The Creative Nonfiction Writer as Tour Guide

In Charleston, there is a tour guide who can show visitors stand-alone garages on back alleys that once served as slave quarters, point out street corners that figure prominently in Gershwin’s opera “Porgy and Bess,” and sing—in a clear tenor voice— the calls of the street vendors in the opera.

A tour guide’s job is a lot like the work we do as nonfiction writers. A good nonfiction book leads a reader on a journey, allowing her to discover parts of the world that she might not normally see. She may never hike up Mount Everest, but she can read Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air” and learn something about that experience.

If a guide sings a bit of a Gershwin song, a writer like James Agee can quote the Lord’s Prayer in “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” with similar authority. We can decorate our writing with narrative devices, using scenes, dialogue and other storytelling strategies. These literary techniques help elevate the writing from formulaic prose to a complex narrative that surprises and delights. Readers enjoy being in the presence of a delightful narrative voice.

They also want to trust the narrator as a reliable witness, a source of authentic information. Tour guides operate under a similar dictate: In order to create a good tour, the guide must study history texts, guidebooks and biographies and then incorporate some of that information into his script. This level of research helps convince people that their guide is trustworthy. The writer has other tools, as well; for example, setting off a conversation with quotation marks is a signal that someone actually spoke those words. Creative nonfiction’s great literary power comes from its essential connection to fact. If we compromise that relationship, the writing grows weaker, and we risk losing our audience.

Most importantly, the tour guide’s role is to tell us where to look. The filmmaker Akira Kurosawa reminds us that “to be an artist, means never to avert one’s eyes.” John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” opened American eyes to the disturbing realities of the atomic bomb by tracking six individuals’ experiences from the time just before the bomb fell. In the process of following these characters through the aftermath of the bombing, Hersey effectively gave readers a tour of the devastated city. In creative nonfiction, the author takes the active stance of paying attention to the world and, as a witness, stays faithful to fact, pointing out what the reader must see.