The Case for Nonfiction

by Jane Wiseman

Ignorance is bliss, they say.  Not in the law, they say.  Ignorance of the law is no excuse, they say.  So, I ask, which is it?

The life of the law is language. Despite “sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me,” words have consequences.  The law uses language to instruct, persuade, prohibit, regulate, enter judgment, importune, permit, encourage, deter, convict, condemn and pardon.  And we ignore the language of the law at our peril.  An Oklahoma motorist was quoted recently in the Tulsa World as being surprised and outraged at being pulled over for traveling some distance in the left-lane on Interstate 40, with little traffic in the right lane, in contravention of a state law enacted last year prohibiting such activity on four-lane highways.  He said he didn’t know anything about the law, he wasn’t impeding traffic, and he was in the “fast lane.”  There was a fair amount of publicity when the law became effective last November, and a subscription to the paper might have saved him the $200+ the ticket probably cost him.  (And as a side note, the new law has certainly made driving on turnpikes considerably more pleasant and efficient, and it minimizes road rage caused by slow drivers in the passing lane.  Now if we could just get lawmakers to see the beauty of the “zipper merge.” . . .)

Case law, the embodiment of appellate courts’ decisions on the common law and on statutory interpretation, among other things, is simply a form of very serious nonfiction writing.  American nonfiction writer Tracy Kidder started out writing fiction but soon discovered he preferred to write about real people.  He once said, “In fiction, believability may have nothing to do with reality or even plausibility.  It has everything to do with those things in nonfiction.  I think that the nonfiction writer’s fundamental job is to make what is true believable.”  And when we see the conduct of litigants set out in the evidence in the record, our frequent reaction is “you couldn’t make this stuff up!”  But every case tells a true story, however implausible (and it does create job security).

Tracy Kidder also characterized factual writing as a way “to signify a kind of nonfiction writing in which not only the information but the writing is important.  For me the essence of it is really storytelling. And of course, the techniques of storytelling never belonged exclusively to fiction.  Surely there is no single means of understanding the world.” This might account for our fascination with detective fiction and TV crime shows.  We would be hard pressed to find a crime novel with an original story line—one not based on real events, especially when we consider the fertile field of true stories open to writers.

After binge-watching “Law and Order” recently, I certainly heard the ring of truth in those stories, however embellished.  So I salute nonfiction storytelling, especially when well done, as a means, as Tracy Kidder said, “of understanding the world.”


Jane Wiseman writes for a living as a Judge on the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals.  She counts the day she joined Nimrod’s Advisory Board as one of her happiest and currently serves as Chair of the Advisory Board.

An Interview with Sasha Martin

Sasha Martin, author of the memoir Life from Scratch: A Memoir of Food, Family, and Forgiveness, will host a free writing workshop entitled “The Language of Survival: Exploring Trauma in Fiction and Memoir” on Saturday, April 7th, from 2:00 to 4:30 p.m. in The University of Tulsa’s Tyrrell Hall Auditorium. Presented by Nimrod and Northeastern State University as part of the National Endowment for the Arts’ 2018 NEA Big Read program, “The Language of Survival” will discuss writing about trauma and survival in both fiction and memoir. Workshop topics will include strategies for getting personal experiences onto the page, tips for deciding whether to tell a story as fiction or memoir, and techniques to avoid oversimplifying life’s villains, real or imagined. Martin will also lead participants in writing exercises to get their ideas flowing. The event is free and open to the public. No pre-registration is needed.

Martin answered a few questions about the event for us. Check out the Q&A below before joining us on Saturday!

So what do we mean when we talk about “writing trauma” in fiction and nonfiction?

Martin: Writing trauma is simply how we express instances of acute suffering on the page. From personal loss to intergenerational wounds—emotionally charged subjects easily risk coming across as melodramatic or self-indulgent. Thankfully, there are several tools to help us write trauma successfully.

What can writers expect to learn about at the workshop?

Martin: We will start with theory—why write about trauma at all—then quickly move onto practical exercises and excerpt studies from both fiction and nonfiction. Topics covered will include how to create well-rounded characters, how trauma can be revealed through setting, and how to resist making judgement calls for our readers.  We will study short excerpts from texts like The Snow Child, Grapes of Wrath, and more. Throughout the session, attendees will have an opportunity to practice new skills with short writing prompts.

Who is this workshop for? Is it only for writers writing about large-scale trauma, or will those writing about smaller, more intimate experiences also find it helpful? 

Martin: Loss and conflict drive every narrative. This workshop is for anyone working on a novel or memoir who wants to explore how to express challenges—big or small—in a fluid, effective way. While some of the texts deal with significant loss, the topics and skills we will cover can be applied to strengthen any narrative. Participants are encouraged to infuse the writing exercises with their own interests and writing style so that the workshop best serves their needs.

This workshop is part of the Northeastern State University’s grant for the NEA Big Read project, which uses specific texts as a shared jumping-off point for book-related events, and the shared text in this case is Cynthia Ozick’s The Shawl. Participants don’t need to have read the story beforehand to take part in the workshop, but what aspects or techniques of the story do you find useful for those writing about the themes of trauma and survival? 

Martin: The Shawl was written in two parts. In Oznick’s words:  “The Shawl began with a line, one sentence in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer. This one sentence told of a real event, about a baby being thrown against an electrified fence. And that stayed with me and stayed with me, and that was the very explicit origin of The Shawl. […] I wrote the second half because I wanted to know what happened to Rosa afterward. I was curious to enter the mind of such an unhappy, traumatized person and see how that person would cope with the time afterward—rescued, saved, safe, and yet not rescued, not safe, not normal, abnormal.”

Due to the two-part format, The Shawl offers students an excellent opportunity to isolate “event” and “event fallout.” For example, in the second part of the book, Oznick fills Rosa’s Florida life with descriptors evocative of a concentration camp. These stark details, offered decades after the baby’s death (when Rosa is theoretically “safe” from Hitler), add a layer of emotional soot to the story, reminding us (in not so many words) how some wounds can neither be forgotten or erased.

What makes writing about trauma—and surviving it—important to you? 

Martin: Writing about trauma is an act of healing—not just for the writer, but also the reader. When we share experiences of loss and survival, many of which are considered taboo in polite conversation, we strengthen our communities. The idea that we are not alone in our suffering, in our survival—that is a gift for all.