What’s the Story #57

"Sometimes, the most unlikely and unexpected juxtapositions of frame and focus create the most effective stories"

“Is the theme for this issue ‘woe’ or ‘death’? It is damn dark. But the pieces are all very good, and I think it’s quickly becoming my next favorite issue.”

That’s the note we got from our long-time copyeditor, Jill Patterson, after we sent her the essays for this issue. We laughed here in the office when we got that e-mail, because we could see that Jill’s point: the essays we selected were not, let us say, cheerful. It wasn’t something we deliberately set out to do; it’s just that the literature of reality is sometimes—maybe even often— as Jill put it, “damn dark.” 

But in addition to being damn dark, the essays in this issue are damn good, as Jill also confirms. And she’s a pretty good judge of creative nonfiction; she has copyedited almost every issue of the magazine since 2004 and was, for a long time, the editor of Iron House Literary Review.

I asked Jill why she found this particular issue, dark as it is, so appealing. She said that when she sat down to begin work she actually forgot for a while that she was supposed to be copyediting. She found the essays so compelling that she just kept reading and reading, one after another—every piece. (So if you see any commas in places where they don’t belong, this is why.)

A primary challenge in crafting successful creative nonfiction is to fold information into what might, at the outset, seem to be an unrelated story. These essays more than meet that challenge—telling true stories that are simultaneously compelling and informative. Or, as Jill said, “I learned things I didn’t know, and the story, the ‘plot,’ kept me enthralled.”

Sometimes, the most unlikely and unexpected juxtapositions of frame and focus create the most effective stories. In “No Exit,” for example. Karen Gentry takes a temp job at a company that helps fired executives find new jobs. Part of her job involves giving Meyers-Briggs tests, and the story tells us a great deal about the corporate world and the way people in it can be reduced to types. But that’s also not at all what the story is about. (To tell you more would be to ruin it.)

In “We Were Greeted as Liberators” college-aged Kristina Marusic and her boyfriend and a friend go on an expedition to liberate some chickens from a factory farm—which actually launches the larger story of why Marusic became an activist and how liberating animals seemed more concrete and useful than protesting against war. And in “Vivaldi,” Kevin Haworth juxtaposes the story of a man who survives the Holocaust by playing violin in the Auschwitz orchestra with the story of the author’s young son, a talented cellist.

Great stories often also contain compelling contradictions, as in “Agents of Death,” by Anne Brannen, whose great-grandfather was the official executioner for six states—a curious job for a man who was thoroughly opposed to the death penalty.

This last essay was especially intriguing to Jill because of her current project: as a Soros Fellow, working for the Texas Regional Public Defender for Capital Cases Office, she writes case narratives for capital murder cases in Texas. This is a revolutionary and radical approach to death penalty cases, which has helped reduce the number of executions in a state that still leads the nation in carrying out death penalty sentences.  In 2012, Jill was awarded the Boone Fellowship from the Embry Human Rights Program at Southern Methodist University for her work opposing the death penalty.

Jill is one of many people I can point to who, in addition to being a terrific writer, editor and teacher, also fully lives the creative nonfiction life—immersing herself in other worlds and communicating ideas and information in unique ways that make an impact. This is where I see the future of creative nonfiction—in medicine, science, technology, and the law, as well as in the literary realm.

If you’re a longtime reader, you’ve probably noticed that our themes often push in these directions; we try to pick themes that will inspire writers and offer them the opportunity to make an impact. In the next couple of years, we’ll have issues devoted to the weather, marriage, childhood, learning from nature, the intersection of science and religion, and—to balance out this issue—joy.

The essays we write and publish may sometimes be damn dark, as Jill has observed, but they are also important—vivid, memorable, powerful prose that makes you stop and sit and read and learn and think and forget everything else around you, at least for a little while.

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About the Author

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Lee Gutkind

Lee Gutkind is the author and editor of more than thirty books, including You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction–from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between, Almost Human: Making Robots Think, The Best Seat in Baseball: But You Have to Stand, Forever Fat: Essays by the Godfather, and the award-winning, Many Sleepless Nights: The World of Organ Transplantation.

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