The First Step Is Realizing You Have a Problem

I have been procrastinating on the nonfiction book. Well-Intentioned Husband asked why last night and made me actually think about the answer. I finally realized (perhaps rationalized) that my sticking point is the lack of a first-rate intelligence, per F. Scott Fitzgerald. As I’ve mentioned here before, he said the true test of such a thing is “the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

I’m failing at that.

It turns out that I have two very distinct views of writing — unsurprisingly, they fall into “fiction” and “nonfiction” — which isn’t unusual, is fairly understandable, and is probably the way nearly everyone else would divide writing as well.

I don’t have any trouble getting things going with fiction. I can make up whatever I want, create characters in any image I choose, hear their voices, pattern them on people I know or wish I knew.

Up to now, I’ve never had any trouble with nonfiction, either. After all, I worked in news for a gobzillion years. I wrote breaking articles, I wrote features, I took the slant out of more copy than Xerox. I could look at a situation and recount it clearly without imposing too much of my own bias, unless that’s what the editor wanted from me.

But now I’m in this nether world where I want to write a nonfiction book about a situation where I don’t have all the pieces and can’t see into every corner. I have the facts. I have the outline. I have a kickass narrative structure and rip-roaring sequence of events.

What I don’t have is any damn characterization what-so-farking-ever.

In fiction, this would not be a problem. I could say, “Oh, I know from the facts I do have that Main Character A is a lush. And he beats people up. Ergo, he is a mean drunk, and he was probably a lot like That Certain Insane College Boyfriend, so I will write him that way and give him that personality, but with a dash of Super Rational and Funny Husband to mitigate some of the crazy and make him a wee bit more likable.”

But this is a nonfiction book. So I feel that everything in it should be verifiable, cited, ironclad — and I have exactly zero documentation on which to build any of these folks’ personality or attitude. I know Main Character A was a mean drunk — but was he a bear or a snake? Did he bluster and threaten and stomp around, or did he just glare at you from a corner and strike without warning? I have my suspicions, but I DO NOT KNOW.

I suppose I could write it as a really long news story; a distant, formal, third-person, “He said this, they did that” recitation of fact without speculating much on personality or character. But I would bore myself to tears taking that approach, and I certainly wouldn’t wish it on any readers. So that will not be happening.

What will be happening? No idea. That’s what this weekend is for. But any advice would be welcome!

While I’m doing that, you should read the link below, because it is very interesting for writerly types. Also for readerly types, and for types who secretly think that the Harry Potter books were awfully long for so little action (spoiler, you will find yourself validated, sort of).


About arwenbicknell

Editor by day, author by night.
This entry was posted in Doldrums, Nonfiction, Personalities. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The First Step Is Realizing You Have a Problem

  1. Elana says:

    I’m sure I’d have the same problem if I actually summoned the wherewithal to attempt to write a nonfiction book. GUILT and RESPONSIBILITY. Maybe give yourself some license to play around? You know, write a bit of fiction and then edit it, which you’re very good at, with facts–even if just for a few scenes. Such a creative exercise might invite your subconscious into the game and free yourself up for an easier time, even some fun.

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