Remarks on Writing Nonfiction

by Barbara Juster Esbensen

Given as a member of the "Nonfiction Writing for Children" panel at the 1996 Highlights Foundation Writers Workshop at Chautauqua

It's interesting to me to know that everything that I've done so far has been nonfiction. Poetry is nonfiction, and the legends that I have written are supposedly nonfiction. So, nonfiction has a broad range. I've also done "real" nonfiction, which is going out and looking up stuff and then writing about it - the kind of thing that your students do when you tell them to go and look up information and tell you what they have found.

There is a difference, though, between looking up stuff and writing about it and looking up stuff and turning it into literature. The difference has to do, of course, with the writing. It's not enough, as Sgt. Friday would say, to "just give me the facts, Ma'am," because the encyclopedia can give you the facts. Even dictionaries can give you some facts. So you have to get the facts and then make those facts come to life on the page. The way to do that begins with the words you choose. And not just the individual words you choose but the way you stick them together. The words have to make some kind of visual or audible or tactile connection in the reader's brain. Otherwise you're just back to the encyclopedia again.

I was very excited when the review of my latest nonfiction, SWIFT AS THE WIND: THE CHEETAH, came out because the reviewer mentioned the language. That was so pleasant for me. I know that I go over and over and over the facts, but to have this reviewer point out that I'd actually used effective and striking similes and metaphors and strong verbs made me feel really good.

I want you to see the difference between information and something that goes beyond information.

When I wrote a book about the loon called GREAT NORTHERN DIVER: THE LOON, I wanted to tell the reader

"at the end of April when the ice has gone,
the loons come back and you can hear them calling."

That's the information. I actually thought that's what I was saying until I read a review that cited "Barbara Esbensen's lyrical evocation of the loon." This is what the first page of my book actually says:

"In late April almost all the ice is gone from these northern lakes.
Pads of sparkling blue appear among the drifting ice floes,
and the wild calls of a pair of returning loons
echo across the cold silence."

Now that contains exactly the same information. I haven't given you a single fact that wasn't in the original statement. The difference is in the sound and color and the fact I've placed you in the north. And "the wild calls of the returning loons" tells you something about the way loons cry.

You would not say in a book, "She looked out of her window and listened to the wild call of the robin." That would be ridiculous. As soon as you say "loon" and "wild call" that bird is set apart.

When you write nonfiction you have to go beyond fact and get the living animal or person or whatever else you're writing about - it could be the history of trains in America - onto the page, so that you can hear it, see it, taste it, feel it, and care.

...Barbara closed with a wild loon call for the audience...

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