What’s Left on the Cutting Room Floor

My reading self enjoys nonfiction books about people I’ve never heard of. The last few years have brought a fantastic crop: Chris Barton’s The Day-Glo Brothers, Tanya Lee Stone’s Almost Astronauts, Jody Nyasha Warner’s Viola Desmond Won’t Be Budged.

My reading self has never once questioned the choices those writers made. But my writing self knows there are many ways to tell a true story.

Every life has thousands of relevant facts. The writer sifts and filters and ponders to figure out which ones make the final cut. The text that emerges will inform readers’ understanding of who this person was.

That’s a hefty responsibility.

Of course, we all do this kind of selective editing every day. The stories we choose to share about ourselves, about our children, are the ones we want others to know.

It’s tempting to do the same for our nonfiction subjects–to show only their best selves. As one who writes for children, that’s sometimes uncomfortably close to what I actually do. Because my main filter, the one that catches the most stuff, is the Suitability for Children Filter.

In Brothers at Bat: The True Story of An Amazing All-Brother Team (Clarion, 2012), some of my favorite anecdotes—the testosterone stories in which the brothers out-macho each other with dubious judgment—never made it into the book. “You can’t do that!” my writer self wanted to scream at the now 80+-year-old subjects. “It’s a book for CHILDREN!”

In nonfiction, it turns out, you don’t get to tell your characters what they can do. But you do have a responsibility to decide which facts belong, especially since you can’t share them all.

Effa Manley, the subject of She Loved Baseball, was a civil rights activist. The text includes a boycott she led against a Harlem store that refused to hire black workers. It does not include the Anti-Lynching Day promotion Effa held at the Newark Eagles’ stadium. That promotion is a telling detail about the kind of thinker she was. But it doesn’t belong in a children’s book.

Such decisions extend into illustration. For Bark and Tim: A True Story of Friendship, my sister/co-author and I got to choose which of Tim Brown’s autobiographical paintings would illustrate the book. Instead of selecting the most visually appealing, we ran it through the Suitability for Children Filter. Paintings not included: Bark Eating Deer, Dog Peeing on Papa, Bit By Bark, Chasing Rats, Bark Chasing White Kids.

You get the idea.

Suitability for young children has to be the prime filter. Figuring out the ratios of the other fact-filters is a nonfiction author’s job. Finding the right balance of truth, appeal, relevance, and length is the craft of writing nonfiction.

My reading self appreciates a good true story. My writing self needs to be sure my books are as right as they can be. Other people’s reading selves may be counting on that.

Originally published in December 2010 issue of 4:00 Book Hook. Click here for more information and back issues.

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