The #1 stumbling block in creative non-fiction

These are the most important words you'll write

Journalists know the most important part of their writing process -- which is separate from finding subjects, scheduling interviews, asking the hard questions and researching -- is crafting a gripping lead. The beginning of a creative non-fiction piece should be enticing, provocative, a teaser, a foreshadowing and, so importantly, able to be supported by what's to come in your piece.

Once the lead is discovered, the rest of the story writes itself.

Journalists know the most important part of their writing process is crafting a gripping lead. The beginning of a creative non-fiction piece should be enticing, provocative, a teaser, a foreshadowing and, so importantly, able to be supported by what's to come in your piece. Once the lead is discovered, the rest of the story writes itself.

It can be frustrating to hear this stated so casually, like when you're a kid and ask your parents how they knew they were in love. "We just knew" is never helpful when you're debating a current suitor's potential.

The fact about a story's beginning is that everything springs forward from there. A lead sets the tone, introduces characters or place, makes an impression. A good lead compels the reader to continue on. A great lead -- I'm sure you know this from experience, too -- can freeze the writer.

Writing leads

Yet it doesn't have to trigger sweaty palms or that oft-referenced writer's block -- an affliction Nora Ephron said she didn't suffer from:

"I do have times when I can't get the lead and that is the only part of the story that I have serious trouble with. I don't write a word of the article until I have the lead. It just sets the whole tone -- the whole point of view. I know exactly where I am going as soon as I have the lead. That can take me three or four days and sometimes a week. ... And so trouble with the lead is as close as I get to being cold, and yes, I do go away from it for a while and go buy a pair of shoes or have dinner. And I know that maybe if I can talk to someone at dinner I'll find the thing I am looking for."

As a side note, many writers scoff at the idea of a true writer's block, anyhow: At her final book tour stop at Parnassus Books in Nashville last week, writer Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney responded to an audience question about how she overcomes writer's block by saying she doesn't believe it's "a thing."

"I don't think people like what they write, and so then they stop and call that writer's block. The only cure for that is just to push through and write every day. When I feel stuck, I do read and feel that that gets me unstuck."

For fiction writing, I strongly believe in employing writing prompts to kickstart your creative juices. (Plug: You might consider joining us for The 52-Week Project, during which you'll receive one free, emailed writing prompt each week for a year.) Prompts make you think about what characters toss into their wastepaper baskets, stow on their bookshelves and keep on their nightstands. Prompts remind you of infrequently used words or faded pop culture references. They're more helpful when, frankly, you're already making shit up.

But when writing creative non-fiction, you of course have to tell the truth based on observation, experience and inquiry. And when starting your story has you pacing, cleaning, checking social media or peeling split ends -- well, friend, it's time to stop stalling and buckle down.

What's worked for me when I'm stuck on a lead:

  1. Write five versions of the same lead. Approach each differently; don't simply rearrange your words.
  2. Write five second sentences to the existing lead you're playing with.
  3. Open The New York Times or your news source of choice, hunt for the Living, Style, Travel, Arts or Community section, and read the first graf of all stories in the section.
  4. Look back at past pieces you've written and published to see the leads your editor kept or helped shape. This gives you a good understanding of what editors are looking for and consider successful.

I pulled seven non-fiction books from my shelf to see how the writers structured their stories' beginnings and what compelled me to purchase the books (you do the ol' first-page-skim when considering buying a book, too, right?):

All the President's Men, by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward

Jun 17, 1972. Nine o'clock Saturday morning. Early for the telephone. Woodward fumbled for the receiver and snapped awake. The city editor of the Washington Post was on the line. Five men had been arrested earlier that morning in a burglary at Democratic headquarters, carrying photographic equipment and electronic gear. Could he come in?

Why it works: Words hit the reader like a bulletin, highlighting facts of place and mimicking typical reporting style. The quick pace is engaging, not overly wrought, and rapidly moves the reader through the story. Most non-fiction readers want a page-turner, and this opening is nearly a parody of a film noir's voiceover -- all it needs are dark shadows from the window blinds slicing rising cigarette smoke into fourths.

The Colossus of New York, by Colson Whitehead

I'm here because I was born here and thus ruined for anywhere else, but I don't know about you. Maybe you're from here, too, and sooner or later it will come out that we used to live a block away from each other and didn't even know it. Or maybe you moved here a couple years ago for a job. Maybe you came here for school. Maybe you saw the brochure. The city has spent a considerable amount of time and money putting the brochure together, what with all the movies, TV shows and songs -- the whole If You Can't Make It There business. The city also puts a lot of effort into making your hometown look really drab and tiny, just in case you were wondering why it's such a drag to go back sometimes.

