thoughts on telling the stories of others


Recently, while building this website, I was sifting through older works in my portfolio. I was looking for material that was still relevant despite the passage of time. I found something, I read it, I liked it, and I realized it provided a very helpful roadmap for any writer faced with the challenge of telling someone else's story.

Spoiler alert: They should tell it themselves.

In 1997, I had the opportunity to interview my writing hero for the second time. My first Kozol book was Illiterate America (NAL-Dutton, 1985), which energized me as an adult educator. Shortly after finding this remarkable work, I was fortunate to be hired at Frontier College, a national literacy organization in Canada. It was there that I first began to understand teaching and learning as transformative -- even revolutionary -- acts. This led me back to Kozol's first book Death at an Early Age (NAL-Dutton, 1967), which chronicled his early years as a permanent substitute teacher on the Boston school -- in inner-city Roxbury.

After my time at Frontier College, I taught English for several years in a community college, interrupted by a lay-off in 1996 because of funding cuts. I later went to teacher's college and became an elementary educator. Before long, I too was working in the inner city.

When I interviewed Jonathan in 1997, he was then about the age I am now. Looking back on the words of a man then in late fifties, a man born in the 1930s to a posperous family, I'm astonished at his grasp of privilege and his respect for the subject's voice. This is something I am constantly trying to consider in my own privileged life.

Let's dig in:

Kozol described having known several influential Beat Generation writers like William Styron, Laurence Durrell, William Burroughs, Richard Wright, and Allen Ginsberg in Paris after leaving Oxford in 1950s. I asked him if these encounters provided any insight into writing about poor people in America.

The one thing that I learned being with older writers is that writing is very hard work. And I think I learned something about the craft of writing, seeing how hard some of these good older writers worked, and how much they revised.

In general, I think the best preparation for writing about poor people is to live amongst poor people and work with them: to be a teacher or field worker or change agent or priest or pastor or whatever.

He added:

Once a certain self-discipline is established, and you learn simply how to write and rewrite and criticize yourself, from that point on, I think the less time you spend with other writers the better. You should spend more time with people you really write about.

Kozol talked a lot about not imposing the author's voice too much on the words of their subject:

You know how newspaper stories — a classic New York Times or Washington Post kind of story — typically will start with a bit of narrative, and then, in order to anchor the piece somehow, will totally switch to an expert:

According to the Professor XYZ of the University of Such-and-Such, this is a very common pattern that we are seeing here…

And then they come back to the story. There is something curious about the way newspapers do articles on issues of this sort. It’s as though the story wouldn’t be legitimate unless they get that expert in. I know a hundred people who speak as beautifully and as movingly as Mrs Washington does and dozens of kids who are a fascinating as Anthony [fictionalized names of subject of his book Amazing Grace]. There are thousands of people like this in every inner-city. The tragedy is that their gifts are largely wasted because we given them no opportunity to find their voice, to be heard.


In writing nonfiction, especially about poor people, an elemental part of writing is listening. We all need to learn to listen better. I will try to continue this in future books.

Kozol reminds us that good non-fiction is not necessarily objective -- that the illusion objectivity can be destructive in telling a story:

Are there some journalists who accuse me of coming to these books with a protective bias on behalf of America’s victims? Yes there are. One writer who reviewed Rachel and Her Children said something sardonic like: Well, of course, this is advocacy writing. My answer to that is, of course, I write with a subjective bias. What do they expect? Lobotomy? You spend years of your life with children who have been savaged in every possible way. From a theological point of view, I think that neutrality would be absolutely evil.

And he reminds us to treat the subject with respect, not to pathologize them:

A nun I know once said to me: “When you enter the home of a very poor person, and when you later describe it in your writing, you should think of it as if you are entering the sanctuary of a church. Treat everything with respect. Don’t trample on anybody’s heart.” To me there is something sacred about the trust of a woman or a man who would impart in a conversation with me in their kitchen or their living room in the South Bronx.

The full interview can be found here.

Gordon Nore