Monday, November 11, 2013

10 Things We Learned About Writing Nonfiction from Alissa Quart, a Journalist "Outsider"

Last year at AWP’s annual conference in Boston, Alissa Quart, Lisa Dierbeck, and Pagan Kennedy offered a panel on the art of the nonfiction idea, which included a clinic called the “Idea Hospital.” Audience members had a handful of minutes to pitch their nonfiction manuscripts to the panelists, who in turn gave them off-the-cuff advice on proceeding with their projects and finding publishers. A great idea! And damn if we at Iron Horse Literary Review didn’t miss it. Didn’t even catch our eye when we scanned the novel-length conference program.

Then, by chance, we found Alissa’s project with Maisie Crow on The Last Clinic, a piece of long-form journalism about the only remaining abortion clinic in the state of Mississippi, a story that uses, in tandem, a documentary film, graphs, maps, photographs, and Alissa’s written essay (an extraction of which originally appeared in The Atlantic). We were enthralled!

So we invited Alissa to come to Texas Tech and read from her latest book, Republic of Outsiders, which introduces readers to people who think outside the box: Occupy Wall Street’s alternative bankers, members of Mad Pride, transgender activists, amateur filmmakers (like the producers of Beasts of the Southern Wild), Etsy entrepreneurs, and even Kickstarter phenom musician Amanda Palmer.

And even though West Texas harbors few such “outside” thinkers, Alissa came! All smiles and generous and energetic and feisty. She even taught a Master Class, which four of our graduate students were lucky enough to take. In it, Alissa workshopped an essay written by each of them and parceled out some amazing advice. In particular, we loved the way her “journalist’s” mind—what some in creative writing programs might call the “outsider” mind—refreshed our understanding of writing literary nonfiction. She gifted us with new ways of thinking about our usual problems when writing:

