A Field Guide to Writing a Nonfiction Book (with a Lot of Help from Austin Kleon)

write a nonfiction book

I was thrilled when Deb Hemley (@dhemley) asked if I would be interested in publishing her blog post about writing a nonfiction book, which she based on the principles in Austin Kleon’s book, Show Your Work. This book has a spot close to my desk. Every time I see it, I’m reminded to share my message. In this post, Deb explains how writers can use Kleon’s principles.

Recently I came across the book Show Your Work! By Austin Kleon. I read the book from beginning to end in one sitting. Kleon’s book inspired me…and continues to inspire me.

The principles he offers in Show Your Work! can be applied to artists of all types. The book provides a ten-principle conceptual framework for writers.

I discuss the first five in this post.

1. You Don’t Have to Be a Genius

write a nonfiction bookKleon begins Show Your Work! by giving validity to being an “amateur”—not something we hear people talk about every day.

He writes, “The world is changing at such a rapid rate that it’s turning us all into amateurs. Even for professionals, the best way to flourish is to retain an amateur’s spirit and embrace uncertainty and the unknown.”

How would you apply being an amateur to your writing?

A great example comes from author Haruki Murakami, who used the “amateur” position as a jumping-off point for his recent non-fiction book Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa. In the introduction to the book Murakami describes how the two friends had been listening to music and talking about one thing or another when Ozawa “told me a tremendously interesting story….” Murakami thought what a shame it would be to “let such a fascinating story evaporate, somebody ought to record it and put it on paper.”

Thus, the idea for the nonfiction book was formed. In fact, Murakami uses the word amateur multiple times in the introduction to set the stage for the book. “I tried my best to remain an honest and curious amateur listener on the assumption that most of the people reading this book would be amateur music fans like me.”

Through recorded and transcribed conversations with Maestro Ozawa, Murakami’s book took shape. The chapters are even titled, First Conversation, Second Conversation through their sixth conversation.

How can you take an interest of yours (something that you don’t have to have a great deal of experience in) and use it as a framework for your book?

2. Think Process, Not Product

Kleon advocates for artists to take advantage of the Internet and social media. “An artist can share whatever she wants, whenever she wants, at almost no cost…she can blog about her influences, inspiration and tools…and form a unique bond with her audience.

Think about one great influence (person, place or thing) in your life and try writing about it today—and sharing that work.

3. Share Something Small Every Day

Regardless of the stage at which you find your nonfiction book project, you can write something small about your process. Let’s say that the book you’re writing requires research that has helped steer your direction, share what you’ve learned. Maybe something you came across during your research took you down a different path; you’re not sure yet whether it’ll be useful for your book, but it’s a tidbit you can share.

Regardless of if you’ve found a new way to simulate your creativity or your struggling to write daily, share something about the process.

4. Open Up Your Cabinet of Curiosities

In this step, Kleon describes the process of opening our cabinet of curiosities to think about the sorts of things that fill our heads. This includes what we read, subscribe to, listen to, what we collect, what we hold near and dear.

A couple of years ago I attended a five-day writer’s workshop. On day two the instructor provided a writing prompt, and the next thing I knew I had written a few pages about the watch I’ve been wearing for the past eighteen years. There was a story about the watch—one I hadn’t quite put together or articulated to anyone or myself until then. I received a great gift when I found the inspiration for a short piece had been on my wrist the whole time.

What’s in your cabinet of curiosity that you can write about?

5. Tell Good Stories

Nonfiction writers want to tell good stories, and we all have them whether we realize it or not. Kleon writes, “Everybody loves a good story, but good storytelling doesn’t come easy to everybody…study the great stories and then go find some of your own.”

I’m often amazed about the vast topics about which people write. Five uniquely different books sit on my desk at this very moment: a book about the power of not knowing (Nonsense); another about a woman who adopted and raised a hawk (Hawk); one more about conversations an author had with Maestro Seiji Ozawa (Absolutely on Music); a graphic novel that teaches people how to draw (The Drawing Lesson); and a guide to the journey of self-discovery (Creative Visualization for Writers).

Just flipping through the pages, I’m momentarily reminded of the variety of stories these authors chose to tell and feel that much closer to accessing stories of my own. These sparks of inspiration can serve to remind us of the past and present and also can take us to the future (literally and figuratively).

What stories are accessible to you right now? What other places will you look?

Feel free to comment below on what you’re moved to write and share…and include the link to that work below.

About the Author

dhemley2Deb Hemley writes memoir, personal essay, short fiction, and articles about social media. She has published pieces in Biographile, Hippocampus Magazine, All That Matters, and Survivor’s Review. You can follow her on Twitter @dhemley.


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