Assay@NFN15: “Crafting True: The Complementary Worlds of Narrative Journalism and The Essay”

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  • A bullet point summary by Angele’ Anderfuren @AngeleOutWest


  • Megan Kimble @MeganKimble
  • Lisa O’Neill @LisaMOneill_
  • Katherine E. Standefer @girlmakesfire
  • Hattie Fletcher of @cnfonline


  • The intersection of journalism and creative nonfiction.
  • The differences in reporting a story and telling a story.
  • The telling of our truths, of a truth, of another’s truths.
  • Objectivity and perspective.

Defining the topic:

Journalism is…

  • Reported material
  • A story based on verifiable facts
  • Not usually first person, but could be in some instances
  • The destination

Creative Nonfiction/Essay is…

  • Stories with less of a formal structure
  • Often first person in the story
  • The experience of discovering truth
  • Story out of what’s really happening
  • Using the devices of fiction to tell a true story


How journalism can help or hinder the form:

Katherine, comes from a fiction and poetry writing background before being a journalist:

  • Journalism helped me limit my scope and make sure the right stakeholders are involved in the conversation
  • Projects start personal and grow outwards
  • I became a better nonfiction writer by examining how other peoples’ stories related to my story
  • Asks, how do I bring a reader into the sensory world, how do I making meaning associatively?
  • One thing journalism has to offer is clarity of purpose in the story

Lisa, was a general assignments reporter for small newspaper in Louisiana, then did PR for a nonprofit:

  • I came to writing as a way to make sense of the world
  • I wanted to be a journalist because I saw journalism as a way to create change
  • I loved the diversity of the job
  • I found myself frustrated because I had opinions about things and felt that objectivity in journalism was limited and not entirely true
  • I was aware how I was shaping stories by who I was putting first
  • One thing I think about is: How much I need to be in the piece?
  • What do I have to offer as a narrator versus a witness?
  • It is really important to me to include other people’s voices

Hattie, Managing Editor for Creative Nonfiction magazine:

  • We don’t always talk about the history of creative nonfiction
  • There are two strands to the history:
    • St Augustan and Montaigne
    • An evolutionary strand from journalism and new journalism
  • Journalism was assumed to be authoritative knowledgeable, objective, just-the-facts writing
  • But a lot of writers came to say that is crap
  • There’s been a steady infusion of first person journalism, not the front page but in the features
  • CNF the magazine comes more out of that second thread, the new journalism thing
  • We have a preference for information-based narrative.
  • But we try to provide spaces to accommodate more of the genre.
  • We do more fact checking than most; we draw the line on calling people’s family members.
  • There’s enough of a debate in CNF already, so you must verify what’s verifiable. If you don’t, that undermines the credibility of the story that is being told.

Differences in craft…


  • First real job out of school was as an assistant for the LA Times. Was told, if your sentence doesn’t contain a paragraph’s worth of information, it is not a good sentence.


  • Creative Nonfiction magazine and the Atlantic article – a comparison

·      Recently Joe Fassler had his essay “Wait Times” published in CNF (4500 word version) and a shorter (2500 word version) published in The Atlantic with the title “How Doctors Take Women’s Pain Less Seriously: When my wife was struck by mysterious, debilitating symptoms, our trip to the ER revealed the sexism inherent in emergency treatment.”

  • The CNF version of the story has some reflection, about the medical system, what it is like to see someone you love in pain
  • The Atlantic had a better title, more grab-able and sharable, tons of comments
  • Fundamentally the same story
  • Joe preferred the longer version with the space to reflect, artistic space
  • “A lot of the nuance of the story got lost”
  • “It is a completely different reading experience.”
  • Internet journalism, it’s kind of about fanning the flames.
  • You’re not expecting to be surprised

Ethical obligation as journalists/writers of CNF…


  • Similar to the way a reader is going to show up differently, I show up differently depending on the piece that I am working on
  • I am sort of a character along the way but I don’t know what way I will appear in the story, how much will get cut out


  • Relationships are the priority in my writing
  • My time in public relations is really helpful
  • Some journalists would come in with no sense of the complexities of a person’s stories
  • I come out of that with a need to feel authentic and recognize the power dynamic at play
  • I consider when I bring in a voice recorder and when I don’t, putting in time with people
  • Who I am is really clear in the persona

What about the I…


  • Absence vs presence of the narrator changes the piece
  • I always have to ask, is this person necessary here?
  • The “I” can help guide readers and show them how to get there


  • Information rich writing also needs to be personal
  • The reporter needs to be present in some way
  • I don’t want the solution to be “put yourself in it,” but that is often what we need to answer, why you are writing this story.
  • A personal investment has to be shown in the narrative.


  • What is the lynch pin of the story?
  • Does something in my life or experience illuminate something in the story?
  • Can it bring something to the reader?
  • Will it be about me in a way that is distracting from the story?
  • Will it compromise what the story is truly about?


  • Book rec: Katherine Boo – Behind the Beautiful Forevers
  • The final section of the book is on her research
  • She interviewed the same people multiple times to check out the story, interviewing other witnesses
  • She didn’t need her presence in the story to be credible
  • Including myself becomes this tool, it is credibility from recognizing the reporting of the reporting
  • What are ways in which I have to acknowledge my privilege and my understanding of the place or lack of understanding


  • Filtering the information that is the truthiness journalism through personal experience
  • What can any one person do with big issues?
  • Who am I to write this?
  • The I can be an accessible way into a daunting, big topic
  • Bringing readers along on that journey with you

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