Why it works: Most readers' identities call back to their hometowns, cities they couldn't wait to leave and sometimes dread returning to. Whitehead partners with the reader to level with him/her: You have a hometown, I have a hometown -- We aren't so different, meaning you might like what I have to say next.

48 Days to the Work You Love, by Dan Miller

Is work that necessary evil that consumes the time between our brief periods of enjoyment on the weekends? Is it primarily a method of paying the bills and showing responsibility? Or a way to prove to our parents that the college degree was a reasonable investment? Or the shortest path to retirement? Or is it more?

Why it works: Other than the weather and local spots, nothing bonds people like railing against their jobs. Complaining about work nearly exceeds baseball as the national pastime, and Miller immediately identifies that common ground with his readers. He asks a series of rhetorical questions until his final one: "Or is it more?" That's why the reader's picked up the book, after all: He/she believes there has to be more to work than it being an evil way to pay bills, show responsibility and make a statement. This opening graf indicates the answer is found further in.

Jews Without Money, by Michael Gold

I can never forget the East Side street where I lived as a boy.
It was a block from the notorious Bowery, a tenement canyon hung with fire-escapes, bed-clothing, and faces.
Always these faces at the tenement windows. The street never failed them. It was an immense excitement. It never slept. It roared like a sea. It exploded like fireworks.

Why it works: Like Whitehead's first graf, Gold hits on the shared feeling of home + identity, no matter how complicated that relationship may be. What's really lovely about his lead, though, is the lyricism he creates in this non-fiction piece. It's likely to capture the attention of fiction readers as well: the great trick for non-fiction books.

Coming of Age in Mississippi, by Anne Moody

I'm still haunted by dreams of the time we lived on Mr. Carter's plantation.

Why it works: Moody states no continent, race or social standing, but with this one line, the reader immediately grasps it all. It's a great example of showing instead of telling. It also contains the horror aspect when she says she's haunted by dreams (we understand these to be nightmares, of course): We like hearing about others' misfortune, thankful it isn't our own. There's some distaste in that, the icky feeling we get when driving past and peering into a car accident scene, but we do it anyway.

The Road Less Traveled, by M. Scott Peck, M.D.

Life is difficult.
This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult -- once we truly understand and accept it -- then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.

Why it works: One of children's common laments is "That isn't fair." The grownup version -- once we learn (gosh darnit) that live really isn't fair -- is "Life is hard." Peck begins with this commonality and elaborates to say that though this is true, once you accept it (with his help, using this book!), it will no longer matter. And wouldn't it be lovely if life being difficult had no bearing on you?

Black, White, and Jewish, by Rebecca Walker

I don't remember things. Like the names of streets and avenues I have driven down a hundred times, like the stories behind Jewish holidays I have celebrated since I was eleven, like the date of my father's birthday. At a funeral for a favorite uncle, I do not remember the names of cousins I played with as a child. For a few minutes, I do not remember the name of my dead uncle's wife. On her porch I stand blankly between her outstretched arms, my head spinning, suddenly unsure even of the ground upon which I stand. Who am I and why am I here? I cannot remember how we are related.

Why it works: The first sentence makes you read on, because each of us has trouble remembering some things (as simple as the 12 times table or as complicated as the last names of acquaintances) but you learn Walker can't remember trivia she should be able to. The reader wonders if she has a head injury, memory disorder or Alzheimer's disease. She uses specific references to concretely establish that this is her story and not a broader, fact-filled discussion of memory.

In my writing life, two people have given me advice I call back to regularly:

  1. A newspaper editor told me to begin and end with a person to establish an intimate relationship with the reader and entice his/her investment in that person's outcome. (Here's one of many examples of my leads beginning with a person.)
  2. A poetry professor said to be specific, that it doesn't alienate the reader when you talk about Jif versus generic peanut butter. Instead, it achieves the most exciting thing: It causes your piece to adapt to each reader's experience. Maybe Reader A grew up poor, and Jif was on the rich kids' sandwiches. She'll read your piece as one of privilege. Or Reader B could have grown up with Jif, and its label is the branding of his childhood.

How have you had good luck structuring your leads? And are you finding your voice the more stories you begin?

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