They say language makes us human. That notion is being challenged as we discover that apes have language. Whales have language. I welcome them into our fold. I’m not threatened by them, quite frankly, because I think that stories make us human. Only by telling them do we stay so.
Stories are our prayers. Write and edit them with due reverence, even when the stories themselves are irreverent.
Stories are parables. Write and edit and tell yours with meaning, so each tale stands in for a larger message, each story a guidepost on our collective journey.
Stories are history. Write and edit and tell yours with accuracy and understanding and context and with unwavering devotion to the truth.
Stories are music. Write and edit and tell yours with pace and rhythm and flow. Throw in the dips and twirls that make them exciting, but stay true to the core beat. Readers hear stories with their inner ear.
Stories are our soul. Write and edit and tell yours with your whole selves. Tell them as if they are all that matters. It matters that you do it as if that’s all there is.
—Journalist Jacqui Banaszynski, in Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University. The book’s essays are derived from presentations given at Harvard’s Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism. Banaszynski’s original presentation can be found on Nieman Reports, though it differs a bit from the version in the book. And for those who don’t know her work, Banaszynski is the Knight Chair in Editing professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and a faculty fellow at the Poynter Institute. She won a Pulitzer in 1988 for “AIDS in the Heartland,” a landmark series that chronicled a rural gay couple facing AIDS in the St. Paul Pioneer Press Dispatch.
But back to this gem of a book. Editors Mark Kramer and Wendy Call distilled 600,000 transcribed words from years of conferences into a manuscript one-fifth that length: a “bouillon of experience and explanation,” as they describe it in the introduction. The resulting product is succinct and exquisite, a sourcebook and guide that somehow manages to be both gloriously practical and thoroughly elevated. It is as instructive on the nitty-gritty of interviewing as it is on the larger themes of what it means to be a writer. Perhaps the best analogy is Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, for the aspiring (or practicing!) nonfiction writer.