how far beyond the curriculum it drives people.

  4. J.E. Krauss

    Woah. Fuck.

    David. Reading this now in my fourth year of college, as opposed to my second semester….It’s different. I feel engaged the conversation in a real way. These are the thoughts in my brain, and the actions and expressions of those thoughts on the page that I contend with.

    Jared

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s