Rebecca Skloot on Producing Creative Nonfiction

Readers are embracing creative nonfiction like never before, even if they may not know that what they are reading is defined as such. That is forgivable, as writers, editors and instructors in the creative nonfiction space are still struggling with defining creative nonfiction, or CNF. Perhaps more accurately, they are struggling to define its boundaries between conventional nonfiction and fiction; in other words, avoiding “truthiness.” Having just spent two years producing CNF in an MFA program as a former journalist looking to produce, as Lee Gutkind puts it, “true stories, well told,” I grow excited when I discover someone who has pulled off the many challenges inherent in CNF writing.

Patrick Ross Goodreads Review of The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksIt was while writing my review on Goodreads of Rebecca Skloot’s masterful The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks that I realized I needed to know more about Skloot’s writing process, so I visited her web site and found a remarkable FAQ section (note to authors: you would do well to include a resource like this on your own web sites). Much of what Skloot accomplished in her amazing study–of a woman whose cells, without her or her family’s knowledge, were used to dramatically advance science while simultaneously raising ethical challenges–resonated with my own writing and study.

  • Structure: Skloot weaves together three narrative lines in her book, namely the story of Henrietta Lacks, the history of her cells (known in the scientific community as HeLa), and the story of the Lacks family, particularly Henrietta’s daughter Deborah. The memoir I am completing involves four narrative lines. Videos on Skloot’s site demonstrate how she was inspired by a novel by Fannie Flagg to braid her narratives and used index cards to organize them; I prefer my wall-sized white board, and have also been inspired by other writers’ works in braiding, including James Baldwin.
  • Scene: Skloot explains in another video that she writes scenes she’s never seen by interviewing witnesses and asking them open-ended questions. She then verifies those recollections with historical records. When producing dialogue for those scenes, she seeks repeated phrases in interviews and compares that with written documentation as well. The reader, she says, “would rather me do the extra homework” to produce a story that comes alive, and I agree with her. Writing about scenes the writer has never seen was the topic of my MFA graduation lecture, although I focused on writing scenes set too far back in history to interview witnesses. The rest of her process meshes with what I have learned through study and practice.
  • Submersion: Skloot resisted for years including herself as a character in the book, but finally relented as it became clear how much of the story involved Henrietta’s surviving family. A significant part of that story was how the family had repeatedly been burned by outsiders wanting the HeLa story from them; Skloot to them was but the latest opportunist. Deborah Lacks herself insisted on Skloot’s inclusion. I understand her resistance. While immersion journalism is more accepted than ever in the marketplace, as a journalist I too have resisted including myself in my work. My memoir is architected on video interviews I conducted with a few dozen artists. In those videos I am neither seen nor heard. When I first conceived of the book, I imagined a similar structure. But working with MFA instructors made me realize the larger story–and the one that resonated with readers–was how I changed as a result of my encounters with these artists. The almost-complete book reflects that.

The parallels of my own writing growth the last two years do not mesh exactly with Skloot. My book is a memoir with elements of immersion journalism, and the project I currently am researching for my next book is a historical biography. But Skloot’s masterful work provides many learning opportunities for me as I work on both projects.

I would encourage anyone who reads or writes CNF to explore Skloot’s FAQ page. I would also be curious if there are books along the lines of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks that you have read where you either felt comfortable with the creative liberties the author used in telling a story novelistically, or where you felt the author may have crossed a line.

7 thoughts on “Rebecca Skloot on Producing Creative Nonfiction

  1. Thanks for sharing this, Patrick. Skloot’s responses about becoming her own marketer and developing a marketing plan, along with how she became a colleague first to her influencers before approaching them with her book are great pieces of advice.


    1. She also mentions in the author’s introduction to the book that one of the editors she worked with actually told her to take the Lacks family out of the book. In that scenario she would have been out as well, but it would have been a thoroughly uninspiring book. Fortunately she found her way to another editor!


  2. Pingback: When Creatives Give Back | The Artist's Road

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