Facts such as statistics, numbers and demographic data—the kind of information derived from mundane legwork, research and scholarship—are the roots of creative nonfiction; they comprise the important teaching element, the informational content introduced throughout the story that leads to the reader’s sense of discovery.
Defamed for simply providing information, facts are the underdogs of creative nonfiction. In reality, facts build upon and enhance the overall narrative structure, supplying tensile strength and depth to whatever true story is being told. Once the primary research is conducted and completed, the writer must examine the facts and figure out how to bind them together in such a way that an interesting, intellectual core can also be created as part of the narrative.
Ursula K. Le Guin reminded writers to “keep the story full,” and though she was discussing fiction, we can apply her advice to creative nonfiction, as well. Of course, it’s a given: No creative nonfiction writer (or reader) wants unprocessed facts piled on top of the writing with a snow shovel. Relevant facts, as they apply to the strictly informational content of any piece of creative nonfiction, should be smoothly integrated into the story. Only the relevant facts and details belong.
In creative nonfiction, along with compelling stories, readers want and enjoy intellectually gratifying experiences. What we’re talking about here is not the transfer of pure factual information but information that, in some way, will inspire and enlighten and deepen one’s understanding while also serving the story.
In “Coming into the Country,” John McPhee tells how he and two other men, on a hike in the Alaskan wilderness, see a grizzly bear. McPhee asks the two other men what will happen if the bear catches their scent. “We’d be in big trouble,” replies the first man. “You can’t outrun them,” adds the second. McPhee follows up this brief conversation with these facts that make the threat clear:
A grizzly, no slower than a race horse, is about half again as fast as the fastest human being. Watching the great mound of weight in the blueberries, with a fifty-five-inch waist and a neck more than thirty inches around, I had difficulty imagining that he could move at such speed, but I believed it and was without impulse to test the proposition.
Good, old-fashioned research and scholarship, either through immersion in a chosen subject a la John McPhee or through traditional print and electronic sources, are inescapable parts of a literary occupation. Yet, creative nonfiction writers, especially beginning ones, often consider fact-collecting and information gathering to be nothing more than the drudgery that must get done—the piles of handwritten index cards stacked on the card table, the color-coded file folders stuffed with assorted facts, the scraps of random details recorded on the pages of journals. All kept, but for what?
Yet, writers like John McPhee hang on to those “useless” factoids and half-forgotten notes culled from a variety of scholarly and personal sources, for they may come to life later in unexpected ways.
Here, then, is a little-discussed, mostly unacknowledged facet of facts: Facts hold creative power and possibility.
Alan Lightman, author of “Einstein’s Dreams” and an M.I.T. professor, says, “A prepared mind immersed in the facts and research comes before the creative moment.”
Creative nonfiction writers, like scientists, cannot give up on the rigors of scholarship and factual immersion. We should welcome learning facts about the physical world, history, politics, birds, Celtic mythology—whatever we’re interested in. From those very humble, under-appreciated facts we read or personally observe, ideas and stories and metaphors may be born.
By staying close to the informational, journalistic roots of creative nonfiction—by simply hanging out in the world and paying close attention—we may find that a large chunk of that mundane fact-collecting and routine research will lead to untold stories and to places that we, as writers and as readers, didn’t know we could go.