Devil in the Details

The great challenge of nonfiction writing is transforming reality into a compelling story with a strong narrative arc. Bombarded by the characters and conversations of everyday life, the nonfiction writer must constantly discard details that don’t serve their stories, and notice and transcribe the few that do. Some of these titles reflect on the challenge of creating a world that’s as vivid as those in the most memorable novels, while others simply show how it's done.

The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick

Gornick begins her meditation on nonfiction storytelling by acknowledging that it’s a fraught pursuit. On either end of the spectrum, there’s danger: on the one hand, the writer runs the risk of being too detached; on the other; they risk overinvesting in the minutiae of the story. So Gornick argues that the successful writer develops a persona, a “truth speaker—the narrator that a writer pulls out of his or her own agitated and boring self to organize a piece of experience.” It’s this persona, an agent of “detached empathy,” that allows a writer to select only the most pertinent details. Gornick’s book is the how-to manual as real literature, and any tour of vibrant nonfiction writing should start here.

Reality Radio by John Biewen

In this anthology, documentary radio producers explain their creative processes in essays interspersed with bits of audio scripts. As Biewen points out in his introduction, these producers—from the famous to the less well-known—appear in roles as varied as “explainers, facilitators, characters, performers, behind-the-scenes choreographers, puppet masters.” While not all of them speak on the radio, here, they emerge to discuss their narrative processes. Not all radio producers make good writers, but the best pieces make the rest worthwhile. My favorite is by producer Joe Richman, founder of Radio Diaries, an organization that gives people recorders and creates documentaries from their tape. In his essay, he explains the art of using audio to transform stock characters into tangible people. His secret is capturing “the stuff on the edges.” “A cough in the courtroom, a soft knock on a prison wall, a teenager’s prayer as she looks in the mirror” can draw the thread of a story out of life’s everyday detritus.

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

O’Brien, a former Vietnam War soldier, conveys the reality of war through describing horrifyingly visceral scenes—like peeling pieces of a friend’s detonated body off a tree—in everyday language. In telling these stories, he admits to fictionalizing details, and justifies this by saying, “in war you lose your sense of the definite… and therefore it’s safe to say that in a true war story nothing is ever absolutely true.” O’Brien is the kind of narrator we don’t rely on for factual accuracy, so much as for emotional effect. Unlike a Mike Daisey or James Frey, O’Brien’s frankness about his approach makes us trust him: in fact, though his book reads like a memoir, it’s technically classified as fiction. By telling us when he’s exaggerated or amended, we believe that we aren’t being misled, and are simply getting closer to feeling as O’Brien did.

This Is London by Edward R. Murrow

In this selection of CBS journalist Edward Murrow's pre-World War II broadcasts, aired between August 1939 and March 1941, Murrow tells besieged Londoners’ stories to an overseas audience. The tales, made tangible through details, are sometimes humorous—“One man advocates a new style in glasses, the lens and blinders are to be made of cardboard. Naturally that prevents you seeing anything at all, but this particular gentleman insists that if they are worn consistently day and night you won’t notice the blackout”—other times, they’re heartbreaking. While Murrow tells his American listeners that “the conclusions you draw are your own affair,” through his stories, he surreptitiously encourages the United States to join the war.

The Silent Woman by Janet Malcolm

Through telling Sylvia Plath’s story, Malcolm parses the complications inherent in writing biographies. From the start, Malcolm is forthright about what she considers the insidiousness of her task: ”The biographer at work, indeed, is like the professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers that he has good reason to think contain the jewelry and money, and triumphantly bearing his loot away.” Like O’Brien, Malcolm entreats us to trust her not because she gets all the facts right, but rather because she’s honest about how difficult that is to do. As always, Malcolm-as-narrator is analytical, misses almost nothing, and is by turns empathetic and vicious. We’re glad to watch her work, but gladder still not to be her subject.

Jessica Gross is a writer based in Brooklyn.