Sunday, July 26, 2009

Tell Me A True Story

Books Discussed In This Essay
The Norton Reader (Twelfth Edition)
The Guide To The Norton Reader
Black Hawk Down
by Mark Bowden

“The imagination, values, and convictions of a writer play a big part in even the most accurate nonfiction, of course. Telling a true story well demands that the reporter achieve his own understanding of the events and people described, and arriving at that point can mean shading reality, even if only unconsciously. We view the world from where we sit.”
Mark Bowden
The Atlantic (Jan-Feb. 2008)

We need to teach more nonfiction in high school; as much as a full year should be devoted to reading essays, biographies, memoirs, reviews, critical analysis, and personal experience.

I can hear the screams from people who say that we are mired in a cult of narcissism. That the recent obsession in American letters with memoir and personal stories is really all about our own self-absorbed navel-gazing. It cannot be considered real literature. Do we need more stories about kicking drug addiction, defeating alcoholism, and surviving bad parents?

Fiction has its place; it is an art form that will always be part of the human story. There have been compelling novels written in the last ten years, and I believe these works should be read and taught in the classroom. However, for far too long, nonfiction has been relegated to the sidelines in the English curriculum.

I devote about sixty percent of my eleventh grade Advanced Placement Language and Composition course to nonfiction. Luckily, my school allows for ninety minutes of English instruction in eleventh grade, so I can schedule both novels and nonfiction readings. We use The Norton Reader (Twelfth Edition) in the class, an excellent book offering a wealth of essays, articles, op-ed pieces, and other types of nonfiction writing.

Nonfiction today utilizes many of the same techniques as fiction to tell a story, so teaching analytical and critical thinking skills using the standard literary devices works both with fiction and nonfiction. Essays incorporate plot, character, theme, symbol and other devices into telling the true story. This is quite a feat, when one realizes that the journalist does not control many aspects of the story like a novelist does.

“Every reporter knows the sensation of having a story ‘ruined’ by some new and surprising piece of information,” Mark Bowden writes in the January-February 2008 edition of The Atlantic. “Just when you think you have the thing figured out, you learn something that shatters your carefully wrought vision.” Bowden knows what he is talking about; his book on the U.S. war in Somalia, Black Hawk Down, is one of the most gripping nonfiction novels of the last twenty years. He goes on to say that “The Essential difference between writing nonfiction and writing fiction is that the artist owns his vision, while the journalist can never really claim one, or at least not a complete one—because the real world is infinitely complex and ever changing.”

Students need to read fiction, but nonfiction work, whether business communication, reports, documents, articles, essays, or other work, will be the balance of what they will need to read and understand in the real world. The reading and study of fiction and poetry does serve to sharpen skills of analysis, but nonfiction deserves an equal share of the time in the English classroom.

Students will also be forced to validate sources of information. Many of my kids stop with Wikipedia, the online, user-written conglomerate of information. I teach them that Wikipedia is only the beginning. They need to go to other sources, and assess the reliability of such sources to validate the information they seek. There is so much data out there posted on the Internet without any kind of filter or editorial oversight. To just take everything without consideration is a recipe for disaster.

Therefore, the same analytical and critical reading skills that are applied to fiction and poetry can and should be brought to bear on nonfiction literature. The AP Language and Composition course description from the College Board asks teachers to utilize non-standard writing like letters, cartoons, product directions, analysis, and corporate reports. Nonfiction is a necessity in the course, but I would broaden that out to regular English courses as well. Students need experience with nonfiction writing in equal measure with fiction and poetry.

Arguably, the greatest story is our story. Yes, this may be a narcissistic, but it is also a profoundly humanist view. Fiction is the story of people, of human beings, and therefore does it not suffice? Not entirely, because fiction, although composed of realistically drawn characters who must correspond to human beings in the real world, contains characters who are fabricated and not real. They are simulations of reality. I not only want to know how someone imagines another’s life; I want to know the truth about how others live.

The Norton Reader is an excellent text for teaching nonfiction work. I use the longer twelfth edition, however there is a shorter version that could be used as a supplement with the standard fiction and poetry covered in English class. The longer version includes a wealth and diversity of writers in categories based on the kinds of nonfiction writing. The book begins with “Personal Report,” the editors’ term for the personal experience essay. This section also includes journal writing. Well-known writers like Joan Didion and E.B. White are grouped with newer writers like the late David Foster Wallace and Nancy Mairs.

The subjects that each writer addresses also stretch the boundaries of the standard personal essay. I particularly enjoy Lars Eighner’s essay on dumpster diving, where he explains how he lives by raiding trash bins outside of convenience stores and supermarkets.

The book categorizes sections on people and places, human nature, cultural critique, education, language and communication, nature and environment, ethics, history, politics and government, science and technology, literature, the arts, and media, and philosophy and religion. Selected authors include Henry David Thoreau, Langston Hughes, Virginia Woolf, Stephen Jay Gould, Neil Postman, Aaron Copland, Susan Sontag, Martin Luther King Jr., Isaac Asimov, Hannah Arendt, Barbara Tuchman, Rachel Carson, Jessica Mitford, and Walt Whitman, to name just a random sampling. Each piece includes two or three questions as well as notes and information about each selection. An author’s biography is included at the end of the book.

Nonfiction needs equal time in the classroom with poetry, drama and fiction. If we expect our students to take an active role in their world, they must be informed. Should the role of fiction or poetry be diminished to make room for nonfiction? A creative way of teaching all the genres of literature must be found.

Writing is art and craft, and to tell a true story well takes just as much skill as writing a novel or play. The truth wins out over the art, and the writer must work with the material she is given, shaping the scale and balance to make the story riveting and effective.

It is time to see nonfiction, the story of our lives, as work worth reading and equal to the classic novels, poetry and drama we already teach. Nonfiction writing is literature, and will make for interesting reading and discussion in the English classroom.


  1. Hey Mr. Martin, it's Elda. I don't know if you've ever heard of it, but there is this really amazing nonfiction book I just read titled Dibs in Search of Self by Virginia Mae Axline. You should check it out.

  2. Hello Elda, and congratulations on your AP score.

    I have not heard of this book and I will check it out.

    Take care,
    Mr. Martin


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