Tag Archives: writing a book

Does Nonfiction Count As “Art?”

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There are two three types of readers. First, there are the nonfiction readers, those who read weight-loss books and autobiographies of famous people, who insist they’re too busy to read books simply for entertainment. They want to learn something. Then there are fiction readers, the ones who get a glazed look at the very thought of reading a self-help book. They want to escape life for awhile, and spending their precious time reading nonfiction is akin to jumping off a cliff blindfolded. Then, of course, there are those who read both, depending on their mood.

There are three types of writers, too: nonfiction, fiction, and crossover authors. I didn’t think there was much of a distinction between these groups until I published my first book, a nonfiction book for women called How to Have Peace When You’re Falling to Pieces.

A couple months after the release, I attended a local writer’s conference. It was an author’s dream at first. It seemed to address any topic you could think of: plot, characters, marketing, and even query letters. Except for one thing. There was barely anything for nonfiction writers. I think there was a class on writing for journalism, but that was it. And the writing contest? Not a single category for nonfiction.

A little stumped by this, I read the bios behind the founders of the conference. Many of the “top dogs” were crossover authors–they’d written both nonfiction and fiction books. But it almost felt like their nonfiction was swept under the rug, as if they were ashamed of it or it wasn’t applicable. No one even acknowledged the fact that nonfiction actually outsells fiction in the national market.

Then, as I talked to guests at the conference, I got some interesting opinions. Here are some of their comments:

“Nonfiction isn’t a true art, not like writing a novel.”

“You can’t be free in your writing style.”

“There’s no beginning, middle, and end. I wouldn’t even know where to start writing a nonfiction book.”

“It has no voice, and it’s so bland. I can’t pay attention.”

And that, my friends, made me confused. Nonfiction, too restrictive? Not a true art? Very interesting.

Let me ask you something. Ever read The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom? It’s a true story, a first-person account of a woman who loses everything by hiding fugitives during WW2. The description was so detailed and vivid that I literally wept, and I felt my life change by the end. Not a true art, indeed.

What about the memoir, Tuesdays With Morrie? It was beautifully written and thought-provoking in a fascinating way. The way the story was woven together made it feel like fiction, but it was all the more powerful knowing that it really happened. 

Good writing makes you stop and think. It makes you see the world differently. In many ways, nonfiction is even LESS restrictive than fiction. How many books have you read that followed the age-old, predictable “reluctant hero takes a journey to discover who s/he is, with a goofy sidekick and a wise sage, and defeats the bad guy” plot? You don’t have to follow anything in nonfiction. Nonfiction is much more than self-help books and textbooks. There’s a reason for the old adage, “truth is stranger than fiction.” Good writing is entertaining, regardless of the genre.

Read the two excerpts below, and tell me which one has more “voice”:

“My kids love the kissing monster game. They sit on my lap and I say in my most intimidating voice, ‘What does the kissing monster eat?’ They tentatively say, ‘Kisses!’ and I attack them with kisses. Even my toddler loves it. I think my children feel more loved when Mommy is silly than when we have a clean house. Good thing, because ours is nothing like a clean house.”

“‘I chose,’ Hespira said again, and Horreon believed her. So Hespira took leave of her mother and returned with him to the caves of the Sacred Mountain, and the vines of Hespira’s mother grew over Meridite’s temple. When Hespira left the mountain to visit her mother, as she did from time to time, the vines were dormant, but otherwise they grew and grew until the mortar was all picked to dust and the temple fell in on itself and nothing was left but a pile of stones covered in green leaves and red flowers.”

The first one is from my book, How to Have Peace When You’re Falling to Pieces, and the second is from The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner. Which one is “real art?” They both are. (Well, just humor me, okay? And yes, I did like Turner’s book.) They’re both entertaining, with unexpected twists and events and funny dialogue. Except that one is true, and one isn’t. That’s fine. Two different genres, two authors, and one goal–to engage the reader.

