If you think about it, almost all good stories in any genre are survival stories of one sort or another. Or, to put it another way, there’s always something at stake. This is, typically, a big part of why we keep reading: we want to know how stories end and what happens to characters.
Sometimes this element is very obvious. I’ve written or edited a number of books about medicine and health care; in such stories, what’s at stake is quite literally a matter of life or death. My first book in this genre, Many Sleepless Nights: The World of Organ Transplantation, followed surgeons in the early days of transplantation, as they waited to see if suitable donations would arrive, if the patients would survive surgery, and if they would recover and their bodies accept the new organs. It was dramatic stuff, with lots of tension for everyone involved—and rather easy, actually, to turn into a compelling book.
Of course, not all stories are life-or-death—and that’s when the writer has to work harder to figure out what’s at stake and why readers should care enough about the characters to keep reading. Some years ago, after I had spent many years in hospitals, following medical personnel, I followed a crew of major league baseball umpires for The Best Seat in Baseball, But You Have to Stand. Art Williams, the first black umpire in the National League and only the second black umpire in the majors, became one of my main characters. It was his first year in the major leagues, and he was under pressure to perform every time he took the field, every moment he officiated. To say he was fighting for his life would be an overstatement, but like Jackie Robinson, he was fighting for his future, for his race, and for his own dignity and well-being.
The challenges of writing a survival story may be significantly more difficult in nonfiction because, as I have frequently pointed out (I also have a book with this title), you can’t make this stuff up. That is to say, you can’t devise the details. They have to be factually accurate and true. And truth, as the cliché goes, is often stranger (and messier) than fiction—as, for example, in Angie Chuang’s “Why I Remembered What I Remembered,” which credits Shamu the killer whale with saving the author’s life.
Another challenge with real life is that we don’t always know why things happen the way they do; in many ways, telling stories is how we try to make sense of otherwise inexplicable events. Angie Chuang confronts this issue in her story, as does Erika Anderson in her spare, haunting story, “Man on the Tracks.” Why is the man on the tracks? We can’t know; along with Anderson, we can only watch and wonder. Both Chris Offut’s “The Hippest Bar on Christmas” and Betsy Sharp’s “Locked Out,” which are longer than Anderson’s piece but equally spare, reflect on the distances between us and what we can and can’t know about one another. Finally, Maia Morgan’s otherworldly “The Saltwater Twin” depicts the author’s struggle to avoid drowning, both literally and metaphorically.
The rest of the issue is a different kind of “survival guide,” a sort of tool kit for writers, which includes a visual guide to the personal essay, notes on how to use dialogue, a survey of memoirs that communicate truth through omission, and much more.