The Power of Stories

Telling stories is the best way to teach, persuade, and even understand ourselves.

Create Real Life Stories as Believable as Fiction

Write more compelling creative non-fiction using novelist's tricks.
Book cover Soul of Creative Writing by R. GoodmanIt's tricky to write good non-fiction, that is, true stories that read as believably as the best novels. Author and writing teacher Richard Goodman writes in The Soul of Creative Writing about the need to make your characters "as real as any fictional characters," building them "from the ground up. You can do that with the help of the techniques of fiction, and by being continually aware of the need to make them real."

In addition to The Soul of Creative Writing, which will be out in paperback early this year, Goodman wrote French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France, as well as many essays and articles for publications as diverse as the New York Times, Harvard Review, French Review, and Garden Design. He is a winner of a Hopwood Award for his fiction and writes a column for Fine Books & Collections Magazine. He teaches Creative Nonfiction at Spalding University's Brief Residency MFA in Writing Program in Louisville, Kentucky.

I interviewed Goodman recently via e-mail.

WRITING AND SOUL

Q: Why did you choose the word "soul" for The Soul of Creative Writing? Can you say what you meant by that?

RG: I chose it as part of my own title with a great deal of respect and some trepidation. It's an august word, and meaningful, and, to be truthful, I still have my doubts as to whether or not I've used it in vain. But it was too appealing to resist. I chose it because at the heart of my book are words, and I believe words are the soul of writing. They have inside them "the concentrated experience or insights of the generations," as the etymologist William Umbach wrote. I wanted to reflect that in my title.

Q: How "creative" can creative non-fiction get? Some recent memoirists, James Frey for one infamous example, and recently, Herman Rosenblat, have certainly gone over the line. So what does it mean to use fictional techniques without outright lying about what really happened?

RG: Using fictional techniques is different than writing fiction. Good nonfiction always uses the best techniques of fiction: scene setting, crisp dialogue, fine description, drama, and so on. But I don't believe you should make up things when writing nonfiction. You remember things to the best of your ability—no one expects you to be a walking tape recorder—but if you consciously say something happened when it didn't, I wonder why you just don't write fiction. That's what it's there for.

Q: When you teach creative nonfiction, is everyone trying to write a memoir? You wrote in The Soul of Creative Writing: "Writers, under the sway of the powerful emotions associated with those [sad or even tragic] events [of their personal lives], often feel that simply by spilling out those events on the page, like the contents of a tool box, the reader will experience these emotions as clearly and strongly as the writer. Not so."

RG: I wish more students were writing something other than memoir. But most aren't. And the world of nonfiction is so much larger. It takes a really fine writer to make a story about yourself sing. Why not write about a terrific blues singer? Or pelicans? Or what it's like to be a midwife? There's a big world out there, and it's endlessly fascinating.

Q: Why did you decide to write French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France as a book and not as a shorter piece? How did you know it was worth a book?

RG: I just started one day and didn't stop until a year later. Then I had a book. It just turned out that way—thank goodness.

THE WRITING ITSELF

Q: Can you tell me about your own writing process, and how it differs for different forms? Do you enter a flow state, where time seems to stop?

RG: There's nothing consistent. Some days it goes well, some days it's a mess. When it's going well, I'm lost in the story. That's a wonderful feeling, and I wish it happened more often. For me, it's not so much about the form as it is about my connection to the subject.

Q: Do you find that teaching writing and talking about writing get in the way of actual writing? (I find this blog, for instance, to be a great procrastination device for myself.)

RG: Sometimes. And then again, talking about writing with other writers can inspire me. I like teaching, but it sure saps the energy. But I have endless excuses for not writing. Teaching is just one of them.

Q: What are you working on now?

RG: I'm working on a couple of things right now. I just had an essay about Flaubert accepted for publication—not that this makes it any better or worse. I'm superstitious, though. I believe if I talk about something I'm in the middle of, I might jinx any possibilities of it turning out well.

The Power of Stories