How I Decided to Write Non-Fiction

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Last week I went to see a doctor for a minor surgery. He made the usual small talk that doctors make when they see their patients; he asked me what I do for a living, and after I told him I’m a writer he asked if I write books. “No… not yet,” I said. And then he stuck me with a needle.

It’s a question I’ve been asked many times, and I always feel at a loss when I have to answer that I’ve not written any books. A book is the ultimate work that a writer strives towards, after all. That book could be on anything, in any genre. All writers have big ideas and passions that they want to turn into books. So what’s holding me back? Why haven’t I written a book yet?

It’s not that I haven’t tried. I’ve actually written complete manuscripts for two literary novels, but they’re both rough drafts and absolutely terrible. If I’m being honest, I can’t write fiction for shit. It just isn’t in my wheelhouse. I’m a journalist by trade, and I’ve been writing poetry since I was 10 years old, but fiction involves an entirely different set of techniques. I have a small collection of short stories, none of which have been published. I can honestly say I enjoyed writing them, and it was fun creating an original story and running wild with it, but after receiving 36 form rejection letters I gave up to focus on poetry instead. It’s said in the writer’s community that novelists are terrible at poetry (they aren’t as good at abstraction and metaphor) and poets are terrible at fiction (they aren’t as good at narrative and character development). I seem to fit the mold.

I can’t deny that I do want to write books. Eventually, I want to live off the proceeds gained from writing books, not articles and blogs. It’s more prestigious, and there’s a far greater chance to have an impact on the world with books than with online articles that are here today and gone tomorrow. Changing the world through the power of storytelling is why I got into the writing game to begin with. The question remains that what, exactly, should I write about?

Over the past year and a half I’ve become increasingly interested in nonfiction. My bookshelf now contains a history section with books like Guns, Germs, & Steel by Jared Diamond, and a social studies section with books like Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. I even have a small collection of self-improvement books such as Mindset by Carol S. Dweck, and How to Win Friends and Influence People in The Digital Age, by Dale Carnegie and Associates (it’s the classic book updated for our modern times). Right now I’m reading Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, and Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand which is the true story of Louie Zamperini; an Olympic runner who went to war in WW2 and ended up adrift at sea and taken to a Japanese POW camp.

My interest in nonfiction has broadened my mind and presented the possibility that maybe I shouldn’t bother with fiction anyway, and write creative nonfiction instead. I’m far better suited to writing nonfiction since I’m a professionally trained journalist, and already have a lot of experience writing short-form nonfiction in the form of news and features.

I don’t care about being rich, but I do want to make a decent living off my writing. Literary fiction is a tough sell to say the least. Few people read it, so publishers are extremely picky about who they offer a contract too. I read once that if a literary title sells more than 10,000 copies it’s considered an outstanding success. Yikes.

Non-fiction, on the other hand, is far more popular and easier to sell. I’m not doing this for money, but I’m not doing it for free either so I have to consider the business side of what I’m doing. From that perspective, and considering my outstanding journalistic chops,  it makes sense to write nonfiction.

Reading Unbroken was the final push I needed to commit to the idea of writing creative nonfiction. I’m astounded at the depth of Hillenbrand’s research, at the swift exactitude of her prose, and her ability to make 1930s and 40s come alive on the page even though she hadn’t been born yet at the time. As I read it I keep thinking, “This is the kind of stuff I should write!” I relish the idea of going to the Reference Library and steeping myself in research for hours at a time: digging into the archives of microfilm, tracking own elusive sources, and unearthing old photographs. I long to go on road trips to far off locations to witness events, interview people, and collect information in the field. That’s what I imagined doing when I decided to become a writer so many years ago.

There lies the difference, for me, between writing fiction and nonfiction. Writing a literary novel can be a thankless pain in the ass, but writing non-fiction can be an adventure that takes you all over the world.  That adventure is one of the biggest reasons why I became a writer in the first place.

I don’t know that I’ll ever write a great literary novel, but I have full confidence that I can write a great nonfiction title. Starting this month, I’m working on my first book. It’s been a long time coming, but it’s going to be great. It all begins with creating an outline…


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