Telling True Stories: An Interview with Wendy Call

(This interview originally appeared in The Practicing Writer, February-March 2007.)

TELLING TRUE STORIES: An Interview with Wendy Call
by Erika Dreifus

Many of our practicing writers have heard me mention the Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism, which I’ve had the privilege to attend for the past two years. Now, I’m delighted to present an interview with Wendy Call, co-editor (with Mark Kramer) of Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University, which is based on Conference sessions.

Wendy Call is a freelance writer and editor, currently writer-in-residence at Richard Hugo House, Seattle’s literary center. Excerpts from her narrative nonfiction book-in-progress, No Word for Welcome, have won awards from the Blue Mountain Center, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Hedgebrook, and Wesleyan Writers Conference. Grants from Artist Trust, Institute of Current World Affairs, Oberlin College Alumni Association, and the Seattle CityArtist Program have supported the reporting, research, and writing of No Word for Welcome, about rural, southern Mexico.

Wendy’s nonfiction has appeared in English, Spanish and French in more than 20 magazines and literary journals, including Blue Mesa Review, Chain, NACLA Report on the Americas, Revista: The Harvard Review of Latin America, and VIVA NY/The Daily News, as well as in several anthologies. Wendy became a full-time writer and editor in 2000, after devoting a decade to work for social change organizations in Seattle and Boston.

Recently Wendy responded to a series of questions from Practicing Writer editor, Erika Dreifus.

Erika Dreifus (ED): Wendy, how would you define “narrative nonfiction”? In your view, how does it overlap with (or differ from) “creative nonfiction”?

Wendy Call (WC): In the preface to Telling True Stories, my co-editor Mark Kramer and I sidestepped this question, which is nearly always asked. We wrote, “The genre of telling true stories goes by many names,” then listed seven different terms – including “narrative nonfiction” and “creative nonfiction.”

I don’t think there are clear differences between the two, though writers who attach one or other label to their work seem to fall into slightly different categories. Narrative nonfiction writers tend to maintain allegiance to journalistic ethics – valuing factual accuracy above all else – and tend to write about subjects and people outside of their own lives and experience. Creative nonfiction writers tend to follow a slightly different path. Some come to literary nonfiction writing from poetry or fiction; their work tends to have a more fully developed first-person narrator.

Mark likes to tell his students, “Do whatever you want, just make sure you tell the reader what you are doing.” I agree. If you are going to change subjects’ names or collapse time or reorder events, and still label your work any variety of nonfiction, make sure your readers understand that.

ED: Telling True Stories is a guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University. Please tell us a bit about the work of the Nieman Foundation.

: The Nieman Foundation’s primary mission is to provide one-year, mid-career fellowships at Harvard University for journalists from all over the world. The history of the foundation is an interesting one; you can read about it at the Nieman Web site.

Telling True Stories is based on sessions offered at the Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism, hosted annually by the Nieman Foundation from 2001 to 2006. (The next conference is scheduled for March 2008). Mark founded the conference at Boston University in the late 1990s and moved it to Harvard University in 2001.

ED: How did you become involved with the Nieman Foundation, and with this book project in particular?

: My connection to the Nieman Foundation is limited to the anthology; I’m a full-time freelancer. In early 2000 I transitioned from full-time grassroots organizing to full-time writing and editing. (I used to write in my spare time, now that’s when I do my activist work.) I was preparing for a two-year fellowship in southern Mexico, to write a narrative nonfiction series about how rural, indigenous communities were adapting to the huge changes brought by economic globalization. I’d never taken a writing class before, and thought I should do that before heading off to Mexico. I attended a half-day National Writers Union workshop led by Mark Kramer, and then I signed up for a literary journalism graduate course he taught at Boston University. It took two full years reporting and writing in southern Mexico for me to understand what Mark had tried to teach us about immersion journalism. He read what I wrote, and after I returned to the United States, he approached me with the idea of crafting an anthology from the workshops and lectures offered at his Narrative Journalism Conference. Four years later, Telling True Stories has finally come into the world.

