By being in tune with your story, as much as the subjects, and tying that to the reader takeaway. We need to prick our own hearts. We need to bleed—just a little. We need to be sharing our own personal beliefs, hopes and pains.
Uh-oh, I hear you grumbling. Bethany, wait a second. Doesn’t that break all the rules?
Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe, it’s all a fine dance, where the steps laid in drafting and revision, do eventually become invisible. But that doesn’t mean, that we as the “dancers,” didn’t take them intentionally, planning every footstep and movement. We think about what the reader needs to know—and when? We change scenes with the move of a page turn. With pacing and sentence structure, we can weave story threads together. To be drawn to a subject there has to be a “why”—a deep “why” for ourselves and our readers.
And we must do all this AND stay true to the facts. Creative nonfiction, which almost all nonfiction these days is, simply means we writers can use the tools that all writers have at their disposal: voice, character, setting, pacing, repetition, refrain, subtext. We must consult our primary and secondary sources, listen to speeches, and read books, taking deep notes. But the real magic begins to happen, when we are able to connect the subject’s narrative through line to our own, and then to a deep need our readers may have. When that happens, feelings are felt. In us. In our readers.
Subtext! And what do I mean by connecting the subject’s narrative through line to our own?
In biography—for me—a phrase to describe that subtext is a phrase I heard Libba Bray, the YA wunderkind, use when she was teaching a YA intensive with us at The Writing Barn, in thinking about character development—to “thread the needle” tying together your writer heart, the character heart, and then the heart of the reader.
So how does that work in nonfiction?
For me, I start with a deep connection to the subjects I am drawn to. Harper Lee. Mahatma Gandhi. Maya Angelou. Jimmy Carter. Each of these figures shaped the “me” I am. Their books. Their words. Their life’s work lived inside me and beside me, long before I decided to attempt to write a picture book biography of their lives. So, whose life and life’s work has always meant much to you? Some would call these figures personal heroes. Or maybe they were “influencers” before the term got attached to products and Instagram. Who are the scientists, artists, social justice figures that made you YOU? Start there, with a personal connection.
Next, dig in and do the research. We can’t decide the through line ahead of time. Through the research, we must discover and unearth it. How did they become who they became? What obstacles did they face? How did they distinctly persevere? And in doing so we must think about those things for ourselves—what obstacles have we faced, or are we facing? Where do we share the same beliefs? And as much of ourselves as we are investing, our blood, sweat, and tears--we must think of the reader. The child reader. What do they need in their lives—what about your subject’s life will speak to them, inspire them? What is the impact—the reader takeaway—the emotional “ah-ha” you want to leave the readers with. Perhaps it is even something you need. That you too have struggled with.
Grandfather Gandhi did not come together until I embraced that the book was about anger and shame. Arun was angry and ashamed about that anger. As a child I was often angry and made to feel ashamed of that anger—instead of learning how to transform that anger into action—as the Mahatma does for his grandson, Arun. In schools, I have powerful conversations with students about anger, about what happens when we don’t express it, among the learning about life at the Sevagram ashram and the work of Gandhi and its impact on our country through the work of Dr. Martin Luther King. Lightning or lamp? The book asks. Kid readers get to answer that for themselves.
Alabama Spitfire: The Story of Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird is not just the telling of how young Nelle Harper Lee wrote America’s most beloved book. It is a story about why childhood matters. Nelle’s childhood? Yes. My childhood? Where I merged Scout and Ramona into the same spitfire girl I wanted to be? Yes. But more than that, it’s a story for the reader, of how and why what is happening to them in their lives right now might be used in their futures as they work to “live a life of their own design.”
Rise: From Caged Bird to Poet of the People, Maya Angelou is more than a birth to death narrative about the great Maya Angelou’s resilience and ability to process trauma. It is about discovering one’s voice, using it in times of deep despair. It is about community. The healing power of the written and spoken word. For me, the key takeaway is, “there is no safety in silence.” Maya Angelou’s books, her activism, her performances told us this—and today’s readers need to hear it. As a truth teller myself, I need to hear it.
Hard Work But It’s Worth It, The Life of Jimmy Carter's central through line embodies a question. Why does hard work yield strong results only for some people? When this realization dawns on young Jimmy Carter, as a favored white man in the deep South, he sets about to make changes in the statehouse and eventually the White House, working for justice and equality because it is “right and fair.” And in his continued humanitarian work—former President Carter continues to define what it is to be an ally—long before that word was a part of our society’s lexicon. Discussions about white privilege and allyship need to be had. By me. By our teachers. By today’s readers. We all need to do what is right and what is fair—and not just for ourselves but for our communities—large and small.
I have a few more biographies in the publishing pipeline—and though I can’t reveal the subjects—I can reveal that what I believe, what my heart needs to hear, and to heal—is threaded into each and every biography I write.
Not at the expense of the subject.
Or at the expense of the reader.
Or to glorify my own journey.
But as a way to connect us—to pull tight the thread of human suffering, human dignity, human change, human hope.
So go thread that needle!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bethany Hegedus is a novelist and picture book author who lives and works in Austin, Texas. A graduate of VCFA, Bethany is the founder and creative director of The Writing Barn, a writing workshop and retreat center, where writers study online and in-person. She speaks and teaches widely and is the host of the Courage to Create Podcast. Find her online at bethanyhegedus.com
ABOUT THE PRIZE
One winner will receive a signed copy of Hard Work But It's Worth It and another will receive free admission to Bethany's class on picture book range:https://www.thewritingbarn.com/class/picture-book-range-with-author-bethany-hegedus/
Leave one comment below about what struck you in the post.
You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered NF Fest participant and you have contributed one comment below.