When the stories we tell – and read – are real

Usha Raman

Normally when we think of literature and storytelling, we tend to restrict ourselves to fiction, particularly when we are thinking about what qualifies as “creative writing”. However, I’d like to suggest that ALL writing is a creative act, whether we are telling fictional stories or “true” stories. The act of writing demands that we think about beginnings, middles, and ends, tailor the structure and style to the purpose we want to achieve, and what we want the reader to take away from it. There’s no doubt, though, that the specific ways in which rules of language, style, and structure are applied to expressive writing (such as fiction or poetry) are different from how they are applied to writing whose main purpose is to inform, or explain, or clarify something. This “something” could be a set of facts, a process, or a phenomenon of some kind (natural, social, historical, cultural, etc.). Textbooks are full of facts and explanations, but most often, they are not full of stories, and I am sure not many of us read textbooks for pleasure. Yet, there is a whole genre of literature that focuses on the real, on well-researched facts, and builds arguments based on carefully gathered evidence. In fact, some publishing analysts say that non-fiction books have seen much higher sales than fiction in recent years, suggesting that people are choosing to read not just for recreation, but for learning as well! Such stories allow us to learn in different ways, by finding out about what people did and how they did it, by giving us a clearer picture of how certain events unfolded and who was involved, and why, or by showing us how a discovery or invention came about – not just the science but the human interactions behind it.

ACTIVITY: Ask the students to go to a local bookstore, or if they are travelling, to take note of the books displayed prominently. Can they be put into categories? How many of them are non-fiction?

One of the most common genres of non-fiction storytelling, something many of us consume every day, is journalism – the stories we find in the newspaper or on news websites. Journalists follow an accepted method and structure to tell these stories, based on their reporting – interviewing people, reading through documents, attending meetings, or observing events. Most stories use what is called the “inverted pyramid” to narrate the news, beginning with the most important facts and ending with the least important. And then there are the feature stories, which are longer, more detailed articles that offer greater depth, using description and anecdotes, weaving in quotes that seem to almost be like dialogue in a novel. Such stories aim to go beyond the simple re-tellings of everyday events and give us the background and the details, much like a storyteller who paints a rich picture of the context and characters as she weaves a narrative that holds you in thrall.

READ AND DISCUSS: Working in pairs, students read through the newspaper and try to identify different kinds of stories. What are the various kinds of stories they can find? Do they see how they are structured differently? What sorts of information goes into each kind of story? How are the longer stories different from or similar to fictional short stories?

This exercise will get them thinking about what makes a story. It’s not always about plot – though that is of course important, sometimes even in non-fiction. It’s not always about imagination – though this is not entirely absent from non-fiction. The best written non-fiction is compelling because it is modelled on the classic elements of good fiction. There is a clear progression of facts/events; there is something that moves the narrative forward in a way that you want to know what comes next; there is good use of description of different kinds; and there is always a link to the human element. The weekend supplements of most newspapers will have features that can be brought in as examples of popular non-fiction writing. Profiles, for instance, are a staple of journalistic writing, and you could ask children to find a piece from a magazine or newspaper about someone they admire (a cricketer, a film star, a social activist, an artist) and discuss it with reference to how it tells the story of the person.

An easy way to introduce non-fiction narratives into a middle or high school class might be to draw from the diaries of explorers and naturalists, or from memoirs and biographies of famous people. Such reading could be integrated into subject classes. For instance, Gerald Durrell’s books about his encounters with nature, written with wit and charm, or Janaki Lenin’s informative and entertaining wildlife stories will demonstrate how facts can make for great reading when they are placed in perspective and woven together well. There are any number of narrative histories that have been published in recent years, and teachers of social science can draw on these to supplement the often dry accounts in the prescribed texts. Non-fiction work might also delve deep into a lesser known aspect of culture, history, etc., and give you a completely different understanding of that field. I have often read works of non-fiction that were as exciting as any whodunit – in fact so much so that they were made into feature films! A recent example is Killers of the Flower Moon, a Pulitzer Prize winning book by journalist David Gramm about how the FBI uncovered the murders among a native American tribe – this was made into an Oscar-nominated film with the same title.

There is also a need to get children to become critical readers, especially of non-fiction, as such books are an important input into how we think about the world. As teachers, we need to guide children through books that may be persuasive but problematic, driven by a motive to influence thinking in a certain direction by presenting facts selectively. Biographies, for instance, can be written in an overly positive way, cutting out all the details that may paint the person in a less than golden light. Across subjects, there will be books that are credible and well-researched, and even as the writer may have a point of view, they also ensure that the evidence is presented for their claims. So, it’s important that children develop a sense of how to read non-fiction, because, even though these are stories, they are about the real world, the world we live in and want to learn about.

ACTIVITY: Ask the students to select a non-fiction book from an assigned list to be read over the course of a reasonable period (possibly a month). You could ask the library to collaborate by putting together a graded selection of books across topics – history, nature, science, biographies, social movements, etc. – from which the children can choose. Ask them to put together short reports that can then serve as reviews to be displayed on the library notice board or just in the classroom. Was the book interesting or boring? Why? What kind of information did the author use to tell the story? Was it believable or not? Why?

In school, for the most part, we tend to put literature into boxes, and almost always restrict our discussion of creative writing to works of fiction. As a result, children rarely think about other forms of storytelling, or consider that non-fiction too can be enjoyed as much, and appreciated as literature in its own right. Developing a taste for non-fiction can also help them become aware of how stories based on evidence and research can be told. Such an appreciation can hold them in good stead as they go on into careers that demand good writing and rigorous argument – and these could range from academic research to law to advocacy, just to name a few. Many people even today consider Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species to be as much a work of literature as it is a scientific argument. It captured the public imagination because he wrote it in a way that the non-specialist reader would understand it. As a teenager, I was introduced to the life and work of Sigmund Freud, Michaelangelo, and Van Gogh by the books of Irving Stone, whose storytelling mimicked fiction yet was based on fact.

The world of books is vast, and the pleasures unending, and these are multiplied when we broaden the scope of our reading. Exposing children to good non-fiction can give them a sense of a different sort of storytelling, and therefore a different avenue to learning about the world.

A list to start with
My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
The Boy who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer
My Husband and Other Animals by Janaki Lenin
Every Creature Has a Story by Janaki Lenin
The Puffin History of the World (Parts 1 and 2) by Roshen Dalal
Fauja Singh Keeps Going by Simran Jeet Singh
When Stars are Scattered by Victoria Jamison and Omar Mohamed
The Royal Diaries – biographies of female royal figures by various authors, published by Scholastic
I am Malala by Malala Yousufzai and Christina Lamb
Blood, Bullets and Bones: the story of forensic science by Bridget Heos

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