The Best Creative Nonfiction

Today, while attempting an edit — this blog isn’t called First Draft for nothing — of my post “War Stories” [1/28/08], I was trying to figure out how to make it more compelling, more than just a dad telling his little girl about the war. I wanted to capture the reader, as well as to enlighten the reader, without the drone of a simple story style of baring the facts. In other words, a re-make of the post. But how?

Then I sucked in a breath, my jaws tingled, my nostrils got tight and stung. I remembered.

At Lee Gutkind’s “The 5 R’s of Creative Nonfiction Workshop” in Oxford, Mississippi last September, I was immersed in the best example of creative nonfiction I’ve ever heard. After spending a day at the master’s feet, learning that the building blocks of CNF are scenes and stories, that the writer should train himself to look at the piece from the perspective of the reader, that the writer should look at his work the way an engineer looks at a bridge — to see the blueprints, the way it is put together, to be sure it comes together the right way. Good writing is the constant manipulation of the reader — capture and keep. The writer creates a vibrant connection between the reader, the character, and the place.

When I thought the day was done and the workshop was over, Lee said he was going to play a tape for us. He pressed a button on a boom box set up at the front of the room. Click, a hard plastic sound, a second of static, then instruments and voices.

Witness to an Execution documents the minute-by-minute process of carrying out an execution by lethal injection and the stories of those who do it at the Walls Unit in Huntsville, Texas. Texas is home to one-third of all executions in the U.S. It’s one thing when a society says, yeah, we’re tough on crime, kill the son-of-a-bitch, he deserves it. But it’s another thing entirely to be one of the persons paid to carry out the death sentence, one who prepares and escorts a living, breathing human to that last breath in the death chamber, and looks into his eyes as the curtain drops and it is finished.

“My name is…and I have been with 114 people at the time of their execution.” “My name is…and I have witnessed 170 executions.” “I witnessed 52 executions.” “I’ve overseen about 75 executions at the Walls Unit…. ”

The introductions come fast, one on top of the other, so that you almost stop breathing as you listen. The story is narrated by the warden, who says, “I’m gonna start our story where the execution process really begins. At five minutes to six, I’m sitting in my office. I get up from my chair, put on my jacket, and walk back to the death house” where the inmate has spent the afternoon with the chaplain. At 6:00, a call comes from the governor and the attorney general, giving the go-ahead. “I go down there and I call his name and tell him it’s time to come with me to the next room.”

The warden tells the condemned man to sit on the gurney and lie down with his head on the pillow. The metal gurney has white pads and brown straps with big silver buckles. Each person on the tie-down team is assigned a different portion of the inmate’s body — head, right arm, left arm, right leg, left leg. Simultaneously while he is lying down, each team member puts a strap across his portion. All done in 30 seconds. Some inmates cry, some sweat, some have the smell of anxiety, of fear. The medical team inserts needles and IVs. The chaplain puts his hand on the inmate’s leg, below the knee. He “can feel the trembling, the fear that’s there, the heart surging…You can see it pounding through their shirt.” Witnesses are escorted in, the condemned man says his last words, and the warden gives the signal to the executioner behind a mirrored glass window by removing his glasses. The lethal injection begins to flow — three drugs that do the job. At 6:20 a doctor pronounces death.

On the tape, each person on the execution team describes his part and the details he remembers and the impact it has — short tight sentences that come quick and linger and haunt.

We in the classroom were there in that death chamber. We heard voices, we heard metal sounds, we heard doors close, we heard hearts beat. We learned the facts about how an inmate is put to death. We felt the emotions. Sniffles sounded across the room. We were immersed, engaged, affected.

I could feel the leg of the condemned man tremble uncontrollably under my hand those last few seconds.

I need to be able to accomplish this effect in “War Stories.” How in the world am I going to do that? I must take my trusty yellow magic marker and begin. I’ve got lots of crafting to do.

NOTE: For all interested creative nonfiction writers, Lee Gutkind, the Godfather behind Creative Nonfiction, will be holding “The 5 R’s of Creative Nonfiction workshop in Franklin, Tennessee, September 13, 2008. ASK ME FOR MORE INFO.

Lee Gutkind

Three weeks from today, the Mid-South Creative Nonfiction Conference will be held in Oxford, Mississippi.

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