“Bring People to Life on the Page and Recreate the Atmosphere.”

Tracy Kidder talking about narrative writing in the context of his book, Among Schoolchildren:

The ingredients of good narrative are characters, bringing people to life on the page, and the sense of plot, as E.M. Forster defined it. “The king died and the queen died” is a story; “the king died and the queen died of grief” is a plot. The engine of narrative is human motivation.

With nonfiction, of course, you’re stuck with what is, what was. I don’t like to invent quotes. I try to make it as accurate as I can. But within those boundaries, what really interests me is some kind of marriage of all these things.

I try to look behind at what’s deep and engaging about the topic. Education will always be a big subject. I didn’t set out to write a tract about education. I set out to tell what I thought would be a pretty interesting, complicated story.

Nonfiction writers who are interested in narrative tend to look for intersections, for places where lots of issues get joined. You could write about the entire world starting from a classroom. I believe in approaching from the particular instead of the general.

Part of the problem that America has had in trying to reform its educational system has been that the approach is general, it’s always from the top, always these august committees, and always looking for grand solutions to problems that couldn’t be more particular. But i really think that this thirst for the grand solution is part of the problem. I hoped that looking at one class closely, I could say a lot about education generally, and that I wouldn’t have to say it, it would all be there.

My intentions were to tell an engaging story, to try to bring people to life on the page and recreate the atmosphere. To do a lot of the things that novels do, but it’s a piece of nonfiction, and it’s about a subject that’s very real and important.

—From the September 15, 1989, issue of Publishers Weekly.



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