3 Techniques Creative Nonfiction Borrows From Fiction

Photo by TKnoxB

Read Julian’s piece on Matador Network.

I’m just going to look at two sections of Julian’s piece, from his second draft. Here’s what’s happening in these sections, and what my comments focused on:

a) There is far too much stiff, “writerly” language. I think this stems at least in part from Julian’s history of academic writing, which is an entirely different genre that privileges technical, precise language over natural, sensual description. Descriptions feel technical, like stage directions, or part of an academic report. They are more about being 100% accurate in terms of the chain of events and the scenery than in creating a sensual feeling of place.

b) This is a hugely emotional point in the story – Julian’s arrived after all this time dreaming of this! – and yet there is no slowing down here to really savor that moment, to capture it in details and draw it out. Like fiction writers, creative nonfictionists need to be thinking about speed – what can be sped up, and what needs to be slowed down for impact and emphasis. Here, Julian rushes through key moments that should be significant for the reader, or summarizes them briefly.

c) The details! The details we get here don’t really advance the story, reveal its themes, or create a purposeful sense of place, vibe, identity, character. This is where the term “creative nonfiction” comes from – unlike other nonfiction, academic writing or strict journalism, creative nonfiction borrows from fiction, and one of the fiction writer’s techniques is to develop motifs, themes, ideas, and atmospheres through detail. That’s not yet happening here. Instead the details are purely functional; they don’t make sense of the experience, they just dutifully recreate it. They’re also dissonant: they don’t build to create a distinct sense of place.

From Julian’s second draft:

Frank, who was busy conversing with a short, plump taxi driver with shades instead of holding up the handmade sign with my name scribbled on it, served as, sort of, a long-lost brother. With dark brown skin like that of a coconut and a slim stature, he greeted me with an ocean-wide smile and a warm, brotherly embrace.

“Welcome to Africa, my brother,” he said, putting his hand on my shoulder and grabbing my hand as we began to walk. After adjusting to the practice of men holding hands, I thought to myself how Frank had no idea how welcome I felt.

The walk to our personal hire taxi, though only five minutes long, inspired perspiration as the intense Ugandan sun also wanted to extend to me its special greeting. After stowing my large backpack in the trunk, I brought my smaller bookbag with me and sat in the backseat.

As we drove toward the Mukono district, I was overcome with a sense of awe and joy. The yellow painted MTN buildings in Entebbe, which blended in with the dry orange land scorched by the sun, served as a canvas for the streaks of Ugandans walking to and fro. Our arrival to Kampala, Uganda’s cluttered capital city, was announced by the horns of a car quartet in front of us. The dark gray, fumes of the dozen or so motorcycles that zoomed within inches of my door, quickly crept into our Black Sedan. I rolled my window up, but I only got hotter. Plus, we were in a traffic jam worse than what I typically experienced in Los Angeles. It was not a good look.

The encroachment of Western culture revealed itself in the two suited and booted young men walking down the street, the tall commercial buildings next to which they walked, and the awkwardly located Shell gas station just opposite of them. The city infrastructure slowly vanished as we managed to make it out of Kampala. The rural foliage began. The jungle-turned-farmland on each side of the road boasted richly green banana trees that occasionally clashed with expanses of red-orange land on which stood various stands and stretches of small storefronts where vendors sold everything from peanuts to hammers.

After about an hour, the driver hung a right toward, and pulled up in front of, a brick, one-story house that looked large enough to contain at least two or three bedrooms. To the right of it was a much smaller, but similarly constructed structure. To the left I observed about a half acre of land with scattered banana trees, some with leaves that an ongoing drought left a limp, dry tan. Seeing Frank’s wife and two sons come out to greet me, I just took it all in. I was finally here. Over the next 10 weeks I hoped explore my “roots” and build lasting connections – or so I thought.

Section 2:

“Muzungu [American/ European]! How are you?” I heard blurted out about 10 meters off to the right. The bright midday sun made it difficult to make out the source of the utterance. Hearing running footsteps as my eyes adjusted, I slowly made out a grinning, shirtless boy. Almost immediately, three more children came in tow asking the same question. it had been three weeks before someone called me a muzungu to my face. It slightly infuriated me. How could these kids refer to me as a European? Wasn’t I more like him than any European they’ve ever seen?

Once the shock disappeared, I replied in the way children are used to hearing. “I am fine. How are you?” I then observed a matatu speeding down the road, honking its horn to get attention. The hand of the money collector, pointing straight out of the window, indicated that this was the one I wanted to take.

