Monday, November 28, 2011

On Creative Non-fiction

I have been re-reading some classic pieces by Gay Talese, who has graced the pages of Esquire, The New York Times, the New Yorker, and other periodicals for 45 years with the art of creative non-fiction, which he helped invent.

The son of a tailor, Talese (named for his grandfather Gaetano Talese) writes perfectly tailored, seamless sentences that are elegant yet never call attention to themselves. No has written about New York City, its doormen and its cats, its bridges and taxis, the way he does.

No one has written about Frank Sinatra the way Talese did in his 1960 breakthrough piece, now a classic, "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold." He writes: "Sinatra with a cold is like Picasso without paint, Ferrari without fuel--only worse. For the cold robs Sinatra of that uninsurable jewel, his voice, cutting into the core of his confidence..."

About the George Washington Bridge: "The bridge is never completely still. It trembles with traffic. It moves in the wind....It is an almost restless structure of graceful beauty, which, like an irresistible seductress, withholds secrets from the romantics who gaze upon it, the escapists who jump off it, the chubby girl who lumbers across its 3,500-foot span trying to reduce, and the 100,000 motorists who each day cross it, smash into it, shortchange it, get jammed up on it." (Three short sentences, followed by a long one, rich in descriptive detail.)

What would I do to write such a sentence? As I tell my students in the prose style workshop, if they want to write non-fiction and turn it into an art, as Talese does, they should read carefully writers like him and then try their hand at sentences that are varied, poetic, flowing, or tense, as the occasion warrants. Good writing, as Katherine Anne Porter once said, cannot be taught; it can only be learned--by practice.

To read some of his best work, get The Gay Talese Reader and you will see how an ordinary topic can become extraordinary. If you are a writer, you will learn lessons from a master.


Ned Kessler said...

This makes me want to run right out and get this book. Thank you, Jerry.

Ned Kessler said...

This post makes me want to run right out and buy that book! Thank you, Jerry.