Whose Story to Tell

In “Nonfiction in First Person, without Apology,” Natalia Rachel Singer describes one of her first forays into nonfiction writing. Singer was sent by her journalism professor to follow the trail of the madam of a local brothel. In doing so, she encountered a subculture of complex and fascinating subjects, some less likeable than others.

At the end of her research, Singer began to cull through her notes, digging for the story. “I was pressed with many writerly problems,” Singer recounts. “How was I to deal with point of view? Whose story was it? The working women’s? The clients’? My original goal had been to profile the madam, but she was swiftly being eclipsed by the prosecutor, the pediatrician, the necrophiliac and the priest, who were all far stranger than she was.”

How do nonfiction writers determine whose story to tell when they approach a topic? There are, of course, factors that go into the decision of whose experience and perspective to describe, especially when writing on assignment. Obviously, access to the subject and the subject’s consent also must be taken into consideration. But a good rule of thumb is to write the story you would like to read. In other words, nonfiction writers usually tell the stories of people who entice them in one way or another.

For “Wonderland,” a creative nonfiction profile of a modern American high school, Michael Bamberger spent a year immersed in the lives of the students of Pennsbury High School in Levittown, Pa. Bamberger focused primarily on a small cadre of students and the school’s principal, threading their stories throughout the book. The mission of these related narratives, and that of the entire project, is to zoom in on the roles that these students play and overturn a few cultural assumptions by telling detailed stories of the individuals behind the labels. However, Bamberger’s primary story is that of Bob Costa, an aspiring journalist and junior-class president. Bob’s is the voice we hear from the most frequently and the character whom we spend the most time following from scene to scene. Bamberger’s choice to render the experiences and thoughts of this boy seems to be based largely on Bob’s ambitious and charismatic persona, one that allows him to foray into the adult world of professional journalism despite his age. Perhaps because Bob fascinated Bamberger, Bamberger concluded that the boy would also fascinate his readers.

Bamberger is not alone in his method of selection. In an interview with David Hirschman in 2004, Gay Talese talked about his own decision-making process. Talese, who is celebrated for having written some of this century’s most famous profiles, described the connections and instincts a writer must follow when choosing whose story to tell: “What draws me to people, in general, is that there is a vantage point that we share. There is something that I can hook into that is legitimately a part of these people’s lives that I write about. It may not be full, but it is enough that I can go further with it.” In other words, Talese is drawn to subjects in whom he sees a piece of himself.

On the other hand, Susan Orlean, writer for The New Yorker and author of “The Orchid Thief,” has said she tells the stories of people she does not feel an immediate connection to. Orlean chooses stories and experiences to write about based on a subject’s passions— in “The Orchid Thief,” she wrote, “I want to know what it feels like to care about something passionately”—and on the education the subject can give to her and, consequently, to the reader. She explained her philosophy further in an interview with Robert Boynton: “The only questions I pose of a topic are, ‘Am I curious about this? Is there something here that I genuinely wonder about? Do I get excited and passionate about somebody else’s passion?’”

Like Orlean, who built a bestseller around an obsessive poacher of plants, good nonfiction writers find and portray complex protagonists who have universal appeal. But even charisma is no guarantee that a character is the best center for a story. As many new writers, including the young Natalia Singer, have discovered, there is no single formula for whose story to tell. Sometimes your story picks you rather than the other way around. The role each subject will play in your work never consistently reveals itself at any one time in the researching or writing process. Some speak to you from the start; others lie in hiding, waiting to be discovered.