I slide into my seat at 9:10AM, avoiding the smiles of freshly scrubbed classmates. I’m late, per usual, and my brain moves like molasses.
Deep in talk of the Terry Sullivan drama, the instructor parses literary details from a synopsis in The Hook. He speaks with journalistic intensity, poking the chest of the classroom with adamant phrases: take a note, write that down, yes, and who can tell me…?
Someone passes me a handout. “Tom Wolfe’s New Journalism,” the teacher announces. “Did everyone read it?”
I recall the article’s gist as I scan it. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, a wave of journalists abandoned the traditional newspaper ‘voice’ for something distinctly…literary. “[I did] anything,” Wolfe wrote of the time, “to avoid coming on like the usual non-fiction narrator, with a hush in my voice, like a radio announcer at a tennis match.” At the New York Herald Tribune, Wolfe massaged the truth to produce stories that read like art.
“What elements are at play here?” The instructor adjusts his Lemtosh frames and taps his sheet with a pencil. “What components identify this as creative non-fiction?”
I clutch my coffee. My classmates call out perfect answers: sharp details, real dialogue, well-cast characters. I stare at lopsided blinds in the window and turn over the concept of change in my mind.
* * *
When the cowboys of New Journalism explored taboo frontiers, they launched a stylistic gold rush. Creative non-fiction infiltrated the popular consciousness and became a laudable genre for novelists.
Forty years later, the landscape of journalism changed again. Blogging ushered the great democratization of storytelling, empowering anyone with fingers and an internet connection to publish themselves on the world wide web. As blogging became an increasingly viable form of journalism (largely due to readers’ consumption and click-throughs), countless articles were written that explain the “right way” to engage readers’ average 96 seconds of attention. As a marketer, I’ve read dozens of such articles and can boil the “rules” down like this:
- Make lists.
- Structure content so it can be scanned.
- Include pictures, especially of faces.
- Be pithy and brief.
- Use bullet points.
In other words, don’t write—build searchable content. As Darren Rowse of ProBlogger writes: “In the end you need to find your own way on this… I try to write at least one longer post per day that gives readers a bit of meat to chew on (whether it be a tips post, a review post, a rant etc) but I also throw in ‘newsy’ posts throughout the day.”
No doubt Rowse—and my shortlist of rules—speaks to bloggers who view themselves as reporters, crafting short, informative articles on subjects within a certain field. But I can’t help but wonder what Tom Wolfe would think. From my perspective, these rules encourage a writer to sound like nothing so much as “a radio announcer at a tennis match.”
Another type of blogging exists, however. Writers like Jenny Lawson and Heather Armstrong keep blogs that carry the New Journalism torch: a unique voice, keenly observed details, and emotional import. Most often, these are the bloggers that achieve literary book deals.
So every blogger, it appears, has a choice to make. Follow the standards of the internet newsroom and gain a content-oriented audience? Or strike out alone and attempt to build a readership with only your voice as a guide?
To me, it’s the question of tell versus show. At its most fundamental level, blogging, as a form of non-fiction, reflects how we see and process the world. Some people prefer easy answers, sensory handles on straightforward solutions. Others prefer more oblique lessons, to tread between metaphor and sweeping ideals and let the truth find itself in the art.
* * *
I take a sip of lukewarm coffee and blink my way back to the classroom. It’s eerily silent. No student voices. Everyone’s looking at me.
The teacher peers with half-moon eyes over the rim of his glasses. “Sorry,” I stutter. My butt has gone numb. “Can you repeat the question?”
At a corporate soiree three years ago, Elizabeth Derby won the “Many Hats” Award. She still has the beanie (with a propeller on top!) and wears it in moments of reflection. A marketing freelancer as well as a non-fiction writer, Elizabeth shares storytelling ideas, creative tools and a bit too much of her personal life on her website, Elizabeth Derby Productions.