Jill Lepore on Writing

LeporeJill Lepore is a prolific author and historian who teaches American history at Harvard.  Check out this interview with her at the Harvard Gazette:

GAZETTE: You’ve said that for historical writing to be both compelling and worthwhile it has to combine “thick narratives with pregnant principles.” What does that mean?

LEPORE: I try to have the story make the argument. The telling of the story is the act of argument. That’s a thing that I have really worked on writing essays for The New Yorker over the years; it has really changed my writing. Because it’s a narrative magazine, the nonfiction has to take the form of story, but it has to argue, it has to tell you something you don’t know. If it works the way it’s supposed to, you don’t know that you’ve been told something, you just know it, as if you’d always known it. There’s a whole intricacy to that.

You know how, when you cook, you’re supposed to beat the eggs and the butter first, and then you put the dry ingredients in a separate bowl and then slowly mix them together? I am the kind of cook who puts everything in one bowl and mixes it up all at once — whatever, it’s all going to the same place. I am a terrible cook. But writing is like that, too, and I am fussy about writing. Eggs in one bowl, flour in another. That’s what I mean, about how it’s intricate: There are steps. You mix the wet stuff with the dry stuff, the story with the argument, but only at the right time, and in the right-size bowl. In an essay your reader is interested in getting to the end of the story, if you are telling a good story. What’s going to happen next? How is this all going to end? But your reader — unless it’s a person like me, who wants to read an academic journal article — is not actually interested in getting to the bottom of the argument.

Imagine you’ve made bread dough, but now you want to braid it. The story goes on a bit, and then the argument gets introduced, and then you tell a little more of the story, then you advance the argument, then you add another piece of the story. You can’t get to the end of the story before you get to the bottom of the argument. It requires a certain amount of precision and I love the challenge of that. I find that really, really interesting. But that’s a little bit harder to do and more complicated in a book. It’s why people read all of novels and only the first three pages of nonfiction books. How many nonfiction books have you bought where you think to yourself: “I read the introduction. I am done.” What are you waiting for to happen? You found out what you needed to find out, which is what this writer’s argument is. You are done! Narrative nonfiction is supposed to address that problem, by not telling you the argument on the first page and by convincing you that you need to read the whole book to find out what you needed to find out, which is what happened.

Read the entire interview here.

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