Home»Member»Phillip Lopate’s advice for writing

Writing scenes – that’s at the core of narrative nonfiction, isn’t it?

Phillip Lopate in his book To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction makes an argument that that’s too limiting, that something is being shoved out of nonfiction when we focus too narrowly on nonfiction as scene. He contends that the writer’s presence is essential, particularly the working of the writer’s mind.

Lopate is the director of the graduate nonfiction program at Columbia University, has written 19 books including several novels and three collections of essays, and has edited The Art of the Personal Essay.

He writes, “One of the leaders of the nonfiction field, Lee Gutkind, has . . . specified the goal of creative nonfiction as ‘trying to write the truth and making it read like a short story or fiction.’ In an interview with Donna Seaman, he provided this definition: ‘Creative nonfiction allows the nonfiction writer to use literary techniques usually used only by fiction writers, such as scene-setting, description, dialogue, action, suspense, plot. All those things that make terrific short stories and novels allow the nonfiction writer to tell true stories in the most cinematic and dramatic way possible. That’s creative nonfiction.’”

Lopate continues: “(I)f he means that a piece of nonfiction should have a plot, suspense, and strong characterization . . . or if he means that the nonfiction writer should be conscious of constructing an artifice, I’m all for that. But if he means the nonfiction writer should try to render everything in scenes with dialogue and sprinkle sense details everywhere so the text will read as ‘cinematically’ as possible, while staying away from thoughtful analysis because it sounds academic or ‘abstract,’ then, no, I don’t agree.”

On the next page he says, “What makes me want to keep reading a nonfiction text is the encounter with a surprising, well-stocked mind as it takes on the challenge of the next sentence, paragraph, and thematic problem it has set for itself. The other element that keeps me reading nonfiction happily is an evolved, entertaining, elegant, or at least highly intentional literary style.”

Earlier, in his introduction, Lopate had written, “In a sense I am defending here the historical prerogatives of the literary nonfiction form, to charm and entice by way of a voice that can speak in more than one register, that can tell an anecdote, be self-mocking and serious by turns, and analyze a conundrum. My deepest inclination as a writer is historical: to link up what is written today with the rich literary lode of the past.”

While not a how-to on writing, To Show and to Tell expands the boundaries of narrative nonfiction and should be helpful to the writer who wants to explore how to make him- or herself an integral part of their work. The paperback version was published in 2013 by Free Press.



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