  1. Think of the title as part of your manuscript’s “packaging.” We all know that you better have a good title that conveys what’s inside the essay and makes people want to open the box, but contemplating it as wrapping paper was new for us. The visual metaphor in our heads now, it’s impossible for us to be complacent about titling, sending hideous gifts into the world, wrapped in newspaper or topped with some crumpled bow because we think no one will notice. One effective type of title Alissa discussed: “Verb” titles such as Branded, Hooked, or Breaking. And as if Alissa had some sort of generating software in her head, titles whizzed from her mouth seconds—I mean, milliseconds—after each of us pitched ideas to her. And her titles were stunning—layered with meaning, symbolism, and word-play, all of them multitasking in the way that good titles do.
  2. Sure, open with a scene or introduction to an intriguing character, but then position your “nut graph” by the third paragraph. Yes, yes, creative writers that we are (and journalists that we’re not), we thought at first that Alissa said nut grab. Which as a metaphor makes some sense. Here’s where you grab your readers by the nuts. In a more professional vein—those journalists are such straight-arrow types—the nut graph is the paragraph in which you broadcast the “news value” or “informative merit” of your story in a nutshell. If you open an essay with a scene or character, you get to enter the essay in a more dramatic moment, stalling the facts or information that might serve as a more traditional, perhaps stodgy, lead. Even so, you still need to ante up somewhere in the opening paragraphs.
  3. Imagine the nut graph in other terms—cinematic terms, to be exact. Since Alissa’s parents were film critics, she has a firm hold on visual storytelling as well. A good film may open with a close-up of a main character or someone’s car or a dead body lying on the living room floor, but the camera eventually pans backward and gives what is known in the movie industry as an “establishing shot”—a view that shows us where and when the story takes place and how the key figures fit into the context of the storyline.
  4. When writing a memoir, find the “source of entry.” What are the personal stakes in your manuscript? One of the students in Alissa’s master class, for example, had written about his experiences teaching English in Kazakhstan—an essay chockfull of interesting encounters with his students and their manipulations of the English language. But so what? What did all of these interesting encounters mean? In the course of discussion, Alissa turned on her interviewing skills and ferreted out some answers. The writer, fresh out of a master’s program, couldn’t find a job in America (one of the richest countries in the world) and so had to seek employment in Kazakhstan (ironically, one of the poorer countries in the world.). Too, the writer grew up in the Mormon faith and is a practicing Mormon today. In the year prior to his departure for Kazakhstan, before he married, he had struggled with the Mormon church-structure, which requires single people over the age of thirty-one to leave the “Single Ward” and advance into the “Single Ward II” or “Mid-Singles Ward”—which could seem to ostracize the “old maid” types, both male and female, who wouldn’t get married already. But once newly married and living his foreign adventure, how did this particular writer fit in with the Kazakhs? What happens when everything you know—the traditions of your faith, your belief in the American dream, and even the rules governing your native language—break down? That’s the source of entry.
  5. Keep a good novel with you at all times so the language of storytelling remains in your head. Because, Alissa warned, the language of journalism, of conveying facts, often sounds depleted. Find a good novel on the nonfiction subject you’re tackling. For the student writing a nostalgic retrospective of his hockey days, Alissa recommended Rabbit, Run, John Updike’s narrative about a former high school basketball star. For the student writing about a coup in Honduras, which she experienced as an American tourist and addressed in an manuscript that occasionally slipped into the first-person plural, Alissa suggested Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, a dystopian science fiction novel told in the first-person plural. This novel fluctuates between the grim reality of the protagonist clones and their encounters with the world of “real people,” whom they long to join—a perfect mirror for our student writer who found herself caught between the safety of her known American world and the intensity of her new experiences in Honduras.
  6. Even with that resonant language of fiction in your head, don’t lose sight of the essay’s purpose. After a moment of grandiloquence, pan back and land on your main subject again. For example, in the Honduras essay, the writer included this lovely paragraph: “In the distance on a road leading out of town, what seems like a mirage at first morphs into a line of soldiers, seemingly weightless as they float in our direction. The sweat of their cheeks reflects the sun; their eyes hide under hats of silver and gray fatigue.” Magnificent, Alissa said, then added that before moving on with the story, the writer should give us another look at Honduras, something about its politics, something factual, something like hard evidence, to remind us why we were there.
  7. For those of us writing nonfiction with a literary bent (particularly personal essays or memoir): extract a 1,500- to 2,000-word version from your manuscripts. Shorter articles sell well to mainstream outlets. For example, a thumbnail version of the English in Kazakhstan piece would be a perfect fit with Instructor, Educational Leadership, even The Chronicle of Higher Education. Note that Alissa’s shorter version of “The Last Clinic” originally appeared in The Atlantic before it’s “larger” glory at The Atavist.
  8. Experiment. Create multimedia long-form essays—a hot new breed that online platforms are particularly interested in. Read some at Guernica or The Atavist. In fact, Alissa’s long-form multimedia essay, accompanied by Maisie Crow’s documentary, is available for only $3.99 at And you can join for free. On this site, writers can build and publish their multimedia stories. At the very least, writers who are savvy enough to know how to illustrate or package their essays are more likely to snag the attention of editors by including these suggestions with their submissions to online platforms.
  9. Read. Of course. Two books we heard Alissa recommend over and over again: Fairyland by Alysia Abbott and Stoner by John Williams.
  10. Finally, tap into your own “outsider” voice. When she asked our West Texas audience who among them felt like outsiders, not a single person raised a hand. Shocked, she said that had never happened to her before. Usually, everyone raises their hands—which is a different type of irony. But Alissa was in Lubbock, Texas, after all, where outsiders are strung up in trees on a regular basis. Few people take the outsider’s side here. “You better hurry and tap into rebellion,” Alissa said. The best nonfiction writing comes from that part of ourselves in conflict with the “insider” world. Look for places where you resist mainstream society, where you don’t fit in, and strike out bravely from there.

Alissa Quart is the author of Republic of Outsiders: The Power of Amateurs, Dreams and Rebels; Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers; and Hothouse Kids. A former Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, Quart has written for The New York Times Magazine, O Magazine, The Nation, Marie Claire, The Atlantic, and The Columbia Journalism Review. Her poetry has appeared in The London Review of Books and in many other publications. With filmmaker and photographer Maisie Crow, Quart has also completed a short documentary based on her long-form journalism. She has also served as editor for and has taught at Columbia University’s Journalism School.

Leslie Jill Patterson has recently published nonfiction in Texas Monthly, Grist, Baltimore Review, meatpaper​, Earth’s Daughters, and Bring the Noise: the best pop culture essays from Barrelhouse. Her recent awards include a 2012 Embrey Human Rights Fellowship and the 2013 Everett Southwest Literary Award, judged by Lee K. Abbott. In 1999, she founded Iron Horse Literary Review, and she serves as copy editor for the journal Creative Nonfiction. Today, she has a growing interest in social justice literature and serves as the case storyteller for the Texas Regional Public Defenders Office for Capital Cases, where she assists a terrific team of attorneys who fight the death penalty at both the state and federal levels.


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  2. This is great — and, at last, something that makes me proud as an ex-journalist in the cnf world.