Only twenty minutes later, my peculiarity revealed itself yet again as I called my friend to tell him that I was on my way to Kampala.

“Yo, what’s good? I’m chillin.’ I’m mad on my way. I’ll see you in like….four-five. Fa sho. Word. One.”

As I ended the call, my hunch that I had indirectly invited curious stares was confirmed as I looked around the matatu. Once the hour-long trip ended, I scurried off to Oasis Mall, a.k.a. Moneyville, to meet up with my friends at a rather upscale cafe-restaurant, which was a ten-minute walk from Jinja road.

The final version:

Though half-dazed from the brightness of the sun and half-exhausted by the fourteen-hour trip from Chicago, I managed to find Frank. He stood just outside the terminal doors, busy conversing with a plump taxi driver with shades instead of holding up the sign with my name scribbled on it.

It was like meeting a long-lost brother. Tall, dark and thin, he greeted me with a smile and an embrace.

“Welcome to Africa, my brother,” he declared. I was being welcomed back home…for the first time.

Soon after piling into the black taxi, we were winding towards Kampala along the coast of Lake Victoria. A bicyclist rested on a palm tree as a light breeze passed over the lake into my window. Tall buildings began to appear, and with them a street sign saying “Kampala 09” that, like many light posts, bus stops, and trees, was covered in posters with pictures of politicians and the word “LONDA” in bold letters. Yellow buildings with an MTN logo blended with dry sun-scorched land and served as a canvas for streaks of Ugandans walking to and fro. Western influences were everywhere: two young men walking rapidly in conservative black suits; a Crane Bank building that took up almost an entire block; a Shell gas station filled to capacity with vans, cars, and motorcycles.

Passing a roundabout with a large clock tower in the middle, the city infrastructure slowly began to shift to rural landscapes. In the jungle-turned-farmland that lined both sides of the road, clusters of banana trees were scattered around one-story brick homes. Occasionally a town would pop up with stands and storefronts that sold everything from chickens to dresses.

We finally pulled in front of a house that looked just large enough to contain two bedrooms. Frank’s wife, Christine, and their two sons walked out of the house to welcome me.

I took it all in – the towering tree draped in green mangos, the sweet smell of hair grease as Christine hugged me, the gentle wind that dried pockets of sweat on my forehead, the laughing of kids playing games outside the neighbor’s home. I was finally here.

Section 2:

“Muzungu! How are you?”

I turned to see a grinning, shirtless boy whose head reached my waist. Almost immediately, three more children ran up asking the same. It was the first time anyone had called me a muzungu. I had heard it used to refer to whites and even my Taiwanese friend, but never anyone Black.

That these children called me muzungu initially upset me. How could these kids refer to me as a European? Wasn’t I more like them than any European they’ve ever seen? I took it as if they were trying to…disown me. You’re not one of us, you’re one of them. What perplexed me more than these initial feelings was that I was uncertain as to if they were right or not.

Putting my feelings aside, I generically replied, “I’m fine. How are you?”

Half-listening to their responses, I saw a matatu speeding down the road, honking to get attention. The conductor was sticking his hand out the window up into the air – the Gayaza route. I flagged the van down and the conductor hopped out and asked me where I was going.

In Luganda I asked him how much he charged to go to Nakumatt.

“3,000 shillings.” (About $1.25).

I gasped and murmured, “2,500.”

The conductor paused for a moment, looking at the ground and scratching his head, before replying, “Okay, we go.”

Feeling a little guilty for negotiating, I squeezed my way into the vehicle. I sat among fifteen others, cramped with four in my row, and called my friend to tell him that I was on my way.

“Yo, what’s good? I’m chillin’. I’m mad on my way. I’ll see you in like four-five. Fa sho. Word. Yuh.”

As I ended the call, I looked around. Great. Four sets of eyes were on me – each pair screaming “Muzungu!”

Once the hour-long trip ended, I anxiously scurried along Jinja road to Oasis Mall, which I’ve dubbed Moneyville, to meet up with my friends at an upscale cafe. A security guard, in a red and black SECURITAS uniform, checked my bag and patted me down before I could even get into the parking lot.

About Sarah Menkedick

Sarah Menkedick is an MFA student and undergraduate writing instructor at the University of Pittsburgh, and the editor-in-chief of Glimpse.org.
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One Response to 3 Techniques Creative Nonfiction Borrows From Fiction

  1. Pingback: Forcing Drama on a Story | Glimpse

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