Fiction, non-fiction and creativity – an interview with author Steve Dunham

hand writingWelcome to a new interview in my series on creativity in non-fiction writing, and today we’re welcoming Steve Dunham, editor and writer. I “met” Steve when we did a review exchange – he reviewed my “How I Survived My First Year of Full-Time Self-Employment” on his blog, and I reviewed his “The Editor’s Companion” on mine. Like me, Steve is primarily a non-fiction writer, but that doesn’t stop him having some good and interesting things to say about creativity – he even creatively added to my standard list of questions (which is perfectly acceptable, of course!).

Hello, Steve. So, tell me a bit about yourself and your books.

I’ve been working as an editor since 1981 and writing for publication a bit longer than that. “The Editor’s Companion”, published in 2014, is based on what I’ve learned and collected in that time. My friend and agent Dave Fessenden (also an editor and writer) pestered me to start the Editor’s Companion blog, which is new, too. I had put almost everything I could think of about editing into the book, so it’s been kind of hard to come up with new blog content as well. I’ve been involved in public transportation advocacy (citizens’ groups) almost as long as I’ve been writing and editing, so that’s a subject I like to write about too.

How did you start writing, and which came first, fiction or non-fiction?

I studied journalistic writing in college, and I worked on the college newspaper, and that heavily influenced everything I wrote after that—nearly all of which has been nonfiction, except for occasional humor.

What did you write in all those years before getting a book published?

I’ve been employed as an editor for most of my adult life, so a lot my writing and editing are done at work: newsletters, articles, journals, radio public-service announcements, press releases, catalogs, corporate reports. In 1999 our local newspaper asked for commuters to write freelance columns once a month, and I sent a writing sample and got assigned to write the “Commuter Crossroads” column, alternating with other writers. This was fun and lasted about ten years. Most of the columns are archived on my website. I also started writing some humor columns, sometimes in “Commuter Crossroads” and often in “Commuter Weekly”, which used to be distributed on trains in the Washington, D.C., area. I really hoped to become a syndicated columnist, but it hasn’t happened yet.

One of my sons took a college course in screenwriting, and I asked him for his textbook when he was done with it. I was sure I could write screenplays. I studied that book and the materials on Wordplay, written by two Hollywood screenwriters. Then I wrote two screenplays, both fiction: “Accomplice to Terror” and “Mars and Venus Attack!” I haven’t sold either one yet, but they’re fairly new, written in 2013 and 2014, respectively. Those are on my website too. I would like to sell at least one before pursuing a couple of nonfiction screenplays I have in mind.

So your book “The Editor’s Companion” was a long time in the making. What’s the story behind that?

I was on the faculty of a writers’ conference in St. Louis in 1996, and one of the faculty members said we should write a book together about editing. It sounded good to me, so I came up with an outline, divided the work between us, and wrote my half. I never got anything from the other writer, and I had chosen the topics I knew something about, so I didn’t really know how to finish the book. It lay fallow for years, and then around 2010 I decided to finish it on my own, having acquired a little more knowledge I could apply. I wrote the rest of the book, and I showed it to Dave Fessenden, who loved it and offered to be my agent. He got a contract with Writer’s Digest Books, which asked for something like 65 more pages—in a few weeks! I told Dave that I couldn’t write 65 more pages if they gave me a few years. What I did was come up with a lot more content that didn’t require much writing—bloopers I’d seen in print and online, samples of editing, questions I’d answered—and all this made it a better book, not to mention the editing the publisher did.

I recently blogged about finding that writing non-fiction was still “creative”. Do you agree, or is only fiction writing truly creative?

Nonfiction can be creative. Some years ago I applied to a Master’s program in writing, and I was rejected. It emphasized creative writing, including creative nonfiction. The Creative Nonfiction website describes it as true stories, well told. The writer presents the factual story but captures not only the facts of who, what, when, where, and why, but the atmosphere and the details that illuminate the facts, so that it reads like literature. The writer doesn’t make things up but goes beyond the factual material of journalistic writing. In contrast, just about all my writing, even my screenplays that came straight out of my imagination and are creative in that sense, is journalistic writing, not literature.

Have you got anything else you want to add about creativity and writing (with particular regard to non-fiction)?

I think that creativity can come into play with nonfiction when you write anything that doesn’t follow a formula. Lots of nonfiction writing does follow a formula, and there’s nothing wrong with that. News stories typically use inverted pyramid style, and documents such as directories are more useful if the information in each item is arranged the same way. Often, though, I’ve attended a conference or interviewed someone and then looked through my notes and any materials I collected, and I had to decide what story could be told with the things I gathered and whether anything was missing. Since I mostly write short pieces such as journal articles, I generally don’t need a written outline. Once I decide what the story is, I concentrate on the first sentence, which I usually write in my head. I may spend a good bit of time mulling it over, but I’ve found that once I have the first sentence written, the rest of it comes easily.

Thank you for all those thoughts and your view of creativity in non-fiction! Finally, please tell us where we can find you and your books!

“The Editor’s Companion” is available from the publisher and from Amazon and Amazon UK. My screenplays, book reviews, and articles are on my website, Steve Dunham’s Trains of Thought.

You can read new interviews in the series, either by subscribing to this blog (see the links in the top right if you’re viewing on a PC or on the drop-down menu if you’re reading on a phone or tablet) or clicking on the “non-fiction creativity” tag at the top of this post, which will give you access to all the interviews published so far, as well. Happy reading!

My own books are all firmly in the non-fiction area, but I do involve aspects of my own life and experience to make them more accessible and welcoming. Take a look by exploring the links on this page, or by visiting the books pages.

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