About a year ago, national correspondent for The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates, published “The Case for Reparations,” which I thought in many way was jarring and moving, and that you didn’t have to agree with the concept of reparations to feel so.
In his own words:
“It was about housing and how wealth is built in this country and why certain people have wealth and certain other people do not have wealth, and the manifold implications of that, and the roots of that, through slavery, through Jim Crow, indeed through federal, state, and local policy.”
I read Coates’ piece, and became immersed in the experience of another family—one that was very different from and came up under very different circumstances than my own—an experience that filled me with understanding and empathy.
This is why creative nonfiction is so important. Within it lies the power to effect change. Those who write do it with the hope of sending a message, connecting with a constituency, making a point, changing a life. Compelling and insightful stories like the one Coates painted are a powerful tool for encouraging serious, patient consideration of the perspectives and concerns of others—the kind of consideration that leads to open minds and a willingness to change. Through telling stories, the creative nonfiction writer with a big cause or idea can wake up the world and make change happen.
I started taking creative nonfiction writing classes a few months ago. I did this because as I learn the craft of this writing style, I become a more structured and effective communicator. And yet, many of those whom I mention this to wonder why I’m bothering. Creative-minded people don’t tend to have a hard time understanding how creative nonfiction can make an impact. But the business set does. First, it’s not a lucrative career choice. The publishing industry has had a rough time of it, and the path to success is unsteady at best. Second, thoughts and ideas and stories are just that—thoughts and ideas and stories. Everyone has them, and everyone thinks theirs are the best. You need to prove the ability of your thoughts and ideas and stories to effect change if you want the tough-sells to take notice.
Immersion is the key. Immersion, and experience. Because immersion and experience create understanding.
If a creative nonfiction author’s writing is going to hold the power to immerse her reader in the story she is trying to tell, the act of immersing herself in the subject’s world is of utmost importance. Immersion allows an author to become intimate with the subject’s environment. We can’t tell another person’s story, or another person's history, without first becoming a part of their world and walking a mile in their shoes, so to speak. In You Can’t Make This Stuff Up, Lee Gutkind explains:
“Watching or listening to a person you are writing about or being ensconced in a place you are profiling can be irreplaceable if you are trying to determine the underlying causes and cures of a situation, or to analyze and report the motivations of a personality or a group of people. Being there, you see and hear for yourself, and sometimes you observe actions and situations that occur spontaneously—stuff you’d never get from an interview.”
On February 15, it was announced that Ta Nehisi-Coates received the George Polk Award for Commentary for “The Case for Reparations.” The story broke a single-day traffic record for a magazine story on The Atlantic’s website when it was published, and in its wake, Politico named him to its list of 50 thinkers changing American politics. Coates went on a whirlwind speaking tour, from Cleveland to Cornell, where listeners crouched outside an open window of the filled-to-capacity auditorium. He broke from the circuit only once, for a seven-week retreat to Middlebury College, where he spoke only French. The reparations essay has prompted thinkpiece after thinkpiece, either praising or rebutting Coates’ case. How did he take on one of the nation’s most politically toxic issues and singlehandedly thrust it into the national conversation?
He did it through history mixed with immersive storytelling and a solid intellectual backbone.
A year later I still see pieces citing “The Case for Reparations.” It still has people talking.
You can’t expect change if you’re not first getting people talking.