On Being a NaNo Rebel – NaNo and Nonfiction

Pardon me for a moment while I paraphrase one of Washington’s lines from Hamilton:  “Writing fiction is easy, young man; writing nonfiction is harder.”

This year, for NaNoWriMo, I decided to become what’s called a NaNo Rebel, and finally start writing on my long-talked about, long-thought about, long-pushed-away-because-I-know-how-bloody-hard-this-will-be book about George Kimmel.

It’s Day Five. I am about 8,000 words in.*

I am drowning. 

When I said, a few days ago, that I wasn’t prepared, I wasn’t kidding. More to the point, I didn’t realize just how unprepared I really was. Pulling together term papers did not prepare me for this. Researching this case, off and on, for ten years, did not prepare me for this. I repeat – I am drowning. 

Actually starting this process has shown me one thing:  I severely underestimated how organized I needed to be. But one thing about this task that has always made me quake in my Skechers is the sheer volume of information I have. It’s thousands of pages, none of it indexed, none of it color-coded, none of it available anywhere other than my laptop – or my work computer (again, not both!).

I know this sounds like it should be common sense, but you’re talking to the person who just came home, discovered her cat on the roof of her garage, and then proceeded, IN THE DARK, to find the ladder, climb the ladder, retrieve the cat, and then climb back down. With the cat. In short, I’m not the right person to talk to about common sense. Sometimes I have it in spades, sometimes not.

Also, organization is not my gig. You know how everyone has those dirty little secrets we don’t ever want anyone else to know? Well, here’s mine:  everyone thinks I’m the most organized person in the world, and I’m not. Right now, on my desk, are three vintage handkerchiefs, receipts, old copies of manuscripts, a jewelry inventory, various papers and note pads, two calculators, and about eight books. None of it should be there. But it is. So asking me to organize information is like asking an anteater to crack the Enigma Code.

soapboxSo, if you think you want to tackle a nonfiction project of any kind, that involves any sort of research, here’s my best, sagest, most profound advice:  GET ORGANIZED. 

Now, having said that . . . Here’s the thing. I don’t think I would have realized how much the organization was necessary if I hadn’t gone ahead and started writing.

I thought I knew the material. But as I’ve found out in just the last few days, knowing it, and putting it on paper in a coherent, logical, factual manner, are two very different things. Again, I keep thinking back to all those term papers I used to write in school, and how easily that came to me. And they were easy – at least, they were far less complicated than an entire book. Knowing the material isn’t enough; I have to remember how to find it, cite it, quote it, use it.

Truthfully, what all this means is that I wasn’t ready to start on this project.

Writing fiction may be easier, because you get to play in the sandbox of your imagination. Do you want extra-fine sand? Brand-new buckets and shovels? Toy trucks and dolls? Well, you can! To an extent, you get to create the rules. You work in tandem with the characters. You know the characters, the plot, the setting, the problems. But when you work with nonfiction, particularly historical nonfiction, the sandbox is already built for you. The depth of the sand, the perimeters, the size, the number of shovels and buckets and toy trucks you get – it’s all handed to you. Try to change one thing, and the whole will dissolve. Unless you are very lucky indeed, the sandbox of history cannot be changed. And that, I think, makes it infinitely more difficult to work with.

It’s even more difficult when you don’t fully understand the people you’re writing about. They’re not characters; they’re not invented. To get it right, you have to get them. And when you’re dealing with a case where every single person had a vested interest in hiding the truth, you never truly understand them.

So now the question you’re probably asking is:  So? Are you going to quit?

Uh . . . no.

Instead, what I have re-focused on is not so much the writing of the book itself, but the organizational process. What does that process look like, you ask? Good question. When I know, I’ll let you know!

Mostly, it has meant going back through the testimonies and reacquainting myself with what was said and done. Trying to piece together what happened on that July weekend in 1898, from multiple viewpoints, told by people who were testifying ten years after the fact, is nearly impossible. The basic facts remain the same – but then again, are they facts? Or memories? Are the memories faulty? Only time, and a great deal of comparing testimonies from three cases across a decade, can tell.

I need to bring together the tiny pieces of the whole. Who were these people? Who was George Kimmel? I need to gather everything I can about everyone involved, and I need to literally stick those tidbits in a file folder, where they are available, in hard copy, when I need them. I don’t want to print over 3,000 pages of testimony – Brazil’s asshole president may be intent on destroying the rain forests, but I’ll be damned if I’ll aid and abet him in that – so I have to go through them page by page, on the computer, and type those notes instead. (It occurs to me that this is where a graduate assistant would come in hand, but as I don’t work at a university, I haven’t got one of those handy.)

And there is another aspect to this, which I have to keep reminding myself of:  this is a draft. Only a draft. Knowing how I write, knowing my process and my penchant for perfection, it will – when done – be only the first in a long line of drafts. (Of course, it isn’t going to get done if I don’t get going on it!) Still, as any good scholar knows, a good first draft can save you the misery of several bad ones later on. That is one thing I used to excel at, good first drafts of research papers. Get it right the first time, and you’re saved a lot of red ink on the other side of the thing.

But again – this is different, and this first draft will be my first foray into writing historical nonfiction that isn’t just 10 pages long and focused on a very narrow topic. Hence, of course, the reason I have put it off for so long.

Still. Nothing has ever just written itself. And in that respect, at least, this project is no different.

*(Obviously, this was written earlier than it was posted!) 

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