How do you shape a compelling story from nothing but old newspaper articles and dry facts? Greg Bottoms, author of the memoir Angelhead: My Brother’s Descent into Madness, and numerous Brevity essays (1, 2, 3, 4), gives us his thoughts on the challenge, followed by examples of the technique:
My current writing project is a series of biographical/documentary essays on dead, self-taught religious artists in the United States. The way I am putting these pieces together in many ways has arisen out of discussions from a couple of classes I teach at the University of Vermont–“Doing Documentary” and “Writing about the Arts.” In these courses, students sometimes dig up a cache of source material and information on their topics. If they can use interviews, they will. But what do you do, they ask, when you’re sitting at a desk with nothing but some short articles from magazines or museum catalogs (sometimes very poorly written ones), a few cursory newspaper pieces, some photos and images of the person or their work, and maybe an obituary or two? All these fragments, they say. Facts, facts, and more facts but what’s the story? How can I make something out this?
Here, I tell them, is where they as writers, as makers of meaning, come in. Why are they interested in the person or topic? Their questions, at least implicitly, must become the driving force of the essay. Their search for deeper meaning in the life or the work of another artist can be the quest (here I’ll pause and confess to them that I read police procedurals–particularly older European ones–pretty much one after the other because they constantly reconfigure this essential, often thwarted, human quest for meaning in chaos). Reality is the raw material, but real writers reshape reality so that the deepest possible meanings, at least according to them, are clarified. Facts are important, and not to be altered, but subjectivity and, yes, their personal search for truth is the glue that will hold the writing together.
In my collection-in-progress, which is called “Patron Saint of Thrown-Away Things: And Other Portraits from the Margins of American Art and Faith,” I’m using a fragmentary, numbered structure, which made the most sense to me for the material and also mirrored my process of jump-cut at my desk: What did I highlight in that newspaper article? What was that exact date (it must be here somewhere)? Let me look one more time at what he is wearing in that old photo. Finally, in these essays I’m letting my conjecture and speculation happen, but I am very mindful of alerting the reader when I am doing this, which leads to more “maybe,” “it seems,” “perhaps,” and “I imagine” than is perhaps totally felicitous. But so be it. These essays are not, obviously, THE TRUTH, which they can’t be; they are, I hope, an open and honest and accurate and intelligent quest for truth, which, my students usually conclude, is the only option we really have.
Here is a radio documentary made from the title essay (requires RealPlayer):
Here is my most recent essay at the religion magazine Killing the Buddha: