Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Nonfiction With Personality

On Saturday, Bear Pond Books welcomed Rebecca (Becky) Rupp and her son, Josh, who has experience as a reporter at the Bennington Banner, as well as writing fiction and teaching journalism for middle grade students. It was great to have Josh as a surprise guest! Unfortunately, the reason why we had a surprise guest is that Tanya Lee Stone was stuck home sick, we hope she feels better!

One of the great things about Becky and Josh is that they've done such a wide range of writing, from  scientific articles to journalism to creative nonfiction to fiction, and for all different ages of reader. They have a whole library between them. (See Becky's books at Bear Pond here). That broad expertise let us talk about how different styles of nonfiction can open up a range of writing options.

Nonfiction With Personality

Becky divides her nonfiction writing into writing with a personality and writing without a personality.

She's found the "without" version to be easier (which is not the same as easy) to teach. For example, she's worked with scientists on how to organize their technical papers. The short version of this process is to list the points they need to cover, clump them into common topics, then write an outline that brings the article through those points in a progression that's easy for the reader to follow.

Nonfiction with a personality, things like personal essays or memoir, also needs a clear organization, but deals more with inspiration, taking a broad base of facts, finding ones that jump out as interesting, then piecing them together like a puzzle.

Part of the personality in creative nonfiction is the author's voice. Becky and Josh both worry sometimes that young students start out with a strong personal voice, then learn that it doesn't have a place in nonfiction writing. While that's true of some types of nonfiction, it isn't true of others, and definitely isn't true when you transition into fiction writing.

For a guide to exploring a writer's voice, Becky recommends Discovering Voice by Nancy Dean, which looks at voice in middle grade novels and why these novels work. 

Nonfiction Teaching Fiction

Josh likes nonfiction as a way to teach writing that leads to writing good fiction too.

Both fiction and nonfiction require writers to build a story. For example, when you see interviews in print, they're almost never straight transcripts from what was said, but excerpts put together to reveal the story the interviewee was telling. Straight transcripts would be really hard to read, full of "ums", repetition, and confusing digressions that may have made sense at the time, but not so much later.  

Fiction and nonfiction both draw on a writer's creativity, but nonfiction offers ways to ground and frame creativity in response to things that have actually happened. It's still not easy, but can be a more accessible way for new writers to learn.

"People are already creative. Nonfiction brings in the starting inspiration. . . the investible human drama that readers need," says Josh.

Nonfiction is also a good way to teach the practice that Josh describes as ". . . cut until you can't cut any more, because that is when you have the essence of the story." Fiction requires bringing stories down to their essence too, but nonfiction starts with a finite universe of facts and experience. You can list all of those nonfiction elements then cut from there. 

Building Stories We Remember

"Memory is not like a container filling up, it's more like a tree growing hooks onto which memories are hung," Peter Russell, The Brain Book.

Becky is working on a biology textbook right now that will be designed to read like a story more than a scientific article. It's multidisciplinary and, of course, includes a website. The goal is to engage students and give them many opportunities to "hook" the science information into their own context, with connections to other subjects they're learning or odd stories that catch their imagination (for examples of these odd stories, see Becky's How Carrots Won the Trojan War).

Josh worries that there isn't enough attention to context in learning. An example he uses is introducing book reports before a student has read very many books - what is the context of that? Does a student know what speaks to her in books? How this book relates to other things she has learned? What can be said about a book in a vacuum?

Becky recommends a writer's notebook as a way to build the kind of context needed to really engage kids and, through engaging them, help them remember what they learn. A notebook gets writers used to finding interesting ideas in unexpected places, linking those ideas to ones they've had before, seeing themselves as explorers piecing together a story of the world around them.

Rebecca Rupp Resources

If you're interested in resources to help students in their exploration of the world around them, check out Rebecca Rupp Resources. This blog gives educators resources for researching particular fun topics (chocolate and squirrels are both featured right now) as well as some more general resources (see here for one Writing: Facts, Fiction, Fantasy and Beyond). 

You can also check out a handout on writing exercises that was distributed on Saturday by clicking here (or asking Jane in the Children's Loft)

More Children's Loft Events! 

Join us on March 16th at 11:00 AM for Natalie Kinsey-Warnock (check out her new book: True Colors) and Jennifer Land (see the website for her book The Spare Room) talking about their writing and exploring family and place.  

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Getting Ready for February 16th

We're gathering up resources for the February 16th discussion on Adventures in Nonfiction (see details here). We'll have handouts and a display of recommended books available at the event, plus virtual displays and links afterwards.

Here is a sneak peek:
Rebecca will have a handout on the 16th. It's a long one so we're also posting it here. If you have trouble getting this link to open, e-mail helen.labun.jordan @ to have it sent as an attachment.

Here is a very early sneak peek:
  • On April 6th, we'll host author Linda Urban with her new book The Center of Everything. We know from Linda's 9/15 talk that this book is going to do interesting things with point of view. So check out Linda's thoughts on Point of View in this blog post, then take a scroll through the  Point of View section in Rebecca's resources . . . and of course mark your calendar for April 6th at 11:00 am.