: I can’t imagine any reader going through this book and not learning a number of valuable lessons for his/her writing. I’m thinking, for my own purposes, of David Halberstam’s revelation of “the best question a reporter can ask a source” (it’s “Who else should I see?”). I’m thinking of Bruce DeSilva’s points on endings. I’m thinking of Adam Hochschild’s emphasis on “travel [writing] as discovery” and his suggestions to broaden newspaper travel coverage. Please tell us about some lessons you may have learned from the contributors to this book in the process of working on it.

WC: In a sense, every lesson in Telling True Stories is a favorite of mine, because Mark and I culled the 95 pieces in the anthology from more than 350 conference sessions. I edited 600,000 transcribed words down to 110,000 published ones.

Some of the lessons I found most stimulating are those from other fields of inquiry:

–Tom French suggests that narrative writers read graphic novels to understand story sequence, giving the excellent advice: “To learn about sequencing, study jokes.” (p. 143)

–Malcolm Gladwell describes how psychologists distinguish between samples and signatures – using this distinction to show that watching a subject’s behavior might be instructive, and might not. (p. 74)

–Alma Guillermoprieto, who began her career as a dancer, explains, “While out reporting, I stage a little theater in my mind. Before choreographers begin rehearsals, they choose a group of dancers. By the end of the first rehearsal, one dancer will stand out. As a reporter, I do the same sort of casting. By the end of the first week I have my leading cast selected.” (p. 157)

–Poet-photographer Emily Hiestand offers the pointed advice: Take an art class. (p. 200)

–Historian Jill Lepore warns against the pitfall of presentism – one that often entraps journalists and other nonfiction writers. (p. 86)

–Filmmaker Stanley Nelson shows the importance of fostering the reader’s sense of discovery. (p. 130)

I even learned a few “life” lessons from this book. My favorite is the “seven-of-ten rule” from Jacqui Banaszynski, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, editor, and professor. Jacqui says: “Of the ten things you most want from a boss, life partner, job, or house, you will get seven if you are smart and lucky, and work at it. Don’t lament the missing three, because here’s the deal: You can change your job or your partner or your house to get the other three things, but you still won’t have more than seven.” (p. 223)

ED: The book includes an extensive list of “Suggested Readings.” There’s also a (much shorter) list of “Web Sites and Internet Resources.” Please tell us about a few readings and/or online resources you’ve found to be most useful with your own work, and how they’ve been helpful to you.

: The “Suggested Readings” is heavily slanted toward the writers that have most inspired me. It’s not an accident that the list of literary works is three times as long as the one of books about craft and theory. Even as the co-editor of a craft anthology, I must admit that I find how-to books far less instructive than great literature. Recently, reading the work of Sandra Cisneros, Adam Hochschild, and Michael Ondaatje has helped me solve problems in my own writing.

The Nieman Conference Web site has links to the writing of nearly all 52 volume contributors. Read their work! (From, go to the Nieman Program on Narrative Journalism, then the speakers’ biographies under “Narrative Conferences.”)

As much as I love brick-and-mortar libraries, the Web is an increasingly good place for great writing. There are some wonderful online magazines. Two that inspire me to go out into the world and write about it are Terrain: A Journal of Built and Natural Environments and (no longer updated, but excellent) SixBillion.

For general writing resources, Practicing Writer’s list of resource links is a great place to start!

ED: Thanks, Wendy! Anything else you’d like to share?

: We will be posting information on how writers, editors, writing coaches, and professors use Telling True Stories at Nieman’s Narrative Digest. Check for updates. We are planning readings with contributors in Cambridge and Seattle. Anyone interested in hosting another reading should let me (wendycall[at]yahoo[dot]com) know.

For any readers in the Seattle area: This spring, I’ll be teaching creative writing classes based on Telling True Stories at Seattle Central Community College and Richard Hugo House as well as giving several readings from my own writing. Drop me a line if you would like to know more.

Telling True Stories: A Writers’ Guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University
Edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call
Plume, 317 pages.
Paper, $15.00 ($18.50 CAN)

Copyright (c) 2007 Erika Dreifus