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Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Tracy Kidder On Field Notes For A Nonfiction Book

     The act of nonfiction writing is a zone I occupy, a psychological space. After a while I lose self-consciousness and all sense of time. Before I can get to that zone, though, I have to make the leap from taking field notes to writing the first draft. Imposing order on the chaos in my notebooks is hard.

     When I was younger, I filled my reporting notes with my own thoughts and feelings about things. These notes often didn't contain much information about the source of my thoughts and feelings: what I was actually seeing. They contained few details of clothing and place, smells, sounds, and other sensory impressions. I'm sorry about that, because I could use some of those notes now.

     I learned a few things since then. I try to write down all the visible, tactile, smellable facts as well as what I hear. With that material in front of me, I have complete access to my memories of how I felt about a certain incident or scene; I don't need to know those thoughts recorded on the notebook page.
     I usually take more than ten thousand pages of steno pad notes for a book. These notes include all the perishable material, the fleeting events I watched unfold in front of me. I fill another set of notebooks with library research and standard office interviews. Once I have it all, I have to organize it.

     I used to make an index of all my notebooks. Creating the index forced me to review all my notes once, very carefully. I tried not to spend too much time on it; I didn't want to waste energy on something that was just a tool. The index was usually flawed, because I refused to go back and revise once I started. Now, I actually type out my notes. It doesn't seem to take much longer than making the index. Once I've done that, I review my notes several times to find the most interesting parts and to gain a sense of the whole.

Tracy Kidder in Telling True Stories, edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call, 2007 

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