Esmeralda Fisher is director of communications at University of Houston Libraries. She is writing her first novel.
Taking oneself out of one’s everyday environs to focus on writing can be edifying, clarifying. For those married to the routine of the office workday, it can be especially gratifying when the foreign locale is Alpine, Texas.
This past July, I traveled to the storied town in the Chihuahuan Desert for the 2015 Summer Writing Retreat hosted by the Writers’ League of Texas, a week of workshop tracks focused on memoir, fiction, poetry, editing, and, in my case, nonfiction narrative. Having never attended a writing retreat, I had no expectations other than to get away from the routine of daily life that can impede creative flow.
At Sul Ross State University, surrounded by open sky, mountains adorned with chaparral, and swirling imaginations, we dove deep into long-form nonfiction with the affable yet shrewd musician-writer Michael Hall of Texas Monthly. Hall covered all the facets of capturing true stories, with emphasis on thematic structure, finding the nut ‘graph (the nutshell of the story), and how to gain the trust and respect of sources on difficult topics.
In many exceptional pieces of nonfiction writing, the writer is a part of the narrative. In this type of participant observation, writers must be willing to try new things, as Hall did when immersing himself into the world of Houston rap for a story on DJ Screw. He worked his own exploratory experience with codeine into the story, which lent a personal, visceral layer to what could easily have been straight reportage. Hall also spoke of his visit to the site where Charles Moore, the subject of the 2014 story “Man on Fire,” had self-immolated, and where he, Hall, had come across a piece of the man’s burned clothing months later.
We studied John McPhee’s enigmatic “The Search for Marvin Gardens;” “The Last Day,” by Robin Marantz Henig, a story of one woman’s choice to end her life on her terms after a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease; and an eye-opener epic on Mister Rogers, “Can You Say…Hero?” by Tom Junod. In these and other brilliant stories, the barrier between writer and subject blurs, and the writer is thrust into the unknown domain of the subject, discovering a patchwork of insider ephemera that serve to color the story as no one else can do. As a stranger in the lives of others, the details are often unsettling and the process can be tricky to navigate, necessitating interpersonal fortitude, diligence, and a reverent curiosity. The writer must walk the line between objectivity and subjectivity, assuming the identity of a familiar face, but maintaining a professional’s perspective.
The goal is to leave apprehension and assumptions behind as a narrative nonfiction writer. The richness of the story rises exponentially with the writer’s ability to infiltrate the world about which they are reporting.