Saturday, June 29, 2013

Novelist Barbara Chepaitis talks nonfiction for fiction writers

We're delighted to host friend and colleague Barbara Chepaitis as our guest blogger this month. Barbara writes mostly SF, including her wonderful supernatural/SF FEAR series about empath Jaguar Addams.

But one of her more recent projects was real and personal -- helping save and return a war-wounded eagle from the deserts of Afghanistan -- and the book chronicling that experience is Saving Eagle Mitch.

Here's a bit more on Barbara:
She has ten published books, eight in fiction and two in nonfiction, including Saving Eagle Mitch (SUNY 2013), The Green Memory of Fear (Wildside Press 2011), Feathers of Hope (SUNY, 2010), A Lunatic Fear (Wildside Press 2004), Something Unpredictable (Simon & Schuster 2003), These Dreams (Simon & Schuster, 2002), Learning Fear (Ace 2000), Feeding Christine (Bantam 2000), Fear of God (Ave 1999), and Fear Principle (Ace 1998). She was a finalist in the 2003 Sundance screenwriters contest and has written four other screenplays. She has numerous shorter works collected in a variety of anthologies, and she also has experience in radio drama, voice-over work, and editing.

But let's hear what Barbara has to say about ...

REALITY TRIPPING:  How to Write Nonfiction for Fiction Writers

    I’ll admit it.  I have a vexed relationship with reality.  In my experience, it refuses to obey an inherently logical narrative arc, while it tosses its participants into a constant wrangle between structure and imagination. 
     Okay, I’m not just talking about dealing with reality as a person, which is tough enough.  I’m talking about dealing with it as a writer. I started my career in fiction, and have had a lifelong love affair with that craft.  Then, a few years ago, I was asked to write a nonfiction book, about a bird sanctuary in my area.  
      Of course, I took the gig.  I’m a writer.  I take on challenges, particularly paying ones.  I stretch and grow, and shop for shoes.  Besides, I love the sanctuary, Berkshire Bird Paradise, and Pete Dubacher, who runs it, is remarkable, so the subject appealed.  Hence, I signed on to write Feathers of Hope.        
      One aspect of writing nonfiction is deceptively simple. You research your topic.  I spent time at the bird sanctuary, followed Pete around, interviewed him and his family, and visitors and experts, gathering all the information I could. But you also need a narrative motion, and a voice to shape your story.      
    Deciding on narrative arc involved a lot of staring off into space and asking myself why I ever thought this was a good idea, until I remembered that nonfiction is a journey of discovery.  So what was I trying to discover?  What central questions did I want to ask and perhaps answer?  For me, it was clear:  Why would someone spend their life caring for a thousand birds?  And how in the name of all that’s strange would they support that dream?  Corollary questions occurred:  As humans, how do we relate to birds?  What do they mean to us, imaginatively and emotionally and physically?  Once I had my questions, the story arc was about finding answers. 
      My fiction skills helped me in that, because questions are also at the heart of fiction.  What will a given character logically do if, for instance, they’re stuck overnight in a grocery store and the apocalypse begins? Both fiction and nonfiction writers are all about What If, and What For, and How and Why, but nonfiction is both less and more personal. It’s less personal in that you gather material from outside yourself rather than from within your archetypal imaginative stew.  It’s more personal because you have to discover your own voice, rather than the voice of the characters.
      In fiction, the feeling tone, the dialogue, the cadence of the prose, all grows from the characters and their world.  In nonfiction, I have to write with my own voice, discover my own feeling tone. I think that’s what makes my narrative nonfiction students feel exposed.  It’s what makes me feel exposed.  I’m writing from my throat, not the throats of my characters. 
      Believe me, as I worked my way into a comfort zone with that, I hit the delete key a lot.  And a lot more.  And then again. Fortunately, I have a background as a storyteller as well, and ultimately that voice was my primary writing friend.  Nonfiction writers have to get comfy with their heard voices, which is why I make my students read out aloud, talk about their story, and howl.  Don’t all writers howl?    
       Writing my first nonfiction book wasn’t an experience I sought, but I’m glad I had it.  In fact, it led to In fact, it led to one of the most startling and unexpected ventures I’ve ever had: saving an Eagle named Mitch who was shot in the war in Afghanistan.  Yes. Really.
    When the book came out, Pete Dubacher got an email from a Navy SEAL and former Army Ranger stationed in Afghanistan, asking if he’d help them bring a war wounded eagle they’d rescued to the US.  Because Pete’s very busy with his thousand birds, I took on the task. After six months of battling the kind of astonishing obstacles and amazing weirdness only reality can throw at you, I had another nonfiction book to write:  Saving Eagle Mitch: One Good Deed in a Wicked World. That book came out this May, and has gotten a four star review from San Francisco City Book Reviews. 
      Writing nonfiction hasn’t improved my relationship with reality much, and I still run back to my fiction with great joy and relief, but I highly recommend the nonfiction experience.  It asks you to dig in, to discover, to give voice, in a way that will only feed you.  Will I write more?  You bet.  And if you haven’t tried it, you should.  As Dr. Seuss said, these things are fun, and fun is good.

+ + +

Barbara Chepaitis is faculty director for the popular genre fiction component of Western State Colorado University’s MFA in Creative Writing. 

You can find her nonfiction works on Amazon or at SUNY Press, and her Jaguar Addams series of fiction at wildside books. 

Some LINKS to find out more about Barbara and her writing:  

Thanks, Barbara, for letting us feature your marvelous words and projects this month!