Monday, January 7, 2019

Nonfiction Authors Dig Deep by Laurie Ann Thompson

I’ve always enjoyed reading nonfiction. Some of my favorite childhood memories are of lazy afternoons spent sprawled on the floor in front of my family’s set of encyclopedias, letting fate decide which random topic I would learn about next. Perhaps it seems only natural, then, that I would be drawn to writing nonfiction, too.
Photo courtesy of Ziko/Wikimedia Commons
But there was another, more shameful, reason for my choice. As a beginning writer, I thought writing nonfiction would be safer. I knew that writing good fiction requires the author to be vulnerable, to bare a part of the soul. To share our imaginations with readers, after all, invites them to take a peek at the inner workings of our minds—and allows them to judge us for it! Terrifying, right?

I was, at least initially, not nearly so bold. I thought nonfiction would be the easy way out. After all, nonfiction is just facts, right? Boy, did I have a lot to learn!

For years, I worked on draft after draft of the manuscript that eventually became Emmanuel’s Dream, a true story about an inspiring man from Ghana who was born with a deformed leg. I’d done all the research and written a competent biography, but I kept getting feedback that there was just “something missing.”

At one point, my well-meaning and incredibly supportive husband said something along the lines of, “Why are you [an able-bodied white woman from Wisconsin] writing this story anyway? Maybe it’s time to move on to something you know more about.” I had to wonder if maybe he was right. What did I have in common with Emmanuel? Why was I writing this story in the first place?

It turns out these were just the questions I needed to ask to come up with an approach that finally worked. You see, I’d had all the facts lined up in a satisfying order, but what was missing was… me.
I’d been so focused on writing the facts that I’d carefully removed all of my own feelings about it. But isn’t authentic human emotion just another kind of truth? And isn’t it, perhaps, the most important kind of truth we can share with one another?
When I finally sat down and got clear about my “why” for telling that story, the “how” to best tell it revealed itself almost immediately. For me, it isn’t really a story about having a disability or even Emmanuel himself. It’s about being left out and overlooked, feeling frustrated by injustice and inequality, and wanting to make the world a better place.
Those are all things I felt deeply as a child, and things I can still relate to as an adult. The book reveals as much about me, I think, as it does about Emmanuel. So much for being the easy way out!
Since then, I’ve grown much more comfortable sharing myself with readers, and I use the same approach for every book I write. Curiosity about a subject isn’t enough: I need to know why I’m curious about it.

In my teen how-to guide, Be a Changemaker: How to Start Something that Matters, for example, my “why” was the intense yearning to change the world that I had felt as a young person and the frustration and disappointment of not knowing how to begin. That “why” helped me shape both the structure and content of the book.

In my middle-grade series, Two Truths and a Lie (co-authored with Ammi-Joan Paquette), my “why” is the pleasant memory of exploring encyclopedias and discovering new and surprising things. I want readers to revel in their curiosity and delight in newfound knowledge, just like me.

These days, the first question I ask myself when considering a new project is, “Why?” The answers help me choose which ideas to pursue and then guide me through the entire process from initial research to publication and beyond.

Writing books like this allows readers to get a glimpse of who I really am while also learning about the topic at hand. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to realize that revealing myself to readers in this way, while daunting, is actually one of the most rewarding aspects of being an author.

My favorite fan letters say things like: “It was the first time I ever saw myself in a book,” and “Thank you for showing me it’s okay to be like this,” and “It feels like you wrote this just for me!”

What could possibly be better than that?

When I began my writing career I had never dreamed a nonfiction author could connect with readers in this way. But don’t we all write—and read, for that matter—to connect with someone else? I believe we do, which means that the best books have to do just that: allow for connection. But connection requires authenticity and vulnerability. So all authors, whether of fiction or nonfiction, owe it to our readers to dig deep… terrifying or not.

Laurie Ann Thompson writes for young people to help them understand the world we live in so they can make it a better place for all, as seen in her award-winning nonfiction books including Emmanuel’s Dream, a picture book biography of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah, which was the recipient of the Schneider Family Book Award and was named an ALA Notable Book and a CCBC Choice, among other accolades. She lives near Seattle with her family and their elderly pets. Learn more at lauriethompson.com or @lauriethompson.

2 comments:

  1. I love your Changemaker book. Ty for the advice re: the why and how long it took Emmanuel's Dream to become a reality. I have a PB bio that is giving me fits and has for 4 years. Maybe go back again and break down the "whys."

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