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Gutkind teaches science of nonfiction | The Triangle
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Gutkind teaches science of nonfiction

Photo Courtesy: Laura Taylor
Photo Courtesy: Laura Taylor

Author Lee Gutkind visited Drexel’s ExCITe Center Nov. 3 to share his work. The genre was called “Creative Nonfiction with Students and the Community.” The event was a workshop titled, “True Stories Well Told — About Science and Society,” and also hosted Philadelphia Fellows Gwen Ottinger, David Schleifer, Brian Kahn and Emily Fertig, who all spoke of their experiences in scientific fields and the translation of those experiences into writing, specifically using creative nonfiction. The event opened with an hour-long workshop presented by Gutkind.

Gutkind has been called the “Godfather of Creative Nonfiction” by Vanity Fair and is known widely for his talent in creative nonfiction, as well as for his mission to spread creative nonfiction to several highly interdisciplinary fields, such as science. He has been on “The Daily Show,” “Good Morning America” and BBC World News. He is founder and editor of “Creative Nonfiction,” a literary magazine which is the only existing publication to exclusively print creative nonfiction, and is also the author and editor of over 30 books.

Gutkind is also a leading contributor to the project “Think Write Publish,” funded partially by the National Science Foundation. Years after its small start in 2011, the project brought together 12 science policy scholars and 12 creative nonfiction writers out of an application pool of 225 people to collaborate and publish scientific research in a way that would be engaging to the common public.

This most recent project under “Think Write Publish” began in 2013 and took a year and a half, including two weeklong sessions. The first session paired creative writers with the science policy scholars while the second was a revision workshop at the end of the 18 month long research-and-writing period. Famous literary magazines such as The Atlantic, Harper’s and National Geographic sent editors to the workshop to help with this process.

Five of the nine successful essays produced from this collaboration were printed in the summer 2014 issue of “Creative Nonfiction.” The essays include such titles as “Collective Forgetting,” “What Fish Oil Pills Are Hiding” and “Little Cell, Big Science” to name a few. In a summary prior to the essays in the magazine, Gutkind wrote, “‘Think Write Publish’ is only the beginning of a new narrative — a way in which experts in different fields can learn from one another while making an impact on a large and diverse readership.”

When the presentation started, Gutkind opened with a fact: he hated English classes when he was a student. Despite this, though, he went on to describe how much he loves writing, especially creative nonfiction.

What is creative nonfiction? “Basically [it] is telling stories that matter: good stories, well told,” Gutkind said about the genre. Creative nonfiction aims to make narratives, or real stories about real people, and weave them into scientifically — or socially — relevant research projects. “Creative nonfiction is really a balancing act between style, which is story, and substance, which is what your readers want to know … [it] informs while keeping a reader interested and involved,” he explained.

Gutkind also informed the audience that creative nonfiction is now the fastest growing genre in the literary world. “Why is this happening,” he asked, following instantly with the reply, “Because the brain is wired for story.” People want to hear about why research and scientific information matters to them. This is the value behind creative nonfiction: it turns scientific breakthroughs into human breakthroughs. The narrative elements make it personal. Gutkind said that this is extremely important.

During the presentation he said, “Don’t think. Please don’t think. Don’t think about what’s the point you want to make. Here’s what we want to know first: Where is the story that leads to that point? Where’s the narrative? Where are the people?”

It’s all about pulling in the audience to the story and having them want to know more. This is the next big thing for the scientific world in the ways of communication; this is how to really make the general public want to learn more.

Gutkind then discussed the creative nonfiction writing process. He began by discussing the structure of a creative nonfiction piece. “The building blocks of creative nonfiction are scenes … little stories,” he said. He then showed a picture of a ladder-like story outline. The words “scene” and “information” were staggered back and forth down the graphic, and he explained that this should be the skeleton for any creative nonfiction piece. He went on to describe his method called the “Yellow Test.” Gutkind is a fan of taking a yellow marker and coloring in all of the “scenes” in creative nonfiction pieces — the parts where the story, the narrative, dominates. He explained to the audience: the more yellow, the better. In creative nonfiction, the scenes are what make the piece relevant to the audience and without them, the piece will be less successful.

Finally, Gutkind discussed one of the most important elements of creative nonfiction: keeping the audience engaged all the way to the end of the piece.

“You never ever ever tell your reader what they want to know … Once you tell them, they’re gone,” he emphasized. Here, Gutkind cited an example from Ernest Hemingway. When Hemingway first wrote “The Sun Also Rises,” he sent manuscripts of his final draft to several friends, also writers, asking for feedback. F. Scott Fitzgerald was the last to reply. He finally confessed to Hemingway that he was bored in the beginning of the book: Hemingway had given away too much background information on his characters too early. Hemingway then took his friend’s advice. The first chapter of the published book was actually the fifth in the original manuscript.

Here, Gutkind became adamant, explaining that “background always comes after you get people involved enough that they want to know [more].” Gutkind insisted that good creative nonfiction begins near the end, right before some critical, defining moment in the overarching story — but that the climax was still, torturously, saved for the end of the piece. This general idea was referred to Gutkind as the frame of a creative nonfiction piece.

At the end of the hour, Gutkind took questions from the audience. Here, some of the community members who had attended — mostly journalists or scientific researchers — spoke up and asked how to transform their journalistic pieces into creative nonfiction.

“Creative nonfiction writings can push traditional journalism limits … using all of the literary and creative writing tools to write very true stories,” Gutkind said. He added, in reference to interviewing and researching subjects for the purpose of writing creative nonfiction, not to be afraid to go deeper, “New writers are often too shy to ask the hard questions … but we people want to know the hard questions… Don’t regret asking the hard questions because the hard questions get to the real answers.”

Free copies of “Creative Nonfiction” are available at http://www.creativenonfiction.org/