A Writer’s Biography, Volume III, Part 2: On nonfiction writing and abandoned projects

I was going to tell you a story, right? But, I got distracted by explaining some back story. Honestly, though, I probably needed to explain that back story to understand some of it myself. Apparently I’ve been writing a memoir for just over a year and I didn’t realize it.

(OK, that’s it for the hyperlinks. 🙂 EDIT: Sorry, lies. (see below))

I’ve had experience writing nonfiction as a journalist. I think that I’m doing well as a writer of fiction, and I’m a fan of writing book-length works.

However, when faced with the opportunity to write book-length nonfiction, I considered it for a while. At the time, it seemed like a great idea for a book.

In the end, though, I wound up walking away from the project for more than just one reason. Even though that project was not a story I eventually wanted to tell, the story behind that story might be worth a post.

It was 2012. I had finished my first full-time teaching position, hoping to work closer to home. I was trying to be around more for my two kids for a bit, especially as they were entering their middle school years. I was grateful that I had the opportunity to be a stay at home dad during their preschool years, and I wanted to be a regular presence with them if I could.

(As it turned out, this only lasted a few years – by 2015, I would be commuting out of town to another school district to begin my career as a special education teacher. By this point, however, my two kids were well into their high school careers and are well into the process of being as independent as possible. That’s the way it should be, of course, but I miss the old kid days, too.)

So, I was in between gigs, substituting in Muscatine and also doing some teaching at Muscatine Community College during a time when I thought there might be a shot at teaching there full-time rather than the part-time adjunct teaching I was doing. Over the course of a couple of years, it became clear to me that adjunct teaching is the academic equivalent of being a fast food crew member, but that hadn’t happened just yet.

I’m not sure when or how Dale got in contact with me. He’s a retired reporter from around my region who had heard of me through mutual journalism acquaintances. He’d come into possession of some legal papers regarding a well-known late resident of my community, active in business. (I’m not going to list the guy’s name here, but people who know something about my hometown’s history could probably guess it.) He had the idea of using the information to kick-start a biography of this person, but he didn’t have the time for it. He wondered if I, a native of the area and a writer, might have some interest in taking it on.

From an intellectual standpoint, the project seemed interesting. The potential subject had been a big deal in my community, even though he had died when I was just a kid. His business become a major player not only locally but on a national/international basis. And, no one had ever written a book-length biography on him.

So, I sketched out some preliminary outlines and did some entry-level research into the guy. Those files sat in a cardboard box next to my bed for a few years, but I never did do more than take off the top cover and poke around for a few minutes.

Eventually, Dale contacted me about picking up those files earlier this month, because another writer expressed interest in moving forward with the project. He drove down to my place, I handed off the files after reconnecting with Dale, and wished him and the other author all the best, adding that I’d be happy to help out in any way they needed.

Looking back, I would say that there were two major factors that caused me to move on from the project. The first thing had much to do with my background as a journalist. Growing up. I was a big fan of nonfiction books by journalists about things that they had covered. As a journalist, I always had to make sure all of my factual ducks were in a row, even when it came to having people’s names spelled right. To do book-length nonfiction properly, you have to have that same level of commitment, but multiplied by at least a factor of three. Some of those books have bibliography pages that are half the size of the rest of the book! I would be lying if I said that wasn’t a little intimidating, but I might have managed it.

However, the longer I had the project sitting around, the more I began to realize the deeper and more profound factor was something far more fundamental – I just didn’t have the passion for the subject.

Compared to the fictional characters that have been tapdancing around in my head for the past several years, I just wasn’t as moved by this guy’s story. Yeah, he founded a big business, and yeah, he was something of a big deal in my community until he finally got tired of living in it, but honestly, one rich WASP businessman is about the same as any other, isn’t it? My political leanings didn’t put me in a position to connect with this guy’s story anyway, and that project was lacking my passion for the material I immediately had with my fiction projects first and this blog later on.

If I had any writing advice for you, is write the stories that you feel passionate about, the stories you can’t wait to tell. There are so many obstacles to writing that already get in your way (time, ability, publishing issues), why put another obstacle in your way by not writing about what you love? That was the main thing I learned from that whole experience.

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