7 Lessons In Creative Non-fiction from Gay Talese

Some lessons in creating literary-quality non-fiction from a master.  Gay Talese was a journalist whose “innovation was to apply techniques from the craft of fiction to his newspaper and magazine stories, giving them the shape and life of short stories—a style, later referred to as New Journalism, which he originated in his days as a New York Times reporter in the fifties.”

Inspired by the Paris Review’s illuminating interview with Gay Talese, here.

  1. Research deeply: Talese’s innovation was to apply literary techniques to non-fiction. To accomplish this, he had to do unconventional things, like spend days interviewing people in their environment; immerse himself in the world he was trying to describe; spend months finding people who were interesting characters, had interesting stories, and were willing to have their real name used. “In order to get to know these people, and to get in their heads, I felt that I had to be there. More than that, I had to be there in such a way that I didn’t seem different from them. I couldn’t be seen as a journalist…The point is that they had to trust me and I had to trust them. I couldn’t have done it any other way.”
  2. Be curious about other people: “All I have is intense curiosity. I have a great deal of interest in other people and, just as importantly, I have the patience to be around them…I was just interested, endlessly interested, foolishly, unadulteratedly, with unparalleled vigor, interested in all I could do to extend my range, to extend the boundaries of my own particular experience.”
  3. Finds the interesting angle: Talese looks for the stories behind the news and the interesting unnoticed perspective. “Once, at an NYU baseball game, I overheard a conversation between a young couple who were having a lovers’ quarrel. I wrote the dialogue and I told the story of the game through what they were watching and what they were saying. At the St. Patrick’s Day parade, I wrote about the last person in the procession, a little guy who was carrying a tuba, and behind him came the sanitation trucks. I followed the parade from the vantage point of this tuba player.”
  4. Get inside people’s heads: He consistently asks people what they were thinking at the time so he has a non-fiction account of their interior monologue. “When we speak in person I ask him not just what everyone said, but what he was thinking. I always ask people what was on their mind.”
  5. Note your observations daily: At the end of each day of typing up his notes, Talese will type up how he was feeling that day, how he responded to what happened. “[I always record] my personal observations, what I myself was thinking and feeling during the day when I was meeting people and seeing things and making notes on shirt boards. When I’m typing at night, on ordinary pieces of typing paper, I’m not only dealing with my daily research, but also with what I’ve seen and felt that day. What I’m doing as a researching writer is always mixed up with what I’m feeling while doing it, and I keep a record of this. I’m always part of the assignment.”
  6. Let the form fit the story: Gay Talese moved from newspapers to magazines to books in an effort to find the best format for the stories he wanted to tell. “I could not contain myself within the twelve-hundred-word limit of daily journalism. Wherever I was, I thought that there were stories that other people weren’t telling…Other reporters didn’t even see the story, they just saw their job. Yet because it was a daily newspaper I was always being pulled away from these stories. I couldn’t do them at any real depth. That was really why I couldn’t do the job anymore.”
  7. Do the work that other people aren’t willing or able to do: His work is daunting. The time it takes to this quality of reporting is intimidating. And as such there is value in that. He adds value by doing something that no-one else can do, mostly because they don’t have the personality for it. “Original research is difficult and time-consuming…Most of what I gather for my work doesn’t wind up in a book, but I don’t think one can do too much research. All my research is important because it gives me a foundation and a sense of proportion for my subject…In order to get to know these people, and to get in their heads, I felt that I had to be there. More than that, I had to be there in such a way that I didn’t seem different from them. I couldn’t be seen as a journalist…The point is that they had to trust me and I had to trust them. I couldn’t have done it any other way.”
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