Rebecca Skloot on writing creative non-fiction

By Grant Jacobs 09/11/2011

Rebecca Skloot is author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, who this morning presented a twitter interview/presentation on creative non-fiction writing and her book, hosted by Misha Angrist (@MishaAngrist), author of Here is a Human Being (subtitled At the Dawn of Personal Genomics) who blogs at GenomeBoy.

Immortal-life-cover-USABelow I have tried to organise the live discussion into something that I hope is useful to others. This material was gathered and written on-the-fly; the bulk of the material is ‘as delivered’.

As I’ve done previously, the bits in square brackets are my own thoughts added at the time.

The material below is roughly grouped to follow themes with the content of each section in chronological order.

I have run-together some tweets that were multi-part to make this more readable.

Usual disclaimer: any errors introduced are my own!

There is also a ‘chirpified’ version of the twitter chat, thanks to Ruth Seeley (@ruthseeley); this has more content, but then I hope my presentation groups the material in a way that is useful to readers.

The chat opened Misha Angrist pointing at an FAQ on Skloot’s work:

MishaAngrist: @rebeccaskloot FAQ:

Skloot opened by discussing the overall structure of the book, recommending writers read other books to get ideas for overall structure:

RebeccaSkloot: @MishaAngrist I’m big on structure as most essential tool 4 writers, esp nonfiction, so I’d been thinking structure from start

GenomeScience: RT @MishaAngrist: Video on structure of #HeLa #creativenf via @davidcullen

MishaAngrist: RT @JonathanMenon: How wd process’ve changed if youd written abt someone who died 50 yrs earlier? (ino witnesses 2 interview)

RebeccaSkloot: @MishaAngrist same as in book (Life, Death, Immortality) but chapter outline totally different in final book from proposal

On details needed to flesh out story, e.g. ’This is the biggest hurdle facing writers of historic narrative nonfiction: the quality of the stories we can tell depends entirely on the details other people think to save years before we come along.’ (Source in first tweet below.)

RebeccaSkloot: “Librarians: The Secret to Narrative History”

RebeccaSkloot: more I’d share=my unbelievable joy & relief w each librarian I found who actually took the time 2 save those details

RebeccaSkloot: many understandably can’t imagine why some1 someday might b interested in color of a person’s shoes, the food they ate

RebeccaSkloot: but those are the details that help bring creatie nonfiction (& history) to life. They’re essential


RebeccaSkloot: about the narrative details being historic documentation…obviously I relied on many sources 4 many things all quotes, character details, etc have multiple sources of documentation–tru for everything possible in book.

RebeccaSkloot: For something like shoe color, I even worked 2 verify that kind of detail w/photos which, often thankfully available

RebeccaSkloot: I threw shoe color detail out earlier as an off cuff example-the stuff I was talking abt librarians documenting was of the moment history. They would write down the stories of things happening @ time: bear got out from circus fire tore through town and destroyed things, so-and-so had the first car, whatever. Much of that was then verifiable through other sources-what reporters need r those nuggets w/names dates details 2 begin trail to find the full story

Here-is-a-human-being-cover-usa-250pxSome recommendations of books to look at for structure (there were more, but I’ve time right now to track back to them; readers: let me know if you would like this):

Long for this World by Jonathan Weiner

Progidal Summer

Skloot used index cards to organise the structure of her book. Other options include scrivener:

DaveCullen: Nice. I used colored postits; & 1 row per story. RT @RebeccaSkloot: working w index cards=maddening, but invaluable.

RebeccaSkloot: @MJBwrites I did use Scrivener for the writing phase, which was helpful. But I’m very visual & book is large …

JonathanMenon: I agree re: Scrivener. Feels too contained for me.

BioinfoTools (Grant Jacobs): *ruminates* I wonder if I could use graphviz (S/W) as a ‘braiding’ aid; recall bioemphemera showing Lord of the Rings this way!

On creative non-fiction as a term / definition:

Rebecca Skloot wrote words to the effect that it was how you present the facts, not the facts.

katellington: Lee Gutkind describes #creativenf as the genre that makes fact more compelling and understandable through narrative. What your take?

RebeccaSkloot: I agree completely w/that comment from Lee Gutkind about CNF making fact more compelling & understandable

On getting it published / made:

RebeccaSkloot: & I believed so strongly in the importance of telling the story, I knew I’d find an agent/publisher who would agree

RebeccaSkloot: I have a very (very) thick stack of rejection letters from agents & publishers, most of them say [that] #HeLa was an interesting snippet of history but that it wouldn’t appeal to a wide audience. I saved those

@edyong209: Getting the most marvellous schadenfreude at the publishers who rejected @rebeccaskloot’s #HeLa for not having wide appeal.

