Gunkholing is an old sailors’ pastime; if the fish aren’t biting, sailors sometimes pull their boats into secluded coves to cast and lower their nets in order to find what muck and materials lie on the ocean’s floor. When creative nonfiction writers gunkhole, they, too, lower their nets— to learn more about what’s beneath a subject’s surface. At first, a given topic may appear to have little to offer. But a good writer, through literary skill, impeccable research and some mysterious, personal intuition, knows when to sound a story’s depths.
One of the best-known examples of finding the story behind a story is Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.” Capote’s curiosity was first piqued while reading The New York Times story about a brutal, small-town Kansas murder. As he read about the murder’s horrible details and the reports about the killers, Capote had a sixth sense that something more needed to be told. A deep emotional spark combined with his well-developed storytelling instincts. Capote set off for Kansas to search for what Midwesterners couldn’t readily see with their naked eyes. He spent months at a time there, developing relationships with the murderers and other key players, to try and gain a more direct perspective rather than a distant, abstract one.
Tracy Kidder’s book, “House,” is another good example of how a writer can take what appears to be a rather mundane topic—a story about the design and construction of a single-family home—and make it more relevant. Kidder doesn’t just describe the ins and outs of how a custom home is built; he weaves a dramatic story. Readers learn about the personalities, obsessions and dreams of everyone involved, from the workers to the owners. “I started out writing about carpenters, a history, but I realized the house was an incredible intersection of social, historical and economic concerns,” Kidder told The New York Times in 1985.“The idea was to take a small thing and see what’s emblematic in it.” A similar instinct, perhaps, has in recent years led many writers to what Adam Gopnick, in The New Yorker, called “little-thing/ big-thing books,” books about subjects including salt, nutmeg and the color mauve.
It’s all in the execution—any subject matter can be made interesting in creative nonfiction. Besides collecting general information, reading all the background literature, talking to any people directly or indirectly involved in the potential story and paying careful, close attention as all good writers do, a creative nonfiction writer will always ask: Is there something more here? In the beginning, when tinkering around to focus a topic, a writer may not be able to answer easily or readily the critical question, “Who cares?” That’s when it’s time to pull into the cove and gunkhole for a while; one of the most important tasks in creative nonfiction is to search until the unseen but essential treasures in any potential subject are truly and wondrously brought to life.