Have you ever read an incredible story with dynamic twists and unique characters, only to find out that it really happened? That it’s not just a product of a writer’s mind, manipulated by their hand and tweaked to fit a formula, but something that a flesh-and-blood person lived through? How would it be to not have contrived dialogue, with perfect timing, each character speaking in turn, but to have real, living people doing unpredictable things? Reading a person’s voice and personality woven into their story instead of a narrator’s distant retelling?

In my opinion, the best authors are those who can do both. They see the beauty in nonfiction AND fiction, and the line between the two can get pretty blurred. The best nonfiction reads like fiction, and the best fiction feels real, true, and fresh, as if it could have really happened. THAT is the point of writing, and that is the concept I wished I could have seen at that writing conference. Nonfiction isn’t outside of the art–it’s an extension of it. It’s the bridge between real life and imagination.

What are your thoughts? Please leave a comment below.

I Wrote a Book, and I Did It For Me

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I had a breakthrough last week. I realized that much of what I do is for other people. I’m not talking about service, exactly, but more like the old adage of the fallen tree in the forest. If no one was around to hear it, did it really happen?

Think about it. If you clean the house and no one notices, was it worth it? Why play a beautiful song on the piano if no one is around to hear it? Why put in volunteer hours at the school if they don’t count for something? Weed a backyard that no one else sees? Vacuum a car no one else drives? Get an A in a class that won’t count toward a degree anyway? It all comes down to one question.

Did you do it for yourself, or for them?

My epiphany began when I started collecting all the book reviews of my newly published book, How to Have Peace When You’re Falling to Pieces. I’d pore over those precious words, memorize them, post the best words on Facebook, and retweet them. It was like an emotional massage for a first-time author who had waited a lifetime to hear her writerly praises sung.

But then a realization hit: what happens after the blog tour is done? What happens when my friends have finished the book and set it on the shelf? What happens when my publicist moves on to other, newer authors, and my Amazon rankings start to slide? Am I still glad that I wrote the book?

Did I write it for them, or for me? 

I was one of those geeky school-focused teenagers who had to ask a guy out on my first date (a girl’s choice dance), and only then because that’s what teenage girls do. They go on dates. So I made it happen.

Then college came, and I got a degree. Because that’s what girls do. I got married, had kids, and decorated my house–because that’s what women do. I quickly found that I wasn’t the crafty type, and I didn’t run marathons or throw elaborate parties. But there was one thing I loved, and it was writing. So I wrote a book. It was my answer to those Pinterest-worthy cooks and housecleaners and crafters, those moms who spent hours building PVC-tents and IKEA bookshelves for their kids. They were good at that stuff, and I wasn’t. So I stopped trying and switched to what I knew. 

Now that the experience is over and tapering off, it’s taken a little soul-searching to realize that I really did write “How to Have Peace” for me. If no one read it, or if the publisher hadn’t accepted it, I’d still have done it. A small part of me probably wanted to experience being an author, and another piece wanted to influence the lives of others in a cosmic and literary way. Maybe a deep, innermost piece wanted to feel like I was worth something as a person. But at the end of the day, I wrote a book, and I did it for me.

That realization is starting to change a few things in my life. I’ve struggled with weight issues since childhood. I have three sisters who can eat anything and never gain weight, and most of my friends are thin. I’ve finally admitted to myself that my half-hearted diet and exercising attempts were for them, not for me. I wanted their approval, and I wanted that body that magazines and TV shows say we should have, or we’re not worth much. With that mentality, of course I wasn’t going to lose weight! I had to decide to do it for me.

Whether I lost weight or not, whether the inches fell off or I worked myself into the ground for no reason, I had to make that decision. So last week, I made it. I signed up for a month-long strict diet program–and I did it for me. 

My next book is in the works, and even if it doesn’t see the light of day, I’ll always know that I did it for myself. That’s really the only reason to do something anyway.

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