BioinfoTools (Grant Jacobs): @RebeccaSkloot Funny, I generally think curious corners of history are what work well, interesting editors think different

More on editors and editing:

RebeccaSkloot: As many know, one editor tried to make me take the Lacks family out of the book …

RebeccaSkloot: yes, editor was totally fine w/book not lining up w proposal. Books change as u write them bc u find the story…

RebeccaSkloot: editors would b alarmed if all books/stories came in xactly as planned …

RebeccaSkloot: part of being good writer=following story wherever it takes u–sticking 2 an outline idea can actually kill a story

On skills for the job and getting there [MFA = Master of Fine Arts?] :

RebeccaSkloot: My MFA in CNF meant a lot for my approach, especially when it came to the business of writing. I was a science major

RebeccaSkloot I new nothing of writing, publishing, had no connections. Like it or not connections=essential 2 launch writing career

RebeccaSkloot: Writing is an art, but publishing is a business, and it’s essential to learn both the craft & business … [My thoughts to – you get something similar from running a consultancy, too]

RebeccaSkloot: getting an MFA helped me learn that, make connections, & take time to work on developing my craft. [Generalising on this a business tip – look for indirect connections, too]

RebeccaSkloot: 1 of best things I did as MFA student was assist Lee Gutkind on organizing his yearly Creative Nonfiction conference

RebeccaSkloot: via organizing/attending that conference many yrs, I met 1st agent, editor, writers who mentored me, also taught #creativenf

Most of writing is in the re-writing:

RebeccaSkloot: re my writing time–I wrote throughout research process but more just scene snippets, not full narrative.

RebeccaSkloot: didn’t write full draft until well into the decade when all research was done.

RebeccaSkloot: AFter had 1st draft, rewrote it *many* times b4 giving it to an editor. Had crack team of friends, fact checkers, etc

RebeccaSkloot: got feedback from trusted readers, rewrote many times b4 submitting. Once sent to my editor, I rewrote many more times

RebeccaSkloot: But that’s my process–I hate writing. Getting words on a blank page, getting out a 1st draft=torture for me. [Ha!]

RebeccaSkloot: So I have 2 just do a brain dump & write whatever I can get out of my head w/out trying to worry abt how it’s written

RebeccaSkloot: then I rewrite & rewrite & delete & delete … I love that part of the writing process & could do it forever [Reminds me of reading Clive James describing what he does.]

RebeccaSkloot: The saying, Kill Ur Darlings? I don’t have that prob. I’d delete & editor would say, I loved that part! Put it back!

RebeccaSkloot: She eventually had 2 make me stop rewriting the book…as Tom Wolfe (?) once said, a book is never done, it’s just due

RebeccaSkloot: I don’t like writing, I like having written. That’s when the fun part starts.

[follow-on comments from others]

LocalLit: I always tell students that “real” writing is REwriting. So many expect to do only one draft. Crazy.

David_Dobbs: Re first drafts, Hemingway said, “The first draft of anything is shit.” Words of comfort to all writers.

David_Dobbs: Hemingway was asked why he had to write last p Farewell to Arms 39 times. “Getting the words right.” #WritingIsRewriting

Some loose questions or thoughts (I don’t have replies for all of these, but I’ve kept those that as questions are interesting):

David_Dobbs: Rebecca, under what conditions do u feel a writer should insert him/herself into a story? & what led u to see you’d hit that?

BioinfoTools: Any recommendations on approaching editors / agents (You seem to have plenty of experience there!)

RebeccaSkloot: @BioinfoTools Yes, many recommendations for finding agents/editors. See here…

DaveCullen: Do u go stircrazy during the solitary writing? I often yearn for more research just to talk.

RebeccaSkloot: @DaveCullen I would often write in coffee shops or with writer friends who had deadlines & were writing alone in their offices

DaveCullen: 2 sources for everything=myth. All situational.RT @JonathanMenon: For example, it’s hard to have two sources for color of shoes

Afterwords; the hour was up but…

RebeccaSkloot: @DaveCullen When I was holed up writing #HeLa, Twitter didn’t exist yet …

ruthseeley: Thanks also to all of you’ve who’ve participated in the chat. Brief ‘shelf’ of books here:

RebeccaSkloot: @DaveCullen Twitter=a gr8 & important way 2 remedy the isolation of writing. Of course it’s also a way to put off writing 🙂

RebeccaSkloot: and on that note, yes, we must close so we can all go write. Thx 4 all the gr8 questions & to @MishaAngrist 4 hosting!

RebeccaSkloot: Sorry, just saw the last question @MishaAngrist sent and will answer it: Yes, I will change approach to next book

RebeccaSkloot: but only in how I organized my materials (& hopefully how long it took me to research/write it!)…

RebeccaSkloot: I had no idea when starting #HeLa what a massive amount of physical *stuff* I’d end up accumulating…

RebeccaSkloot: audio tapes, photos (both the old fashioned non-digital kind), notes, books, etc. Eventually had 2 stop writing &

RebeccaSkloot: go back & catalogue all of my material. That’s what I’ll do different: Organize materials obsessively from start

RebeccaSkloot: My next book, for those who haven’t seen, is here:

RebeccaSkloot: 4 any interested here=some of my writing/publishing tips/resources

Other articles on Code for life:

Writing a popular science book; links and writers’ warnings

Science-y reading and open book thread

When the abstract or conclusions aren’t accurate or enough

How did you learn to critique the scientific literature?

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