In keep-it-short age, a hunger still exists for great storytelling, writer says

May 11, 2014
photo - George Getschow, Director of the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, speaks to reporters at the Gazette on Friday, May 2, 2014. (The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett)
George Getschow, Director of the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, speaks to reporters at the Gazette on Friday, May 2, 2014. (The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett) 

The written word - and what readers expect from it - has evolved in strange ways since the dawn of the Internet age. In the past two decades, we've learned a new, abbreviated language and embraced a phantom social currency that lets us feel connected without requiring us to connect. Information is truncated and streamed, packaged, delivered and received on the go. Brevity, it seems, is the soul of everything.

But is it? While we might have grown accustomed to a carb-heavy diet of blurbs, tweets and status updates, the craving for a heartier meal still remains, said veteran journalist George Getschow, writer-in-residence at the University of North Texas and director of the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, the nation's premier professional gathering celebrating and advancing the art of narrative nonfiction. The conference will draw the craft's luminaries, working journalists and aspiring essayists July 18-20 to Grapevine, Texas.

"Most of us are hungry and thirsty for great stories, as writers and as readers," Getschow said. "With all the new technology and new platforms, it's easy to lose touch with what matters. In the end, no matter how new the technology coming down the pike, it's going to be about telling great stories."

In his 16 years as a reporter and editor at the The Wall Street Journal, Getschow was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and won the Robert F. Kennedy award for his coverage of the underprivileged. He is now principal lecturer and writing coach at UNT's Frank W. Mayborn Graduate Institute of Journalism, and editor of Ten Spurs, an anthology featuring the winning submissions to the Mayborn's annual national writing contest.

Getschow wants us to know that great nonfiction storytelling - and the market for it - still thrives, in magazines and books, online and in newspapers. But in a world where the long-form, lounge read is seen as something of a luxury, the writer's job isn't easy. In addition to a compelling read, the narrative experience should provide a revelatory take-away.

Getschow, whose son graduated last year from the Air Force Academy, was in Colorado Springs recently to lead writing workshops at The Gazette; editor Joe Hight is a member of the Mayborn Conference advisory board.

We sat down with the award-winning journalist and mentor for some insights about the state and future of the craft.

Gazette: What, exactly, is narrative nonfiction?

Getschow: Narratives are stories, no different than any short story, except that they are nonfiction. There's no room for embellishment or fabrication. They use the same narrative devices, scene-setting, dialogue, pacing, point-of-view.

Gazette: How does narrative nonfiction differ from traditional news reporting?

Getschow: News stories provide information. Information informs, but it doesn't move. Narratives transport us into different worlds and are expected to shed understanding and clarity and light on the world. They are stories that transform and define us and make us more human, so the challenges are much greater.

Gazette: As a writer, how does one find a narrative?

Getschow: There's no one formula, but you have to immerse yourself in the story in every way. You live with your characters. You inhabit their lives in every way you can. These narratives can take days, weeks, months. You go out with a mindset that I am going to make sure I can devote enough time to animate this place.

Gazette: When you founded the Mayborn Conference 10 years ago, what was your vision?

Getschow: It began with the idea of bringing together a group of writers and storytellers who cared about the narrative craft. The then-dean wanted it to be a smaller regional conference, but I thought right from the beginning that we needed to make this a tribal gathering of writers from around the country, an intensive three-day immersion experience where we talk about every element of the craft.

Gazette: What role can narrative play in the current newspaper landscape?

Getschow: Narrative can be the key to more effective journalism because it touches the readers emotionally. There is a hunger and thirst for long-form storytelling, for great characters, not just caricatures. I don't agree with the premise that language is dying or that stories are dying. Certainly newspapers are going through convulsions, but that doesn't mean that great stories aren't going to find a place. There are great narrative websites and some newspapers are starting e-book editions, which gives writers the freedom and flexibility to write long form.

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