Monday, November 12, 2012

Kaylene Johnson: In Search of Story - The Art of Nonfiction

“Whatever you do or dream, you can begin it.” -- Goethe

I began as an apprentice journalist right out of high school and along with news articles and feature stories over the years, I’ve written two biographies, a book of history, a coffee-table book, and a memoir. Sitting at the keyboard for each of these projects, I felt that I had two jobs. One was to capture the subject of my writing in the truest way possible. The other was to convey that information to readers in the best language I could muster. For most of these books, I considered myself a scribe, and my task was to get out of the way of the story. I didn’t feel it was my role to filter or interpret the material, but rather to craft the book in a way that best reflected the subject,  to find the arc of the subject’s story, and capture the human element that connects us with each other and the world.

By definition, however, material must be interpreted and filtered to make its way onto the page. One of the biggest challenges of writing Canyons and Ice: The Wilderness Travels of Dick Griffith was deciding what to leave out. Griffith had 500 pages of single-spaced journals from which to draw, and in our interviews he added even more captivating stories to the mix. The choice of which stories to keep and which to leave out was, by nature, a subjective process.

Writing the memoir was even more problematic. For all my efforts at getting out of the way of the story in my other nonfiction books, the focus of A Tender Distance was on my sons and me, requiring a level of self-revelation that to this day feels uncomfortable. Yet it was a story I felt compelled to write at a time in my life when my sons’ leave-taking created a seismic shift in my world. As the inner-critic railed against my self-indulgence, another part of me said that I was not the only one who had experienced these things. I wanted to bear testimony to that life-passage and to write about it honestly and tenderly.

History is its own animal, and in writing Trails Across Time, I learned that history is in fact a changing landscape. While we cannot change the past, we can and do change our understanding of it. I am intrigued by what stories are told and even more so by those that remain untold.

For example, Mary Lowell, the First Lady of Seward, divorced in the late 1800s and raised nine children alone in a place that would one day become Seward. Nine children! Does that not invite intriguing questions? Yet we know relatively little about Mary Lowell, other than she was born in English Bay and married a sea caption from Maine.

A couple of dozen years later, Nellie Neal arrived in Seward, leaving an alcoholic marriage to start a new life in Alaska. When President Warren G. Harding arrived in Seward in 1923 to commemorate the completion of the Alaska Railroad, he wanted to meet “Alaska Nellie,” as she had come to be known. She wrote an autobiography; a film was made of her life; and today, a one-woman screenplay written by Doug Capra captures the persona of this remarkable woman. 

While Mary Lowell and Nellie Neal Lawing were each heroes in their own way, Nellie’s story became widely known, and Mary’s was relegated to relative obscurity. It’s not that one’s story was more important than the other– it’s that Nellie’s story was recorded and retold over time.

All of which points to the significance of story. If there is a common thread between the different types of non-fiction, it is the element of story. This is what captivates the reader and causes her to reflect and inquire deeper into the subject at hand. A chronology of dates, a log book, even a diary are simply the recording of facts about an event. But the story tells the bigger picture. It connects the dots, puts the event into context, and reveals the universal truths that are common to us all. That is the art of writing nonfiction – to engage the reader in a larger examination of the world, ourselves, and the things that ultimately matter.

Food for thought: In his article “Habits of Art” author K.L. Cook asks “What galvanizes you as a writer?” Are there stories from your life or the lives of others that demand to be told? What is the topic or question that keeps you up at night?

Kaylene Johnson’s books include Canyons and Ice: The Wilderness Travels of Dick Griffith; A Tender Distance: Adventures Raising My Sons in Alaska; and Sarah: How a Hockey Mom Turned the Political Establishment Upside Down. Please join us on November 14 at Great Harvest Bread for as Kaylene continues the discussion on the art of nonfiction. 


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