I encountered Papa’s warning in my teens, reading everything by and about him. When I went to work in newspapers after college, his phrase haunted at odd moments. I’d just knocked out my fourth police brief of a morning, say, and realized I had another to go—on an epidemic of car-battery thefts—and it was six minutes before deadline. Usually it was satisfying, working each little story like a jigsaw puzzle, selecting pieces culled from the police blotter. But was this what he meant?
A roundup of battery thefts doesn’t bring to life the widow, outsourced by the textile mill, turning her ignition key to silence in the Wal-Mart lot as plastic bags blow past. But it doesn’t intend to. Is there anything inherent in journalism (or nonfiction generally) that bars it from doing everything fiction might do with her story, including rendering her point of view?
Not theoretically, no. It’s thrilling to realize that. There are only practical difficulties, but admittedly brutal ones. You need her story and permission to use it; you have to get her to talk—in detail; and essentially she must let you enter her mind. The sheer work and trust involved in this process—call it reporting—is staggering. Talented immersion journalists succeed, but the difficulty may be one reason fiction has been a historic default for writers.