Artistic decisions flow from our intuitions, and for an artist to question every decision she makes would quickly prove overwhelming. Once she has created a finished draft of her work, she can begin, perhaps with the help of fellow creators, to examine the tradeoffs she has made, perhaps without realizing it. To do so opens up possibilities for her next steps.
Sometimes, we become of these unconscious tradeoffs by encountering work by others who have made other choices.
For instance, I have my nonfiction students read Anna Deavere Smith’s Twilight: Los Angeles 1992. Smith is an actor and playwright. Two of her best-known works are one-woman shows in which she delivers character monologues based on interviews of people caught in civic traumas— Fires in the Mirror, which documents responses to the Crown Heights riot of 1991, and Twilight, which documents responses to the riots that followed the non-guilty verdict in the trial of the policemen whose beating of Rodney King was caught on videotape.
The book form of Twilight is an edited version of her stage show—all of it monologue. Other than a few basic details about each character and the setting and a few stage directions such as “pounds fist,” the pages are filled with the words of the various characters. This is a revelation to the students. As they first encounter Smith’s monologues, they might regard Smith’s book and its lack of narration as presenting an interesting alternative to the standard nonfiction approach.
Upon further reflection, however, they come to see that Twilight reveals some large assumptions they’ve made about their own writing. Narration and narrative description may characterize most nonfiction they've encountered, but now they see that they've been making an unconscious choice, one that comes with tradeoffs. Narration may allow the writer to communicate things that can’t come out of the mouths of her characters, but it comes at a price. Allowing the characters speak for themselves provides the reader with a more direct, unmediated connection with them.
The success of Smith’s rich portrait of LA testifies to what many nonfiction writers might be unconsciously trading away. Whether or not my students adopt the approach Smith developed for her striking theatrical work, they are now more likely to consider the tradeoffs made between narration and pure dialogue and all points between.
Thank you for reading.