There’s a responsibility as well as opportunity when you’re writing about real people. It’s not just about the subject, it’s about why you should care.
All facts are fascinating for a deeper reason than many of us realize. They are the result of someone asking why over and over until they are honestly satisfied with the answer or are able to dig no deeper.
For much of my life I found facts were interesting unto themselves until someone posed an important question to me:
It’s a question that never had occurred to me, because facts always had been enough. A cool piece of information that might not even technically count as trivia but answered a “why” seemed obviously worth sharing.
“So What” introduced me to a world where not everyone thought things were cool just because I did. It was a dare to prove that a “why” was as interesting, relevant or misunderstood as I thought it was. As a student and then as a reporter my recurring premise was that each individual has a significant effect on our culture, either by supporting it or changing it. There aren’t any regular people.
The answer changes every time, with every story. The distance between our beliefs and how closely we live up to them make up our culture.
Connecting with a character in nonfiction is the same as connecting with a fictional one: we see how their actions match up with their words. Add to that the premise that everyone thinks they have a good reason for what they do, and there’s no question about whether a life is dramatic, only whether we can say why it is.
In writing nonfiction, I look for themes with which I can connect real people to the story. When I first started writing, as I dug into a story and had to make choices about what to emphasize and what to leave out, it became clear that the choices all of us make about how to understand our culture is not part of a larger narrative that exists. We create it as we go.
There’s a part of me that’s terrified by this notion and the responsibility tied up in it, like when it suddenly occurs to you that you’re a grownup. What I discover and share about people, the meaning I assign to their words and deeds is in a weird way part of the culture change I think I’m documenting. It’s kooky.
There’s certainly more than a little arrogance wrapped up in it, as well as the self-importance I claim to find vile in everyone else, but I don’t really see how it could be otherwise.
The best I can hope to do is to go about it honestly, talking to people who are creating the culture, documenting their efforts and, to a lesser extent, reminding them that they’re not part of a bigger story, they are the bigger story.
It isn’t just cliche to say we’re part of an overarching narrative, it is incorrect. Sure, many of our stories intersect as we react to people, but our perspectives are stories unto themselves. That is my favorite “why,” because it’s also a “so what.”