Rules for Writing True Stories

In the beginning was the listicle

Welcome to my newsletter. Here are a few personal rules for writing true stories (a.k.a. "creative" or "narrative" nonfiction a.k.a. literary reportage a.k.a. not fiction or poetry but still fun to read). They aren’t meant as prescription, they’re just what I have stolen from others or learned from experience:

  1. Characters are people, not passive witnesses or victims. They are the central actors in their own lives.

  2. That people contradict themselves messily is a compelling advantage--not a drawback--of nonfiction writing.

  3. No stories about New York City, past or present. There are more than enough New York essays for the next thousand years, and thousands of other places to write about.

  4. Urban lives are not more interesting or profound than rural lives.

  5. The lives of the famous and powerful are not more interesting or profound than those of the unknown and powerless.

  6. There are no villains. But there are evil acts and institutions.

  7. Material conditions (i.e. “settings”) aren’t descriptive fluff. They form our hopes and fears, they determine the shape of our world. Nothing about a person is essential. You might have been otherwise.

  8. Include as much well-researched history as you can get away with. It will reduce error and dilettantism.

  9. Whatever is most important to your character—religion, tradition, industry—must be important in your story. Don’t try to write around (or worse—over) a value just because you, the writer, don’t share it.

  10. Don’t be afraid to send others to the dictionary or pay a visit yourself.

  11. You have nothing to say, only to show.

  12. No tidy endings. The world keeps going after.

And a bonus, because the piece must finally exist in the world as well as the head:

13. Be humbled to be edited, fact-checked, copy-edited, re-formatted, and house-styled before you are published. You will emerge unhappy but squeaky clean.

Thanks for subscribing. I'm planning to use this space to make occasional announcements about my publications with minimal whining or braggadocio. I also plan to quietly publish stories and excerpts that didn't make it into print and to share thoughts on the writing process, things I like, screeds, notes, and ideas for you to steal. Some of this material may make it into classes I teach. The rest is just for you, reader.

xo,
Ben